Hôtel Dieu

Its imposing presence along the Rhône stretches several city blocks, a UNESCO heritage site and a landmark in the city of Lyon. How often I used to admire that golden façade, the sun glinting off its domes as I walked across the river from our home on the Part-Dieu side of the city. When I learned that my OB-GYN had her practice within its walls, I was thrilled. Now I would have a reason to go inside and discover the magic of this grand old lady of a hospital.

There the romance ended and the realities of dealing with a hospital within a historic monument became rather like most of my encounters with French life. It started with a little game I call ‘find the entrance’ that I’ve blogged about before.

And then there was the name: God’s hotel? Not being a pious type, I put my faith in medical science, or at least the capable hands of the midwives, to steer me safely through pregnancy and childbirth.

On that count it was a safe bet. The building was ancient, its origins dating to the 11th century. But the hospital itself was run by the Hospices Civils de Lyon, a solid medical institution that manages several other establishments in the greater Lyon area. Once you got inside its walls, a modernized inner shell, there was little connection to the historic past of the building. Still, the limitations of the physical setting made it less than luxurious in terms of practical things like stairways and elevators.

As often happens in this fair land, I was continually confused about where to go, frequently transiting dark corridors with abandoned gurneys that made me think of the morgue. When I did figure out where I was headed, it felt like navigating an obstacle course to get there: down one floor to check in for my appointment, up another to the doctor’s secretary, to still another for a scan.

A few months into my second pregnancy, when every extra step seemed to take its toll on my body, I broke down on my rule of avoiding the elevator. I remember one terrified moment on that contraption, one of the jerky type I fear most, when the lights went out and it heaved to a stop between floors. Thankfully the presence of other less panicky souls prevented me from giving birth there and then, until someone came and helped us out.

The big day came 25 years ago this week. I forgave the old building all of its quirks and inconveniences when my when my daughter made her first appearance in this world – pink and in perfect health. Happy birthday, Madeline!

For close to twenty years after, I returned each year to Hôtel Dieu for my annual checkup with Dr. Champion, a wonderful name for a baby doctor if there ever was one. Little ever changed. A few coats of paint, a few more grey hairs, and still, each year, the same confusion about where to go. Until one day it all changed: the hospital was closing. It moved to a somewhat soulless suburb east of the city called Bron. Rebaptised as the Hopital Mère Enfant, Mother and Child Hospital, it surely operates with more well-oiled efficiency than it could in that historic location.

Grand’ Hôtel Dieu‘ was recently reborn as a luxury hotel and shopping complex in the heart of Lyon. The official inauguration took place a month ago.

It’s sad on some level that a temple to gastronomy and luxury should be built on a site where so many deeply human stories played out. Some of the work is still ongoing until next year. Time will tell if they are able to pay fair homage to the spirit of generosity that reigned there.

I haven’t been back yet, but I intend to. If I can find the way in.

Have you ever been to a hospital in France?




  1. phildange · May 31, 2018

    Going to a hospital ? The superhuman French way of life prevents all diseases, as you should know .
    The name “Hostel-Dieu” comes from the fact that these hospices/hospitals were run by the Church, only stable structure in old times . They were meant to host poor and old people, but also especially pilgrims and exceptionally Canadians . There are many Hôtels-Dieu in France, the oldest being the famous Paris one, founded in 651 AD .

    • MELewis · May 31, 2018

      Informative and entertaining as ever, Phil! 😆

  2. francetaste · May 31, 2018

    At least the building has been given a second life. In some countries, it would have been torn down for something taller and with so-called clean lines.
    There is something about hospitals that ensures one will wander into a dark corridor with empty gurneys, whether in France or even in a brand-spanking-new hospital in the U.S.
    We have been to the emergency room here more than a few times, sometimes with a stay for observation–a chlorine leak that evacuated the swim class by ambulance, meningitis that turned out, happily, to be the nonlethal kind….The hospital here opened two years ago but the rooms are plain. Linoleum floors, a hard plastic chair for a visitor (more than one visitor? they can stand). The hospitals where my parents spent their last days in the U.S. were like luxury hotels, with beautiful wood paneling, carpets (which seem like a bad idea in a hospital, honestly, but they do muffle noise), and pull-out sofas so a family member can stay through the night. OTOH, our hospital bills in France have ranged from zero to €10.

    • MELewis · May 31, 2018

      Guess I’ve lived here long enough to absorb some of the native allergy to the crass commercialism that would tear down such a monument. Even to transform it as they’ve done seems gauche. Apparently the HCL is ‘reflecting’ upon what to do with its museum collection. IMHO, the decent thing would have been for the new owners of the Grand Hotel Dieu to make space for a memorial of some kind to the past.

      Sorry to hear you’ve had so many run-ins with the ER! But good to know the outcome has been positive. And you are so right about the extremely rudimentary conditions in most hospitals here, at least in terms of patient and visitor comfort. Surely there could be a happy medium, where a minimal amount of home-like comfort is provided, while keeping the costs reasonable?

  3. The Pink Agendist · May 31, 2018

    I’ve been to the one in Castres – and I just love its name. It’s the CHIC 😀 (Centre Hospitalier Intercommunal Cas-Maz) That being said, the architect didn’t think the whole thing through. The entrance foyer has a beautiful glass ceiling, which means in summertime the attendants all have to wear hats and no amount of air conditioning is enough to keep the place cool…

    • MELewis · May 31, 2018

      So you’ve been to the ‘chic’ French hospital. Why does that not surprise me, Monsieur Pink? 😛 So true that the architects of such spaces usually fail on some level of livability (or perhaps the budget for the anti-solar glass wasn’t found?) That said, we built a house of windows then spent a lot of money covering them to remove the sun effect. 😫

  4. Kiki · May 31, 2018

    Mel, let me start with apologies for absenteeism! Some days/weeks/months do just not lend themselves to heavy heart-to-hearts with the blogging world.
    Yes, I’ve been to our local hospital, not with a worry for myself but my mother in law fell in front of the shopping center and hurt her face & head. And yes, even though it’s by far not the worst hospital (I guess) it was a pretty sobering experience for us Swiss, so used to pleasant surroundings, with a cafeteria and newspaper/flower/gift shop, air conditioning and helpful personnel. MiL was left to wait in R&E for 4hrs, I had to go and find where I could park the car (not obvious with only a few one-hour parking spots and the police lurking for the unhappy ones to miss their return by a fraction of some minutes), then find a place to buy bottled water, I also ‘took over’ some carer’s job and gently insisted that a befuddled woman who obviously didn’t know why she was on a bed waiting with many others and nobody to explain to her why no, she couldn’t leave her trolley and go home…. Well, in the end, MiL was well looked after, given a shot, tablets & a prescription (nothing broken just ‘damaged’) and we paid the princely sum of (if I remember correctly) €70-80 for it all, including the shot (not the alcoholic kind mind you!)….. My mum in law took the bill home, put it in a frame and brought it to her doctor who hung it up on the wall of his waiting room….. Never in her life (and mine) have I seen such a low bill of a hospital.
    It also showed how very, very spoiled we are; in UK’s hospitals we always were in the ‘better’ parts, all well furnished with nice furniture, you were offered free coffee, tea or water, you had background music and nobody was meandering about with blood streaming down their faces, torn clothes, nobody was dishevelled and unwashed. I shall be thankful forever for that experience and the fact that my MiL was treated here although of course she wasn’t insured or anything at all.
    I promise to come back to your earlier posts when I feel more like it. Meanwhile, all is well and I am taking note of your stellar work here in the French land 🙂
    PS: I visited Lyon when the refurbishment of the Hôtel Dieu was underway and I too was madly in love with the magnificent building. I’m sure it is now a most beautiful temple not to the patients’ health but to the health of the shop-owner’s purse. I would move to Lyon tomorrow, I loved it so much!!!!

    • MELewis · May 31, 2018

      Wow, what a saga! Sounds like you were the one who needed a shot (the other kind)! Glad that your mother-in-law was finally well cared for, which is usually what my experience of hospitals in France has been. You wait, you’re uncomfortable, you feel abandoned…then, in the end, the care is professional and far beyond what you expect for a cost that seems like peanuts. Glad to see you back, Kiki! Looking forward to more of your (always interesting!) comments when you get a chance. 🙂

  5. Garfield Hug · May 31, 2018

    No, I have not been or seen a French hospital. That building is an architectural beauty and to imagine it houses a hospital is amazing as how did they convert the layout to serve the needs of patients. Thanks for a good read and share😊

    • MELewis · May 31, 2018

      And let’s hope you never do, eh? I imagine a trip to France from Lil Red Dot would not ideally include a hospital visit. Although it might be interesting to visit the building, which is indeed lovely. Glad you enjoyed! 🙂

      • Garfield Hug · May 31, 2018

        Oh yes…just for a tourist visit haha!

  6. George lewis · May 31, 2018

    It seems that all old hospitals that get additions and wings added over the years end up like rabbit warrens.l remember getting completely lost several years ago during a visit to St Mikes, your place of birth. I guess this is a world wide problem.

    • MELewis · May 31, 2018

      Interesting. I guess one problem is keeping the services close to those who need them, and a maternity ward in the city only makes sense. Sounds like a job for a specialized architect who would be able to retrofit old buildings while ensuring modern facilities.

  7. Osyth · May 31, 2018

    My house in Marcolès was rebuilt as an Hôtel Dieu after the original tower was decapitated in the revolution. I have to say that when I discovered that fact I felt very differently towards the building and it entirely changed my ideas for the interior (not, I hasten that I am intending to furnish it with gurneys and surgical lamps) to ensure that we acknowledge that part of her history because it must have involved raw life and death in the hands of les sœurs du cœur. I guess overall I would have preferred this grand lady to continue to preside as a hospitable but everything changes and so long as that change doesn’t involve destroying the old to make way for the new, I am reasonably content. I have visited several hospitals in France for varieties of reasons but never to have a baby 😉

    • MELewis · May 31, 2018

      A hospitable — I love it! That is what it should be and often is not. We are not just physical bodies but souls who need nourishment too, so perhaps the old system with the sisters made sense on some level. How lovely to consider this past history when refurbishing your home. If those walls could talk…I suppose buying any old place in France means inevitably becoming the keeper of some of its history. No gurneys of course but what? A shrine of some kind? A special welcome for weary visitors…? (I’m just sure you would always provide this!) 😍

      • Osyth · May 31, 2018

        Haha …. my typo was kismet I think 😉. No shrines though I may dress as a nun for the laughs …..

      • MELewis · May 31, 2018

        🤣 I dressed up as a punk nun in the 80s once.

      • Osyth · May 31, 2018

        When we eventually finish this interminable project (probably next year but I’m not holding my breath since that blue tinge does nothing for my complexion) we will invite the village to come and take apéro and light snacks with us. Perhaps you might join us – come as a punk nun. Please!!

      • MELewis · May 31, 2018

        I will be there! (Not sure about my punk nun costume…) 🙃

      • Osyth · May 31, 2018


  8. poshbirdy · May 31, 2018

    What a wonderful façade. I hope to stay there one day – as a tourist, of course – and I hope they manage to make it suitably sumptuous inside

    • MELewis · June 2, 2018

      Fairly sure they’ll manage the sumptuous bit…although we’ll have to wait another year for the hotel to open. I’ll keep you posted after my reconnaissance run!

  9. fatdormouse · June 1, 2018

    I’m currently being treated for cancer in a fairly ordinary hospital in Roanne (42) – while the hospital is nothing special, I have found my care second to none. I feel very grateful to have had this disease here in France, rather than the UK. Within a month of the diagnosis I had been operated on, and a month after tha

  10. fatdormouse · June 1, 2018

    (sorry, hadn’t finished!) chemo started. All the doctors, nurses, admin staff have been great.

    • MELewis · June 1, 2018

      So very sorry that you have to go through this trauma! Yet how fortunate that you are getting needed treatment quickly and efficiently! Your comment is a real-world reminder of how well our system functions when it comes to the ‘big’ guns. I wish you every success with the treatment — and maybe even a decent cup of tea? 😀

  11. Suzanne et Pierre · June 1, 2018

    Wonderful story. I am glad though that the building is experiencing a second life but I agree with you that it is a bit sad that it is luxury moving in… (Suzanne)

    • MELewis · June 2, 2018

      Glad you enjoyed the story, Suzanne! I suppose we must accept that things move on and modernize but it’s not without sadness to see a great monument transformed into yet another shopping outlet.

  12. Heide · June 1, 2018

    You are such a wonderful storyteller, Mel! I laughed and cringed at the same time as I followed you through that maze of a hospital. It’s a shame though that “… a temple to gastronomy and luxury should be built on a site where so many deeply human stories played out.” But I’m glad that in hindsight at least YOU you have nothing but good memories and funny stories. xx

    PS: Yes, I have been in a French hospital — “find the entrance,” indeed! Also, the CT scan was in a file-storage room. Or maybe the files were stored in the CT scan room? Hard to tell. 😉

    • MELewis · June 2, 2018

      A file storage room! The way that old and new mix in a real-life way in France never ceases to amaze me. So glad you enjoyed my bits of memoir. It makes me happy to make you laugh! 😊

  13. frejatravels · June 19, 2018

    No I never been to a hospital in France and I want to keep it that way. The building looks fantastic thought.

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