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The Traboules – Lyon’s Imposing Secret Passageways

Lyon is a sprawling city, stretching over 400 hectares. In 1998 it was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Its expanse includes Vieux Lyon, a medieval and Renaissance quarter on the banks of the river Saône, Croix-Rousse, once the quarter of the silk weaving industry, Fourvière hill and Presqu’île, the new city centre.

An alternative way of touring this heritage-listed town is by heading along the traboules, a series of passageways connecting the inner courtyards of buildings and providing quick access from one street to another. According to the historian, Amable Audin, the origin of the word traboule is the Latintrans ambulare,meaning “to traverse on foot”. In addition to Lyon, this kind of architectural curiosity also exists in the French towns of Villefranche-sur-Saône, Mâcon, Chambéry, Saint-Étienne and Louhans.

Traboules date back to the 4th century when they were built to transport water from the Saône river to the upper districts of old Lyon. Hardly any vestiges of that period have survived. A large number of extant traboules originated in the Renaissance, particularly the ones in the Old Town. However, the 19th century saw the greatest expansion of these structural features, prompted by the heightened activity in Lyon’s silk weaving industry. Located mainly in Croix-Rousse, the silk weavers used these shortcuts to convey their woven goods to the lower city, where the cloth merchants were established.

Passages Studded with History

The traboules witnessed and even became the protagonists of some of the city’s most historic moments. It was in these alleyways that the earliest uprisings related to social and labour grievances took place – the Canut Revolts. En 1831, the harsh working conditions of the silk weavers – known as canuts – led to the first of the revolts now considered to be one of the earliest worker uprisings in history. The canuts protested to the cry of “Live free working or die fighting!” This uprising was followed by two others, in 1834 and 1848, all of which were violently put down.

This maze of passageways also played an important part in World War II, when it was used by the French resistance to flee from the Nazis.

Planning Your Visit

Lyon features some 500 traboules, most of which lie in Vieux Lyon (215 courtyards and traboules), Croix-Rousse (163 courtyards and traboules) and Presqu’île (130 courtyards and traboules). Some 400 of them are open to the public. This website provides a map with directions and photos, and you can even download an app (in French and English) for finding your way through this labyrinth. The tourist office also has street maps showing the major traboules.In most instances, if a home provides access to a traboule,this is shown on the door and, in some cases, you have to ring the bell to be let in. As the passages lead into private courtyards, visitors are asked to be respectful and not make a noise that might disturb neighbours. The best time to visit them is in the morning as nearly all of them are locked at night. Get ready to discover a world full of astonishing precincts, with amazing staircases like the Cours des Voraces, Renaissance courtyards and beautiful corners. It’s a whole adventure!

Eager to venture into Lyon’s secluded architectural maze? Check out our flights here.

 

Text by ISABELYLUIS Comunicación

Images by Pierre Guinoiseau, clr_flickr, Guillaume Baviere