What secrets lie beneath Lyon?

A labyrinth of corridors conceals a complicated past in France.

Published 8 Feb 2020, 08:00 GMT
Hundreds of traboules connect residential neighbourhoods to bustling streets in Old Lyon. From more than 400 ...
Hundreds of traboules connect residential neighbourhoods to bustling streets in Old Lyon. From more than 400 created, 50 are still open to the public.
Photograph by Christian Kober, John Warburton-Lee Photography Ltd / Getty Images

Tucked between Lyon’s old-town streets and its Croix-Rousse neighbourhood, the traboules—a vast network of around 400 hidden corridors, passages, and stairwells—have born witness to historic moments from the silk trade to French Resistance meetings in World War II.

Tour guide Veronique Destombes has lived in the city for over 30 years and knows just where to dip into discreet doors, to climb stairs, and venture down subtly marked traboules to explore the 50 pathways still open to the public. Each route has its own distinct pastel colour and unique architectural element, such as towering staircases, vaulted ceilings, or detailed, Renaissance arches.

As we walk along Rue du Boeuf, Destombes weaves tales of how the canuts, or Lyonnaise silk workers, used the traboules to transport the fabrics across the city safely, avoiding rain and dirt. In the 1800s, the traboules played a key role during the Canut revolts—one of the first documented uprisings of Europe’s Industrial Revolution. Exploited silk workers used the walkways to sneak into the city centre and take over the town. During World War II, the French Resistance used the network to evade the Nazis. Runners would slip into the clandestine passageways to avoid capture and could use the alleys’ double doors to share important messages without suspicion.

Many of the traboules are now on private property, used only by residents. In the 1990s, Lyon city officials agreed to pay for maintenance and restoration of traboules that residents keep open to the public from morning until evening.

Where to find traboules

With a bit of detective work, savvy travellers can find their own moments of quiet in the traboules spread across the city. In Old Lyon, entrances are marked with shield-shaped bronze plaques, while in Croix-Rousse, a lion’s head on a blue marker guides the way. Here are four traboules worth sleuthing for.

Traboule de la Cour des Voraces

A sanctuary to silk workers during the Canut revolts, Traboule de la Cour des Voraces preserves canut history with its famous six-floor stairway façade—one of the oldest in the city—and a memorial that reads: “In the Cour des Voraces, a hive of the silk industry, canuts fought for their living conditions and their dignity.” The historical passage begins at 9 Place Colbert and 14 bis montée Saint-Sébastien.

The Traboule de la Cour des Voraces, located in the Croix-Rousse, was one of the landmark traboules during the 19th-century Canut revolts, where hundreds of enraged silk workers gathered and marched.

Photograph by Martin Schulte-Kellinghaus, ImageBROKER/Alamy Stock Photo

La Longue Traboule

At 54 Rue Saint-Jean, search for the green door and an engraving reading “La Longue Traboule” to find the longest traboule in Old Lyon. Stretching to 27 Rue du Bœuf, the walkway crosses through five courtyards and tunnels under four buildings. It’s one of the few traboules still used daily by locals to navigate Old Lyon.

Traboule de la Tour Rose

Enter at 16 Rue du Bœuf to discover a rose-tinted watchtower, complete with spiraling staircase, while traversing the Traboule de la Tour Rose. The stairs are closed to the public, but the delicate colors of the courtyard and Renaissance-style windows of the tower create a picturesque scene.

Traboule de Maison Brunet

Connecting 10 Rue Rivet with 5 Place Rouville, and 12 Rue Rivet with 6 Place Rouville, this traboule leads travellers to Maison Brunet, a structure built with references to periods of time—365 windows (days in a year), 52 apartments (weeks in a year), seven floors (days in a week), and four entrances (seasons in a year). During the Canut revolt, soldiers would use the numerous windows to hurl fireballs at the national guard.

Carolyn Boyd is a writer and editor who specializes in French travel, food, and drink. Follow her on Twitter.
Starlight Williams is an editorial researcher and writer at National Geographic. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
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