Suddenly a disheveled man with a suitcase, probably in his twenties, rushed past me. He glanced down a stairwell leading to an apartment building. “Is that closed?” (Is this one closed?) He swore in frustration, raising his free arm in sheer exasperation before rushing further down the road, a suitcase flying behind. This man was looking for a shortcut. This staircase is one of the hundreds of Lyon “traboules” that criss-cross the city, allowing its connoisseurs to sneak in on one side, exit by another and bypass the official gate.
For tourists from Lyon, stalking and meandering through the traboules has become an activity akin to a real treasure hunt.
The image of the traboules has a lot of mystique. While it is commonly believed that their use has evolved throughout the city’s history – playing a role in the silk workers’ revolts of the 19th century and the resistance movement during World War II, for example – the extent to which the passages were used, in a detailed historical sense, remains largely uncertain. What is certain is that the majority of traboules appeared during the Renaissance, when the city began a phase of rapid development.
“It’s not a human story. It’s a story of town planning, of architecture, ”said Nicolas Bruno Jacquet, architectural historian and guide-lecturer in Lyon, on the telephone.
Jacquet explains that during the 14th and 15th centuries, the city began to densify and construction multiplied, especially in the Vieux Lyon district, which borders the Saône. As the structure of the district was largely made up of long, parallel paths, the traboules allowed residents to access the Saône more quickly and perpendicularly, essentially serving as a circulation system.
The traboules of the Croix-Rousse district in the 4th arrondissement of Lyon – which are differentiated by the hilly landscape of the district and the staircases with several floors – appeared later.
“At La Croix-Rousse, you have traboules which are stairs. These stairs were built on the arrival of the weavers, what we call the canuts”, explains Claude de Sars, guide-lecturer in Lyon, on the phone. “The difference is the stairs of the Croix-Rousse compared to the small traboules of Old Lyon which connect two parallel roads.”
What did you eat ?! An intrepid gourmet foray into Lyon’s traffic jams.
I was going to meet Jacques Rossiaud, a historian specializing in the history of Lyon, in his downtown apartment. From Place Bellevue, a belvedere over the city at Croix-Rousse, I went down a few steps towards Rue Mottet De Gérando, following a map of “Traboules de Lyon: Secret History of a City” by René Dejean. The unmarked wooden door mentioned in the book was indistinguishable from the rest. I pushed him; it has been unlocked. Inside, a salmon-pink courtyard surrounded a grand spiraling staircase.
The exit was now closed – a common thing these days – so I went back up and took the stairs bordering the building up Rue Bodin, towards Place Colbert, through the small door marked with the number 9. This is one of the entrances to the Cour des Voraces, the most famous traboule in Croix-Rousse, with its imposing staircase. Street art dots the courtyard, giving way to more staircases that wind down, leading to a passageway that leads to Rue Imbert Colomès.
I continued to follow Dejean’s map, picking through the traboules—some of which were now closed since the book was published in 1988—feeling like a kid in an adult body, on a sort of secret mission. Finally, I arrived in front of Rossiaud’s door.
After welcoming me into his living room where the faint smell of old books floated, Rossiaud embarked on the history of the traboules. But in his opinion, the role of the passages is exaggerated, especially when talking about the resistance movement during the Second World War.
“We insist a lot, we fantasize a lot, we attach too much importance to the role of the traboules during the resistance,” he said. “Lyon was the capital of the resistance between 1940 and 1944, and a number of people say yes, we had the traboules in Lyon, which was good, because you could hide, enter a house by a road and “Go out by another road. It’s true, if you like, but it doesn’t really correspond to reality. We could hide otherwise.”
Although Rossiaud is not convinced that the traboules contributed to the resistance movement, de Sars argues that they played an important role.
“Resisters hid in the traboules. … Some resistance fighters, unfortunately, were arrested or shot there. So, from time to time, we see small plaques at the entrance or exit of the traboules which evoke these episodes, ”she said. “These are old passages where people could hide. There were traboules, and there were mailboxes inside. In the mailboxes, people were taking messages.
After leaving Rossiaud’s apartment, I strolled to rue du Boeuf in the heart of Vieux Lyon. Crowds of tourists moved in waves, gazing at souvenir shops brandishing fine silks and sausages. The cobblestones entered sneakers and flip-flops, made their way through the many traffic jams in the neighborhood.
In Lyon, a new museum celebrates a long culinary tradition
There was a crush of tourists, and I hate crowds; when people stop dead in the middle of the street without swerving to the side, which I consider the cardinal sin of urban walking etiquette, it triggers an uncontrollable rage in me, probably a consequence of my new upbringing -yorker. So, cursing under my breath in a perfectly beautiful part of town, I quickly looked for the gaps between people that would allow me to get away quickly and replenish my serotonin levels.
I rushed to 27 rue du Boeuf and pushed open the unlocked door leading to Lyon’s long traboule, intersecting rue Saint-Jean.
I was heading to Le Luminarium, a café, to meet Damien Petermann, who wrote his doctoral thesis on the image of Lyon according to travel guides in the 19th and 20th centuries. He sat down across from me, pulled out some printed notes, and dove into the traboules. We talked about the revolts and the resistance of the canuts, invoking all the usual points. But what really interests Petermann is the mystery that surrounds the traboules – and the lack of historical references available to back up such an important part of Lyon’s tourist landscape.
“There’s not much to say about them, which is amazing. We visit them, we show them, we explain what they were used for, what we know and what we don’t know, and people walk through,” he said. “It has become a must in Lyon, but when you dig a little, there is not much to find.
According to Petermann, the intrigue surrounding the traboules could largely be attributed to the fantastical image of the passages in literature and film.
“In the 19th century, there were secret societies in Lyon, and the literary image that formed on the mystery of Lyon,” Petermann said. “It’s the fantasy of not really knowing what is going on in the traboules: what kind of activities, who is passing through.
Traboules have grown in popularity even more over the past 30 years, and especially after Lyon’s historic districts were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998. According to Petermann, the city has started cleaning up the passages, many of which were dilapidated. , and he has made deals with some landowners to keep them open all day for residents and tourists. Don’t forget that the traboules are private spaces; they pass through residential buildings, differentiating them from passages in Paris, for example.
On the way back to the station, I imagined the canuts gliding through the traboules of the Croix-Rousse, evading police detection in elaborate patterns. I thought of the resistance movement, imagining a person entering from rue du Boeuf, attending a secret meeting in the courtyard of the long traboule, waiting to join someone entering from rue Saint-Jean 10 minutes later. I thought of secret societies, lovers and the multitudes of clandestine encounters that could have taken place in these passages.
But ultimately, in the words of de Sars, “the traboules are really interior passageways, nothing more and nothing less.” Many other things are left to the imagination.
Radziemski is a Paris-based writer. Find it on Twitter: @lilyradz.
They say on the street that Café du Soleil serves the best quenelle – the staple dish of the cork – in Lyon, and I would believe it. This is the place to order the classics in a simple environment. Reservations recommended. Open on weekdays from noon to 2 p.m., from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.; to open weekends from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m., from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Mains from around $15.
Opened by legendary French chef Paul Bocuse, this brasserie serves classic dishes in a more formal setting. Reservations recommended. Open on weekdays from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m., from 7 p.m. to 10:15 p.m.; open on weekends from noon to 2:30 p.m., from 7 p.m. to 10:15 p.m. Dish from around $11.
Odessa Comptoir is a trendy natural wine bar on Chemin de la Croix-Rousse. Besides French wines, the bar offers bottles from Georgia, Spain, Germany, Italy, Czech Republic and Austria. The small plates are delicious and perfect for an aperitif before falling into a quenelle-induced food coma. Open Monday to Saturday, 6 p.m. to midnight. (Monday from 6.30 p.m.) Closed on Sunday. Glass of wine from around $5.
If you want to give up the card and take a walk in the traboules, there are many operators in the city. This leaves from Place Saint-Jean, the central meeting point of Old Lyon. Open every day; hours vary. Tours start at around $10.50 per adult, around $6 from 8 to 18 and children under 8 free.
Basilica of Our Lady of Fourvière
This basilica, located in the district of Fourvière with a panoramic view of Lyon, presents elements of both Romanesque and Byzantine architecture, with interiors adorned with gold. Basilica open every day from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Free.
Prospective travelers should consider local and national public health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning any travel. Information on travel health advisories can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and on the CDC’s travel health advisories webpage.