The Traboules: Lyon’s secret network
Failing that, grab a guide.
What is a Traboule?
Winding their way through buildings, courtyards, and up and down staircases, Lyon’s secret covered passageways, or traboules, are an ideal way of visiting the city’s hidden and colourful past.
Every traboule is different though. Each has a unique pastel colour, a particular curve or spiral staircase, vaulted ceilings or Renaissance arches. Some have counted as many as 400 traboules in Lyon, but just over 40 are open to the public, each clearly marked with a small identifying seal. It’s the atmospheric Vieux Lyon and the arty Croix Rousse that house the lion’s share.
Half of the fun is finding them of course, but failing that, you can skip to it and go on a guided tour on Saturday morning. They say if you want to be a true Lyonnais, you have to know your traboules.
So what are you waiting for?
Why do we say “traboule”?
The word ‘traboules’ is a corruption of the Latin ‘trans-ambulare’, or ‘to pass through’, dating back to the 4th century, allowing folk more direct access to the town’s fresh water source than the winding streets provided.
A wander through the history of the traboules
The first examples of traboules are thought to have been built in Lyon in the 4th century. Due to lack of water and malfunctioning aqueducts, the inhabitants of what was Lugdunum had to move to the banks of the river Saône, in the lower town, at the foot of Fourvière hill. The traboules were dreamed up to allow people to get from their homes to the river quickly.
Later on, they were taken up by the Canuts silk workers of the Croix-Rousse (1st and 4th districts), the beating heart of 19th century silk trade. The passageways were used for Canuts workers to carry their heavy loads from their workshops in the Croix-Rousse to the textile merchants at the foot of the hill, as well as for workers’ meetings. In Vieux Lyon (5th district), most streets run parallel to the river, making it tricky to get from one street to the next without having to make a huge detour, so courtyards with connected through a network of passages and a large number of shortcuts were created. The traboules of the Lyon’s Old Quarter thus allowed workers and craftspeople to transport clothes and other textiles more quickly through the city while remaining sheltered from the miserable weather.
A century later saw a different use entirely.
During the Second World War, the traboules were used by the resistance for secret meetings, thus preventing the Nazis from occupying the whole of Lyon.
The landmark traboule
In the 1830s there were as many as 25,000 Canut silk workers in Lyon.
As further silk workshops opened, merchants started to take advantage of the artisan class weavers by slashing their wages and benefits. Struggling with the combination of increased competition, new technology, uncertain economic forces and the exploiting merchants, the workers decided to rebel. Joining forces, the Canut silk workers closed workshops and marched into town, picking up weapons at the armory as they went, seeking to hold the industry hostage until a set wage was agreed to.
However, the Canut revolts were bloodily suppressed. 10,000 Canuts were reportedly tried in Paris and faced criminal deportation, but their motto of “live free working or die fighting” inspired other workers uprisings in future years.
Believe it or not, the spirit lives on in the Croix-Rousse to this day. You just have to dig a little.
One of the landmarks of the Canut Revolts is to be found in the Croix-Rousse district. It’s called “Traboule de la cour des Voraces” and is also the oldest reinforced concrete stairwell in Lyon.
How to visit the traboules?
For the Canut workshops and traboules, the meeting place is Place de la Croix-Rousse, in the 4th district of Lyon, outside the underground station Croix-Rousse. For navigating the traboules in the Croix-Rousse, follow the arrows accompanied by the lion’s head.
For the Vieux-Lyon traboules, the meeting place is outside the Vieux Lyon metro station. In Vieux-Lyon, these passageways are marked by a bronze shield.
- Arrive 10 minutes early
- Duration: 2 hours
- Price: 12 euros
- 8 – 18 and students: 7 euros
The longest traboule
The longest traboule in Lyon runs between 54 Rue Saint-Jean and 27 Rue du Bœuf, and a famously picturesque traboule begins at 9 Place Colbert/14 bis montee Saint Sebastion, and features a historic six-story external staircase.
If you’re a bit of an adventurer, here are a few traboules to discover on your own:
- 27 Rue St Jean connecting with 6 Rue des Trois Maries
- 54 Rue St Jean with 27 Rue de Boeuf
- 31 Rue du Boeuf with 14 Rue de la Bombarde
- 2 Place du Gouvernement with 10 Quai Romain Rolland
- 9 Rue des Trois Maries with 17 Quai Romain Rolland
Where are the Traboules in Lyon
Or have a look here at a map of Traboules located in the Vieux Lyon.
Further reading about these famous landmarks in Lyon