Why you should explore the hidden passageways of Lyon

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In Lyon’s Croix-Rousse district, residential buildings tower above the city, narrow gaps between them revealing views of the Rhône flowing below, cutting through the pastel landscape at the foot of the hill. It’s a calm, early Saturday morning, and I ambled down in a sort of pre-coffee haze during a day trip this spring.

Suddenly a disheveled man with a suitcase, probably in his mid-20s, stormed past me. He peered down a stairwell that led to an apartment building. “C’est ferme cela?” (This one is closed?) He cursed in frustration and threw up his free arm in desperation before scurrying down the street, suitcases flying behind him. This man was looking for a shortcut. This staircase is one of hundreds of Lyon’s “traboules,” or hidden passageways, that carve through the city, allowing those in the know to slip through one path, exit through another, and bypass the official grid.

For tourists in Lyon, scouting and weaving through the traboules has become an activity akin to a real treasure hunt.

The image of the traboules contains a lot of mysticism. Although its use is widely believed to have evolved throughout the city’s history – for example a role in the silk workers’ revolts in the 19th century – a detailed historical sense remains largely uncertain. What is certain is that most of the traboules originated in the Renaissance, when the city entered a period of rapid development.

“It’s not a human story. It’s a story of urbanism, of architecture,” said Nicolas Bruno Jacquet, an architectural historian and specialist lecturer in Lyon, over the phone.

Jacquet explained that in the 14th and 15th centuries the city began to condense and buildings began to multiply, particularly in the Vieux Lyon district bordering the Saône. Since the structure of the neighborhood is largely made up of long, parallel streets, the traboules gave residents quicker and more perpendicular access to the Saône, essentially serving as a system to facilitate circulation.

The traboules of the Croix-Rousse district in Lyon’s 4th arrondissement—distinguished by the neighborhood’s hilly landscape and multi-tiered staircases—were later.

“In the Croix-Rousse there are traboules, which are stairs. These stairs were built when the weavers arrived, what we call canuts,” explained Claude de Sars, a guide and lecturer in Lyon, in a phone call. “The difference is the stairs in the Croix-Rousse versus the small traboules in the Vieux Lyon that connect two parallel streets.”

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I was on my way to meet Jacques Rossiaud, a historian specializing in the history of Lyon, at his apartment in the center of the city. From Place Bellevue, a vantage point overlooking the city in the Croix-Rousse, I went down a few steps to Rue Mottet De Gérando, following a map from René Dejean’s “Traboules de Lyon: Histoire secrète d’une ville”. The wooden unmarked door referred to in the book was indistinguishable from the others. I pushed it open; it was unlocked. Inside, a salmon-colored courtyard surrounded a grand staircase that spiraled downward.

The exit was now closed – which is the norm these days – so I climbed back up and down the stairs at the edge of the building to Rue Bodin, made my way to Place Colbert and went through the little door marked number 9. This is one of the entrances to the Cour des Voraces, the most famous traboule in Croix-Rousse, with its soaring staircase. Street art lines the courtyard, giving way to more staircases that meander down and lead to a passageway that leads onto Rue Imbert Colomès.

I continued to follow Dejean’s map, popping in and out of traboules — though some were now closed when the work was published in 1988 — and felt like a child in an adult’s body, on some sort of secret mission. Finally I reached Rossiaud’s door.

After welcoming me into his living room, which smelled of old books, Rossiaud delved into the history of the traboules. But in his view, the role of the passages is exaggerated, especially when it comes to the resistance movement during World War II.

“We insist a lot, fantasize a lot, over-emphasize the role of traboules during the Resistance,” he said. “Lyon was the capital of the resistance between 1940 and 1944 and a certain number of people say yes, we had the traboules in Lyon, which was good because you could hide, enter a house through one street and come back through another could leak street. It’s true, if you will, but it doesn’t really correspond to reality. Otherwise you could hide.”

Although Rossiaud is not convinced that the traboules contributed to the resistance movement, de Sars claims that they played an important role.

“The resisters have hidden themselves in the traboules. … Some resistance fighters were unfortunately arrested or shot in it. So from time to time we see little plaques at the entrance or exit of the traboules commemorating those episodes,” she said. “These are old passages where people could hide. There were traboules and mailboxes inside. People picked up messages in the mailboxes.”

After leaving Rossiaud’s apartment, I strolled down Rue du Boeuf in the heart of Vieux Lyon. Crowds of tourists moved in waves, peering into souvenir shops selling fine silks and sausages. Cobblestones tucked into sneakers and flip-flops and meandered through the neighborhood’s numerous bouchons.

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There was a rush of onlookers and I hate crowds; When people stop in the middle of the street without turning, which I consider to be the cardinal sin of urban walking etiquette, it triggers an uncontrollable anger in me that probably stems from my New York upbringing. So, cursing under my breath, I quickly searched a beautiful part of town for the gaps between people that would allow me to escape quickly and replenish my serotonin levels.

I went straight to 27 rue du Boeuf and pushed open the unlocked door to give way to Lyon’s long traboule that led to rue Saint-Jean.

I made my way to Le Luminarium, a café, to meet Damien Petermann, who wrote his doctoral thesis on the image of Lyon from guidebooks in the 19th and 20th centuries. He sat down across from me, pulled out some printed sheet music and dove into the traboules. We discussed the Canut revolts and the Resistance, citing all the usual points. But what really interests Petermann is the mystery surrounding the traboules – and the lack of available historical references to support such an important part of Lyon’s tourist landscape.

“There’s not much to say about her, which is amazing. We visit them, we show them, we explain what they were used for, what we know and don’t know, and people stop by,” he said. “It’s become an unmissable element of Lyon, but if you dig a little, there’s not much to find.”

According to Petermann, the intrigues surrounding the traboules can be attributed primarily to the fantastic portrayal 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,” said Petermann. “It’s the fantasy of not really knowing what’s going on in the traboules: what activities, who’s going through it.”

The traboules have continued to grow in popularity over the past 30 years, particularly after the historic districts of Lyon were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1998. According to Petermann, the city has begun to rehabilitate the hallways, many of which were derelict, and arrangements have been made with certain landowners to leave them open to residents and tourists throughout the day. Remember that the traboules are private rooms; they run through residential buildings and separate them from the arcades in Paris, for example.

On my way back to the station, I imagined the Canuts slipping through the Croix Rousse traboules and evading police detection in elaborate schemes. I thought of the resistance movement, imagining a person walking in from rue du Boeuf, attending a secret meeting in the courtyard of the long traboule, waiting to join up with a participant from rue Saint-Jean ten minutes later . I thought of secret societies, lovers, and the many secret encounters that might have taken place in these corridors.

But at the end of the day, in the words of de Sars, “the traboules are really interior passages, nothing more, nothing less.” Much else is left to the imagination.

Radziemski is a Paris-based writer. Keep finding her Twitter: @lilyradz.

Word on the street is that Café du Soleil serves the best quenelle – the essential bouchon dish – in Lyon, and I’d believe it. Here you can order the classics in a no-frills environment. Reservations recommended. Open weekdays 12pm to 2pm, 7pm to 10pm; open minded Weekend 12pm to 3pm, 7pm to 10pm Entrees start at around $15.

Opened by legendary French chef Paul Bocuse, this brasserie serves classic dishes in a more formal setting. Reservations recommended. Open weekdays 12pm to 2pm, 7pm to 10.15pm; Open weekends 12pm-2:30pm, 7pm-10:15pm Entrees from about $11.

Odessa Comptoir is a trendy natural wine bar on the way up the hill to Croix-Rousse. In addition to French wines, the bar stocks bottles from Georgia, Spain, Germany, Italy, the Czech Republic and Austria. The small plates are delicious and perfect for an aperitif before falling into a quenelle-induced eating coma. Open Monday to Saturday, 6pm to midnight. (Monday from 6:30 p.m.) Closed on Sundays. Glass of wine from around $5.

If you want to skip the map and take a tour around the traboules, there are numerous operators in the city. This departs from Place Saint-Jean, a central meeting point in Vieux Lyon. Open daily; times vary. Tours start at approximately $10.50 per adult, approximately $6 for ages 8-18 and children under 8 free.

Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourviere

This basilica in the Fourvière district with panoramic views of Lyon features elements of both Romanesque and Byzantine architecture with ornate golden interiors. Basilica open daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. For free.

Prospective travelers should consider local and national health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning a trip. For travel health advice information, see the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention interactive map of travel advice by destination and the CDC’s travel health advice website.

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