Secret passageways are not uncommon, and these have been around since time immemorial. Most times, we relate them with royalty or people in power. Secret passageways were safe getaways, led to hoarded hidden wealth or, in times of war, led to water sources. Stories abound about secret underground passages that connected nearby towns.
The city of Lyon lies along two rivers, the Rhone and Saone. Two of Lyon’s three districts (Vieux Lyon and Croix Rousse, and the third, Presque’il) are steep hills. If weather and war made the availability of water sparse, people living on the slopes (pentes) of Vieux Lyon and Croix Rousse had to come down to the river to fetch water, especially true in the case of Vieux Lyon (Old Lyon).
Traboules are passageways through buildings and courtyards that made it easy for people to climb up and down the slopes, shielding them from rain and acting as a shorter route (the roads on the hills were laid parallel to the river, making it a long circuitous commute to the river otherwise). In some cases, these are stairs through courtyards. When the canuts (silk weavers) started to live on these slopes in Croix Rousse, they used the passageways to transport goods down to the river. Later, when the living and working conditions for the weavers reached pathetic levels, they grouped to revolt. It was a tense few years between 1831 and 1848. These passageways, known only to them, kept them safe. They also used traboules to group together, hold meetings and plan strategies. The canuts are famous for storming down these slopes when things got really out of hand, and they had to confront stubborn government forces.
During World War II, traboules became hiding places for the resistants who used these secret paths not to get caught by the Gestapo or French Militia.
I cannot for the life of me remember where or how (it must be a movie or a travel-related article) I got to know of these traboules. So my purpose for visiting Lyon was to see them. I was so fascinated by the idea of being able to find ‘shortcuts’ between buildings whose sole purpose was to ease the commute.
Traboules have supposedly existed in Lyon since about the 4th century.
Lyon has about 400 traboules. There were probably more, but most disappeared during the urbanisation of Lyon. Those existing now are from about the 15th century and are on private property. Forty of these are open to the public after the government signed an agreement with the private parties. I found that the most beautiful and famous traboule in Vieux Lyon can be visited with a tour group only, which was sad, as I really wanted to see it.
I didn’t have much luck in Vieux Lyon, but I definitely explored the traboules of La Croix Rousse. It is fascinating because, looking at the façade, it is just a standard door, an entry to someone’s home. Only on entering do you realise that at the end of the passage is another door, and viola, you are on the next street!
2 Place Chardonette
A series of stairs connect Rue des Tables Claudiennes with Rue Burdeau (and down the escalier Mermet you can reach Rue Rene Leynaud).
14 Rue Rene Leynaud
Walk through the courtyard to reach Rue des Capuchins
20 Rue Imbert-Colomès
Another door, a courtyard and a short set of stairs to Rue des Tables Claudiennes
5 Rue du Griffon and 5 Rue St. Claude are close to each other. Their tight shut sturdy doors intimidated me a bit. So, I detested being a peeping tom.
22 Rue De Capuchin
Not a straight passage this one, but a curved one that exits onto Rue Coustou
5 Croix Paquet
The door opens into a large courtyard.
There are buildings on all sides, but it was hard to tell whether they were occupied.
There is a silk factory that is not in use anymore but was a pioneer during its time; the owner found a new way to make silk using what is known as the ‘moire process’ giving the courtyard its name – Cour des Moirages.
The courtyard leads out to Rue des Feuillants, and there is another path, a dead end now, but it might have led to another street.
Cour des Voraces
This one connects three streets, Rue Imbert Colomes, Montee Saint Sebastien and Place Cobert.
If you enter from Rue Imbert Colomes, you walk up a few steps to a narrow lane that leads out to Montee Saint Sebastien. Midway, enter 14 Bis. Steps lead to a tiny little courtyard with more steps that lead out to Place Cobert.
Standing quietly is an impressive, well-preserved set of stairs leading to the apartments in the building.
These apartments were the home and workplace of canuts, as are the buildings in the surroundings.
In the small courtyard, you will see a wall shrine decorated with random street art scribble, a plaque memorial for the Canuts who sacrificed their lives for better conditions, iron balustrades, wooden steps, exposed rafters, ominously beautiful!!
Presque’il, the southern part of Lyon also had traboules, but many have been lost to urbanisation. I got my fill of these secret passageways in Croix Rousse and I left Lyon feeling quite content.