Traboules of Lyon: Exploring the Secret Passageways
Although the French city of Lyon is justifiably famous, it still manages to be somewhat underrated. Everyone knows about Paris, of course, the French capital that is also one of the most visited cities in the world. And other French cities like Marseille and Bordeaux are also inviting places to visit. But while Lyon gets its share of visitors, it somehow manages to fly below the radar of many travelers to France.
That can be a good thing. Part of the appeal of this ancient city founded by the Romans is that it offers the chance to escape the tourist crowds and get a more authentic experience of the French way of life. As the home of French gastronomy, Lyon is known for having some of the very best restaurants in this food-loving country. But it’s also known for its traboules.
If you like a little bit of urban exploration, Lyon may be the perfect place for you. With a network of secret passageways that wind their way through the old city, Lyon is ideal for anyone who likes to uncover the hidden side of a travel destination.
All you have to do is leave your bags behind at a convenient Lyon luggage storage and track down some of these secret areas for yourself.
What is a traboule?
Lyon’s traboules have a long history, and you can see that even in the way these passageways are named. The word ‘traboule’ is believed to come not from French but from the Latin ‘trans-ambulare,’ which means to pass through.
Lyon was once the Roman city of Lugdunum, one of the most important Roman settlements in what is now France. However, with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the city fell into disrepair, with no one to maintain the aqueducts that supplied it with fresh water. The traboules were created as a way for residents of the city to access the river Saone and get water to supply their needs.
Lyon isn’t the only city that has these passageways, but it is perhaps the best-known and is home to some of the best-preserved passageways. There are estimated to be more than 400 traboules in Lyon, though only around 40 or so are open to the public.
The passages may have started out in the ruins of the Roman Empire, but you can’t keep a good idea down. When Lyon became a major center for silk production in the 18th and 19th centuries, silk workers used the passages to carry their heavy loads down to the river to be shipped around the world. They were also used for worker’s meeting as part of the nascent trade union movement.
The residents of Lyon found another use for their covered passageways during the Second World War. During the Nazi occupation of Lyon, the traboules became the site of clandestine meetings of resistance fighters plotting to overthrow the Nazi government.
Now, the traboules are preserved as a tourist attraction, but they are still used by residents of the city to get from one street to the next in the most convenient way possible.
Exploring the passageways
Although these passageways are less secret than they used to be, they’re still not all that well-known to visitors to the city. Partly, that’s because they’re not always easy to find. The city has reached an agreement with the property owners where the passageways run to keep them open to the public during the day, but property owners don’t always want to advertise the fact that these passages are accessible.
The city puts up small signs to show you where the traboules are. Keep your eyes peeled for an image of the face of a Roman-era lion statue in blue on top of a yellow square; that’s the sign of a traboule.
If you want to save yourself some effort, you can hire a knowledgeable local guide who can show you some of the most interesting and historic passageways. But part of the appeal of this hidden side of the city is finding them for yourself. So if you have some time on your hands, take a wander through Old Lyon and keep your eyes peeled for the sign that will show you hidden parts of Lyon’s history.
Traboules to look out for
If you want some guidance as to where to find some of the best examples, here are a few places that are well worth checking out:
- 54 Rue Saint-Jean to 27 Rue du Bœuf: This is the longest traboule in Lyon, running under four different buildings. While many of the passageways in Lyon are now closed off at one end, this one remains open at both ends, so it is a great place to see what traboules are all about. Keep an eye out for the bilingual (French and English) brass sign that will show you where the entrance is.
- 9 Place Colbert: This is one of the most famous passageways in Lyon. The traboule gives access to a courtyard where you see a building with a striking six-story external staircase, and this is a popular postcard image of the city of Lyon. You’ll also see some great street art here.
- 16 Rue du Boeuf: A short but popular passageway, this one gives access to a beautiful spiral staircase that makes a great place for photography.
These are just some of the intriguing passageways you’ll find in the old city. But part of the fun of urban exploration is finding your own way. Give yourself a few hours or longer to stroll through the ancient heart of the city, and you’re bound to uncover more of these secret passageways and courtyards that will make your trip to this underrated French city memorable.