The historical centre of Lyons hides a network of thoroughfares that are invisible to the eyes of the casual visitor. These are known as traboules, and are narrow alleys that cross the internal courtyards of buildings, leading pedestrians to another part of the city. They are hidden behind doors that, to the uninitiated, seem to lead to apartments. Actually they are the entrances to these mysterious tunnels whose existence is known to only a few.
Traboules are an invaluable part of the aesthetic and architectural heritage of the city. René Dejean, the author of the book Traboules de Lyon, l’histoire secrète d’une ville (Traboules of Lyons; a City’s Secret History), describes them as “paths reserved for pedestrians, often very narrow, which run through one or more buildings or courtyards and which connect one street with another.” Although most of them are horizontal tunnels, there are some vertical ones built to help citizens negotiate the very pronounced slopes in this city.
It is thought that Lyons has around 400 traboules, divided among Vieux Lyon, the oldest quarter of the city, which has about 215, Croix-Rousse, and Presqu’île. However, most are closed to the public and well hidden from view. Perhaps for this very reason, a halo of mystery envelopes these passageways, and walking the city in search of the doors that hide them can be an exciting way to explore Lyons.
It is thought that the first traboules were built as early as the 4th century AD, in order to facilitate transport from the River Saone to the higher areas of old Lyons. Over the centuries, wells were dug within the courtyards of buildings and this development meant that the traboules began to be used even more, since people used them to access courtyards to collect water.
By the 19th century, this architectural feature had become well established and spread as the city grew, particularly in the Croix-Rousse district. There, silk weavers built homes and traboules assisting access to the lower city, where the textile merchants were located. In 1862 the Ficelle funicular railway, the first in the world, was inaugurated, allowing goods to be transported between the city’s two levels without effort. The inhabitants of Lyons, meanwhile, continued to use their traboules.
The maze of covered alleys played its part in the Second World War, during the German occupation of the city: the resistance used the passageways to carry out activities safe from the surveillance of the enemy occupiers.
So, the traboules have never fallen out of use; even today many are still open and, for those in the know, offer tempting little shortcuts. Wandering through them, you can come across beautiful Renaissance courtyards and arcades, hidden galleries and infinite stairways.
One of the most recommended is the Cour des Voraces, a courtyard dating from 1840 with an impressive stairway. The building, an early example of construction in reinforced concrete, is so striking that it has been used as a backdrop in a number of films. Another stop on the traboule route is the Passage Thiaffait, an industrial traboule that currently houses the premises of young designers, who can use the shops here for six months at a time to offer their clothing for sale.
One of the best ways to find out about the traboules is to use the city’s dedicated mobile application, with real-time maps. Just look for Traboules par Lyon Tourisme et Congrès; it is free and available for all devices in English and French. Another option is to take a map from the tourist office. If you don’t make use of one of these options, you might hunt in vain, since the traboules are not usually signposted. It is important to visit them during the day, since most are closed at night, and also to use them quietly to avoid bothering local residents.
The excitement of traboule hunting lies in turning a door handle in the middle of a street, without knowing exactly what is to be found on the other side. If you can find them, there are lots of surprises waiting for you, and the hidden passageways of Lyons offer the chance to see a part of the city that not everyone knows.