Traboule: The Secret Alleyways of Lyon

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Below is a satellite image showing the old quarters of the French city of Lyon, by the river Saone. As you can see, there are a couple of streets running parallel to the river but not many side streets connecting the parallel streets. Using the distance scale given at the bottom of the map, I would guess the connecting streets are located about 200 meters apart, which should be a comfortable two minute walk or less, assuming you are a tourist. But when you are a 15th century silk trader carrying bolts of precious silk weighing hundreds of pounds, the shorter the distance you have to travel the better. So these traders began to take shortcuts cutting through houses and private courtyards to reach the opposite street. Over time, these shortcuts began to develop into a well-known network of passageways called traboules. The word comes from the Latin trans ambulare which mean “to cross”.
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Satellite image of Old Lyon.
Although these alleys became associated with the silk traders, their origin can be traced back to the 4th century. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the aqueducts bringing water to the city of Lyon—then called Lugdunum— started to fail forcing the residents to move closer to the water source along the banks of the river Saône. The first traboules were built around this time and it allowed the inhabitants to get from their homes to the Saône river quicker. Later, when Lyon became a major center for silk trade, the traboules allowed the silk traders, known as canuts, to easily move their good from the river to the markets in the city center. The covered traboules also had the advantage of protecting the precious goods from rain allowing movement even in inclement weather.
Lyon has over five hundreds of these secret passageways. They are mainly located in the districts of Vieux Lyon (or Old Lyon), in La Croix-Rousse (where most of the silk traders were located), and in La Presqu'île. Most traboules are on private property, and are hence closed to the public. Others have been blocked off and are currently used as storage areas. Only around forty or so traboules can be explored by tourists. Some years ago the city authorities made a deal with some of the residents of the properties on which the traboules exist. The city agreed to pay for maintenance, restoration, lightning and cleaning of the traboules. In return the residents must keep the traboules open to the public from morning till evening. Unfortunately, in some cases either party has failed to keep their end of the bargain, and some of traboules that should be open to the public are accessible only to residents.
The "Traboule de la cour des Voraces" ("Traboule of the Voracious Court"), located in the Croix-Rousse quarter, is the most famous traboule in Lyon. It is one of the landmarks of the 19th century Canut Revolts, where hundreds of enraged silk workers gathered and marched through it to the center. The traboules were also used by the resistance fighting against occupying German forces during the Second World War. The dark, shadowy passages were perfect for giving pursing Gestapo men the slip, especially in the early days of the occupation when only the Lyonnais knew of their existence. Even today, for many inhabitants, being a "true Lyonnais" requires one to be extensively knowledgeable about the city's traboules.
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The interior of a traboule in Lyon. Photo credit: Damien Roué/Flickr
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One of the most famous traboule goes through a courtyard and past this impressive building known as Cour des Voraces, or the Court of Voracious. The building has an enormous six-floor stairway of façade. Photo credit: philippe leroyer/Flickr
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Many of the traboules are hidden behind doors such as these. Some are marked, others are not. Photo credit (from left to right): Rina SergeevaDamien JeanmairePeter Meuris
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Photo credit: Robert Clinton/Flickr

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