In the Croix-Rousse district of Lyon, France, residential buildings tower over the city, narrow gaps between them revealing slivers of the Rhône River flowing below, carving through the pastel-hued landscape at the foot of the hill. It’s a quiet, early Saturday morning, and I was strolling down in a sort of pre-coffee haze during a day trip this spring.
Suddenly, a disheveled man with a suitcase, probably in his 20s, rushed past me. He peeked down into a stairwell giving way to a residential building. “C’est fermé cela?” (This one’s closed?) He cursed in frustration, throwing his free arm up in sheer exasperation before scurrying farther down the road, suitcase flying behind.
This man was looking for a shortcut. This staircase is one of Lyon’s hundreds of “traboules,” or hidden passageways, that carve through the city, allowing its connoisseurs to slip through one way, exit through another and circumvent the official grid. For tourists in Lyon, tracking down and snaking through the traboules has become an activity akin to a real-life treasure hunt.
The image of the traboules holds a lot of mystique. Although it’s commonly accepted that their use has evolved throughout the history of the city – playing a role in the silk worker revolts during the 19th century and the resistance movement during World War II, for example – the extent to which the passageways were used, in a detailed historical sense, remains largely uncertain.
What is certain is that the majority of the traboules appeared during the Renaissance, when the city started a phase of rapid development. “It’s not a story of humans. It’s a history of urbanism, of architecture,” Nicolas Bruno Jacquet, an architectural historian and guide-lecturer in Lyon, said over the phone.
Jacquet explained that, during the 14th and 15th centuries, the city began to densify, and buildings began to multiply, particularly in the Vieux Lyon neighborhood, which abuts the River Saône.
Because the structure of the district is largely made of long, parallel roads, the traboules allowed residents to access the River Saône more quickly and perpendicularly, essentially serving as a system to ease circulation.
The traboules of the Croix-Rousse neighborhood in Lyon’s 4th district – which differentiate themselves by the hilly landscape of the district and multistoried staircases – appeared later.
“In the Croix-Rousse, you have traboules that are stairs. These stairs were constructed when the weavers arrived, what we call the canuts,” Claude de Sars, a guide-lecturer in Lyon, explained in a phone call. “The difference is the stairs in the Croix-Rousse versus the small traboules in Vieux Lyon that connect two parallel roads.”
I was on my way to meet Jacques Rossiaud, a historian who specializes in Lyon’s history, at his apartment in the center of the city. From the Place Bellevue, a viewpoint over the city in the Croix-Rousse, I dipped down some stairs onto the Rue Mottet De Gérando, following a map from René Dejean’s “Traboules de Lyon: Histoire secrète d’une ville.”
The wooden, unmarked door signaled in the book looked indistinguishable from the rest. I pushed it open; it was unlocked. Inside, a salmon-pink courtyard encompassed a large staircase, spiraling downward.
The exit was now closed – something common nowadays – so I climbed back up and took the stairs bordering the building down to the Rue Bodin, making my way to the Place Colbert, walking through the small doorway marked Number 9.
This is one of the entrances to the Cour des Voraces, the most famous traboule in the Croix-Rousse, with its towering stairwell. Street art dots the courtyard, giving way to more stairs snaking downward, leading to a passage that exits onto the Rue Imbert Colomès.
I continued to follow Dejean’s map, dipping in and out of traboules – though some were now closed, as the work was published in 1988 – feeling like a kid in a grown-up’s body on a sort of secret mission. Finally, I arrived at Rossiaud’s door.
After welcoming me into his living room, which carried the faint scent of old books, Rossiaud jumped into the history of the traboules. But in his view, the role of the passageways is exaggerated, particularly when talking about the resistance movement during World War II.
“We insist a lot, fantasize a lot, give too much importance on the role of the 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 one could hide themselves, enter into a house by one road and exit by another road. It’s true, if you want, but it doesn’t really correspond to the reality. One could hide themselves otherwise.”
Although Rossiaud isn’t convinced that the traboules contributed to the resistance movement, de Sars maintains that they played an important role.
“The resisters hid themselves in the traboules. … Certain resisters, unfortunately, were arrested or shot in them. So, from time to time, we see small plaques at the entrance or exit of the traboules that evoke these episodes,” she said. “They’re old passages where people could hide. There were traboules, and there were mailboxes inside. In the mailboxes, people picked up messages.”
After leaving Rossiaud’s apartment, I strolled to the Rue du Boeuf in the heart of Vieux Lyon. Throngs of tourists moved in waves, gazing into souvenir shops wielding fine silks and sausages. Cobblestones poked into sneakers and flip-flops, wending their way through the neighborhood’s numerous bouchons.
There was a crush of sightseers, and I hate crowds; when people stop short in the middle of the street without veering off to the side, which I deem the cardinal sin of urban walking etiquette, it triggers an uncontrollable rage inside me, probably a consequence of my New York upbringing. So, cursing under my breath in a perfectly beautiful stretch of the city, I rapidly searched for the gaps between people that would allow me to swiftly flee and replenish my serotonin levels.
I beelined to 27 Rue du Boeuf and pushed open the unlocked door giving way to Lyon’s long traboule, cutting through to the Rue Saint-Jean. I was making my way to Le Luminarium, a cafe, to meet Damien Petermann, who wrote his PhD thesis on the image of Lyon according to travel guides in the 19th and 20th centuries.
He sat down across from me, pulling out some printed notes, and dove into the traboules. We talked about the canut revolts and resistance, invoking all the usual points. But what really interests Petermann is the mystery surrounding the traboules – and the lack of available historical references to back up such an important part of the touristic landscape of Lyon.
“There aren’t many things to say about them, which is astonishing. We visit them, we show them, we explain what they were used for, what we know and what we don’t, and people pass through,” he said. “It’s become an unmissable element of Lyon, but when you dig a little bit, there isn’t a lot to find.”
According to Petermann, the intrigue surrounding the traboules could largely be attributed to the fantastical image of the passageways in literature and film.
“In the 19th century, there were secret societies in Lyon, and the literary image that was formed itself on the mystery of Lyon,” Petermann said. “It’s the fantasy of not really knowing what’s going on in the traboules: what kind of activities, who’s passing through.”
The traboules have further increased in popularity throughout the past 30 years, and especially after the historic districts of Lyon were listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1998. According to Petermann, the city began to clean up the passageways, many of which were run down.
The city also created agreements with certain landowners to leave them open throughout the day for residents and tourists. The traboules are private spaces; they run through residential buildings, differentiating them from the passages of Paris, for example.
On my way back to the train station, I envisioned the canuts slipping through the Croix-Rousse traboules, evading police detection in elaborate schemes. I thought of the resistance movement, imagining one person entering from Rue du Boeuf, attending a secret meeting in the courtyard of the long traboule, waiting to join an entrant from Rue Saint-Jean 10 minutes later.
I thought of secret societies, lovers and the multitudes of clandestine encounters that could have taken place within these passageways. But at the end of the day, in the words of de Sars, “The traboules are really interior passageways, nothing more and nothing less.” Much else is left to the imagination.
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