We recently visited France and more particularly the city of Lyon. I wanted to introduce you to the beauties of this town by the story of its “Traboules” kind of semi-closed private passageways between the buildings. I am also officially announcing our first Slow Travel Guide. We will publish it in two weeks on 10th May! We hope you will like it as it is the beginning of a very long series!
What are “Traboules”?
Traboules are passageways that link buildings in Vieux Lyon (Lyon Old Town). Construction materials were costly, especially massive stairs stones. People used to share the use of one staircase by connecting several backyard courts. The word Traboule takes its roots in the Latin “trans” and “ambulare,” I like to translate it: “trans-amble.” To get closer to the original pronunciation: “tramble.” Some Traboules are now passing through anymore. The buildings have evolved and have now their staircase. People required more privacy and security and closed many of the original Traboules. These are the “Miraboules.” It means semi-traboules that I translate “Mirambles.”
A tiny little bit of History
If the first Traboules are 17 centuries old, the significant development of their use belongs to the Renaissance. Most of the Traboules are 500 years old “only”! In these days, Lyon is one of the few places in France where travellers could cross safely the tumultuous Rhone river, thanks to a massive beautiful bridge. The next bridge was in Avignon (the famous “Pont d’Avignon” which is now only half crossing the Rhone river). Lyon was on the Road of Silk naturally and became a place of Silk Weaving. The city was the link between Italy and Eastern countries and Northern Europe. It became very popular and was hosting several fairs a year. The king was aware of the value of the strategical place for business and helped to develop the city.
A developing city over silk trade
At this time the Traboules were places held by local businessmen and retailers. They were living in “Mont du Lyonnais,” or “Pays des Pierres Dorees” (Land of Golden Stones). They were only moving in Vieux Lyon for the time of the fairs, living on the first floors of the buildings. On the ground floors, merchants had their stalls, and they were renting flats, more likely rooms in the upper levels. They stored their goods in the basements. The higher the building was, the more expensive it was to build them, so most of them were 3 or 4 floors high. Few are 1 or two stories taller, the last level being the top of the staircase. These little hugely pricey rooms were well enlightened and used by craftsmen achieving most fine jobs.
Some few facts
Most of these courtyards are more looking like a well of light. They are very narrow. That results in very dark rooms. You will find an Arch to stable the horses and a well. The wells are usually designed like a scallop shell. We don’t know for sure the meaning of that, but we believe that it was a symbol of pure water. It was supposed to bring good luck to the travellers. The richest ones even had a toilets tower!
Vieux Lyon is mainly located at the bottom of “Colline de Fourviere” (Fourviere Hill) between the hill and the Saone river. Streets and walls have been added along the shores and contain the two rivers of the city entirely. 500 years ago, the houses were diving right into the river. Merchants carried their goods from their boats to the rest of the town using Traboules. The riverside has changed, and now these harbour Traboules are ending on an avenue running along the river.
French Heritage to the rescue!
These Traboules ended up getting older and older, and people didn’t use them anymore. The buildings of Vieux Lyon emptied as the city developed on “Presqu’ile de Lyon” (Lyon Peninsula) with wider, brighter and more modern places to live. In the 70’s they were supposed to be destroyed, as many were already. But a choice was made, and a law was voted in France. This law is named “Plan de Sauvegarde du Patrimoine” (Heritage Preserving Plan).
Lyon was the first city to benefit from it. The originality of this plan was that it was not only preserving a beautiful building but a whole neighbourhood, allowing to keep the spirit of the streets in old towns. The protected part of Vieux Lyon represents 200 buildings. Evidently few of them were already modern houses. Nevertheless, they are now belonging to the preserved area and safe from destruction too! Almost 50 years later, only a couple of houses are still waiting to be reborn from their ashes. But it’s a continuous process because the fragile constitution of the Traboules requires a constant care, and a complete renovation every 30 years!
Be respectful, please.
The Traboules are not tourist attractions. They are quite famous and historically fascinating, but they are private joint ownership. Landlords and tenants don’t like to have total strangers visiting their building hallway. Nevertheless, these Traboules usually are opened from 8 am to 10 am approximately for easier deliveries. Some are locked with an intercom and a code already, so visiting them suppose staying very discrete and silent. Without such precaution, soon most of them will be completely inaccessible.
If the city owns some of them and rents them to low-income families, the most beautiful ones are private. I highly recommend hiring a professional guide to visit them. There are very competent ones. We’ve been living 10 years in Lyon and never dare trespass these doors hazardously. Maybe I’m wrong, but I believe that private properties remain private and it would be a shame to see all of them closed to the public because of misbehaviour.
The photos I am sharing in this post are address-less and will remain like so. I highly recommend the Professional guide we hired for our visit: Nicolas Bruno Jacquet, but he works in French only. Anyway, he advised us Nomade Land Lyon which provides English guided tours not only for Old Lyon but many other lovely places in the city. The Tourism Office in Lyon also offers much interesting information. A visit should take no less than 2 hours, even more, there is so much to see!
An overnight stay or more
For a more in-depth experience, I urge you to stay in one of the beautiful flats of Vieux Lyon during your visit. We highly recommend Airbnb because they provide several worthy places. One, in particular, got our attention: “Suite St Paul.” It is a completely renovated, likely commercial space. The owners did a magnificent job in preserving the soul of the original place.
Enjoy, and if you want to know more about the beautiful city of Lyon, stay tuned and don’t miss our upcoming guide!
Links to external websites
“Pays des Pierres Dorees” (Land of Golden Stones): http://www.tourismepierresdorees.com/
Nicolas Bruno Jacquet: https://www.visite-guidee-lyon.com/nicolas-bruno-jacquet
Nomade Land Lyon: https://www.nomade-land-lyon.com/english-guidedtours
Tourism Office in Lyon: http://www.en.lyon-france.com
“Suite St Paul“: “https://www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/16489628“.
If you want to access our Lyon Guide and Photo Album:
If you want to know more about Lyon traditions: