The door slams behind us and we stand in the silent, semi-darkness letting our eyes adjust to the light. In the 19th century, there would’ve been no hanging about alone in this dark corridor, hidden from the streets of Lyon’s Old Town. Instead, we would’ve undoubtedly been caught up in the bustle of the silk workers carrying their finery between factories and merchants.
I’m standing in one of Lyon’s traboules, a huge network of around 400 hidden corridors, passages and stairwells in the streets of Old Lyon and the Croix-Rousse neighbourhood. Just 50 are open to the public, but they’re one of Lyon’s most famous attractions — having born witness to some fascinating periods of history. My guide, Veronique Destombes, has lived in the city for over 30 years and knows just where to dip into discreet doors, to climb stairs and venture down corridors. As we wander, she tells me how the city’s silk industry boomed from the Renaissance onwards. The traboules were created to protect the precious fabrics from rain and dirt as they were transported across the city.
As we walk along Rue du Boeuf, the old town’s most famous street, Veronique explains that during the Renaissance many of the buildings in the dark streets of Old Lyon would be draped in beautiful fabrics. Fast forward to the 1970s, however, and the area was all but abandoned, dotted with derelict buildings and falling into a general gloom. These days, it’s Lyon’s most atmospheric neighbourhood — with several of the famous bouchons (rustic, bistro-style restaurants) sitting alongside wine bars, gift shops and cafes, in streets reminiscent of Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley. It’s hard to believe, therefore, that the place could ever have been anything but buzzing. Step into the traboules, however, and the city falls silent.
Veronique adds to the atmosphere with tales of romance, escape and mystery. We wander into a beautiful courtyard painted a deep pink, where she tells us about the sneaky actions of an apprentice to the famous 18th-century confectioner Papillote. “He was double-wrapping the praline sweets and hiding little notes between the papers, which he delivered to a young lady who lived here. She’d reply by fluttering the papers out of the window.” Despite the apprentice being in deep trouble, Veronique tells me how Papillotte pinched the idea and, even now, the famous sweets have jokes or quotes between the wrappers.
Later in the city’s history, Veronique explains, the maze-like traboules proved useful to gangsters evading the police. “There was one criminal who managed to avoid being arrested for 14 years,” Veronique remarks. She also explains that during the Second World War the Resistance used the network to evade the Nazis. Corridors with twin doors would confuse those in pursuit of Resistance fighters and enable messages to be delivered to either end, so as not to attract attention to just one address.
In Old Lyon, many of the courtyards visible from the main streets contain galleried towers called belvederes, with glass-less windows spiralling up their outer wall. “In medieval times, there would’ve been no windows in buildings,” says Veronique. “So they built belvedere towers for people to climb up and get some light and fresh air.”
As we disappear down another corridor and take a staircase down, we open a door and emerge onto the banks of the Rhône River. The street is quiet and it’s a chance to get some fresh air. As I admire the Presqu’île district before me, I take a few deep breaths and prepare myself to go back into the old town. I haven’t seen enough yet and, if it gets a bit much, I now know just where to escape into a traboule for some quiet contemplation.