Traboules: Lyon’s Secret Tunnels & Private Passageways

Traboules – secret passageways that supposedly riddled the old city, disguised as simple doors facing onto the street.


As a tourist in a foreign country, I generally try not to draw too much attention to myself, preferring to assimilate into local culture rather than inadvertently offend or annoy. However, on this sunny afternoon, while strolling through parts of Lyon’s old city, my siblings and I were engaging in what would have looked like highly suspicious behavior to a curious onlooker. We were looking for traboules – secret passageways that supposedly riddled the old city, disguised as simple doors facing onto the street – but so far we hadn’t had a single success. Most doorways looked like they led into the residential apartments above, and all the ones that we had tried to surreptitiously tug open were firmly locked.

Traboules (stemming from the Latin word transambulare meaning “to cross”) were first built in Lyon during the 4th century. These covered passageways cut underneath and in between city buildings, allowing the city’s famous silk workers to transport their goods even during inclement weather. Since then, they have played an integral role in the city’s history as shortcuts and hiding-places for Lyonnais rebels and revolutionaries. Found primarily within the old city and the center of the historical silk manufacturing district, some of these passageways have been designated as historical sites and are open to tourists, though many more remain closed off for private use, and virtually none are marked from the outside. Having read about them in our guidebook, my brother and sister and I were determined to locate one, willfully ignoring our parents’ increasing exasperation at our antics.


Just as my parents decided to put an end our brazenness, my sister spotted an old-looking wooden door tucked in between a bakery and a cafe that had been left slightly ajar. Pushing it open, we were confronted with the sight of a long, stone-paved passageway that led straight into the gloom beyond. Success. Thankfully, our guidebook had informed us that most of these passages were now fitted with electricity, and after groping for a light switch, we started down the tunnel, carefully leaving the door slightly ajar just as we had found it. Any trepidation we felt quickly vanished; the plaster walls of the passageway were painted a warm, welcoming ochre, and the clean-swept, well-worn flagstones testified to its frequent usage. Twists and turns in the corridor were interspersed with gated doorways that presumably led to the households in the floors above, and subtle changes in incline and lighting hinted at transitions between the buildings we were walking under.

Suddenly we turned a corner and emerged into a little courtyard, surrounded on all four sides by walls and windows spilling flowers into the shaft of sunlight that shone down on our upturned faces. In here, the sounds of the city seemed far away; and the pervasive tranquility immediately reduced our conversations to a quiet hush. Looking up, I could see a little square of azure sky, framed by more shades of pink and sandy ochre as shadows played across carved sandstone. Pausing in the space, I could imagine myself as a merchant carrying silks for delivery, or a messenger carrying news from the rebel leaders; it felt like little had changed since those olden days. Not only was I now privy to the secret of Lyon’s famed traboules, but I also stood as a privileged witness to Lyon’s beautifully preserved architectural heritage – a piece of urban history that had defied the passage of time. Near me, a lone cat snoozed in the patch of sunshine, never twitching a muscle as we quietly disappeared back into the shadowy passageways, melting back into the city and continuing our exploration of historic Lyon.

Article by Asia Chiao.


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