Besides being France’s premiere city for gastronomic delights, Lyon is also famous for its traboules, the hidden passageways and staircases woven throughout the buildings and courtyards of Old Lyon. Dating back to the 4th century, the traboules allowed Lyon’s citizens a more direct route to their water supply, the Saône River.
Lyon was also a major Knights Templar stronghold since it was the departure point for overland crusades to Jerusalem. The Templars, it is believed, added to the existing traboules by building subterranean passages, allowing them the secrecy they desired in their activities. When Philip the Fair of France ordered the roundup and detention (and torture and murder) of the Templars in France in 1307, it seems the Templars located in Lyon escaped Philip’s dragnet by using the secret passages to avoid capture.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, Lyon was important in the silk trade with Italy, boasting 25,000 silk looms in the city. Ships laden with silk would dock on the quai running along the Saône. The streets of Old Lyon were laid out to run parallel to the river. The solid blocks of tall Renaissance apartments did not allow for cross streets, so the courtyards of these buildings were connected by secret passages and stair wells which allowed for shortcuts through the old city.
These passages were especially helpful to the silk merchants, who could transport their silk from the river into the heart of Lyon using the traboules. It not only saved them time and work, but protected their precious silk from inclement weather. Ever see silk fabric that has been spotted with water?
The traboules are hidden behind massive doors throughout the old section of Lyon, many of them closed off to the public. However, there are numerous traboules available for the public to explore if you know how to look for them. Facing a closed door, you will see the key pad for accessing the apartments within. If this is an accessible passageway, you will also notice a small, white square with a white raised button in the middle. This indicates that the traboule can be accessed by the general public.
The architectural design of the traboules is fascinating. Some of the ceilings in the passages are frescoed; some are vaulted. The covered staircases are equally impressive, though quite a few of these are closed off by iron gates to protect the privacy of those living there. In any case, visiting Lyon’s traboules are a step back in time. A word of caution: when visiting the traboules please do so quietly so as not to disturb the residents.
If you’re interested in the fate of the Knights Templar, join Hardy Durkin in his next travel mystery, Engadine Aerie, to be released 26 April, 2017.