A walk in the historical site of Lyons is a walk in time. From its foundation in 43 BC up until today, the city has maintained a permanent and continuous link with the periods that have marked its history.
The urban development of Lyons is surprising and unique. At the Gallo-Roman period its centre was mainly on the hill of Fourvière. This naturally slid slowly towards the Saône river and moved out further towards the east. The medieval city grew up at the bottom of the slopes, squeezed between the hill and the river. The Old-Lyons neighbourhoods, built on a narrow strip of land, hung onto the slopes. The streets, stairways and passages ran down to the Saône.
At the Renaissance, when the city was at its height, its three main quarters took on their characteristics:
- Saint-Paul in the north: home to the bourgeoisie, trade and financial centre
- Saint-Jean in the middle: home to the high clergy and the aristocracy
- Saint-Georges in the south: home to the craftsmen.
The area continued to evolve throughout the XVII and XVIII centuries; the centre of gravity of Lyons changed and the town experienced new growth. The city began to develop on the other side of the Saône and Old Lyons fell into abandon and neglect; it narrowly missed total demolition and major roadworks. Then, in 1964, thanks to the Malraux law, Old Lyons became the first protected sector in France. The old stone and ancient restored houses took on a new lease of life.
Please note that two itineraries are available at the bottom of this page :
- Parcours St Jean North
- Parcours St Jean South.
Known for its Renaissance architecture, Old Lyons owes its fabulous conservation to the «Plan de Sauvegarde» and the Malraux law which has protected the sector since 1964. The bourgeois architecture was very influenced by Italy and the capital. The quarter really became inhabited during the Carolingian period (towards 800) under the influence of Charlemagne, then in the Middles Ages. This period left its heritage of large churches and landmarks (Saint-Georges, Saint-Paul and Saint-Jean), the Manécanterie, but also, and mainly, the street tracks. It was during this period that the quarter was laid out and the wide roadways, parallel with the Saône, were traced. The roads we walk today are the same as those of the Middle Ages.
At the end of the medieval period and then the Renaissance the quarter was at its peak. It was also at this time that the land was divided into lots – narrow bands of ground ("piano keys”) along the main throughways such as the rue Tramassac, the rue Saint-Jean and the rue Saint-Georges.
- Purpose and usage
Archaeological studies carried out during the restoration of certain Old Lyons buildings have shown how this land was used. A first house of one or two floors, with its façade facing the street, was built; the bottom of the strip was occupied by a barn, a garden or a courtyard. At this time, daily activities took place outside: household activities, cooking, latrines, waste. A second house was often then built at the bottom of the strip of land. The two houses were thus separated by a courtyard which usually contained a well and a staircase, mainly spiral and built into a tower.
This tower had two roles: being high, it was first an observation post and then a symbol of the proprietor’s power. The two buildings communicated via a system of galleries accessible from the tower and the stairwell.
Access to the courtyard from the street was via a passage called an “alley”, often vaulted and highly decorated. Some of these lots which were between two streets could be accessed and traversed from each street, from the front or the back; the term “traboule", specific to Lyons, was born.
In contrast with the street facades, mainly of a simple architecture, the courtyard decorations were more elaborate with sculpted decorations. The galleries on different floor levels even allowed for elaborate decorations in the vault ribs themselves, in the archways, on the bases, etc.
- A new morphology
The last period, more recent (XVI and XVII centuries), changed the morphology of medieval Old Lyons. From then on the buying power and the lifestyles of rich families and bankers enabled them to buy several neighbouring lots and unite them behind large walls. For example: the house of Gadagne, the gallery Philibert de l’Orme (communication system), 21 rue Juiverie which included the passage that separated the two lots, or even place du Change where the Thomassin House incorporated a part of the street.
In the XVIII century, and in spite of the construction of some public buildings such as the Loge du Change, the quarter was abandoned in favour of the Peninsula. The quarter became so poor and degraded that in the beginning of the 1930s renovation projects were proposed.
At the same time, the demolition of the Renaissance houses on the rue Mercière was planned. This was the start of a violent national debate. The intervention of the Minister of Culture, André Malraux, in 1964 saved Old Lyons with the exception of the northen part of the rue Mercière.
- The traboules
It is impossible to come to Lyon without strolling through Old Lyon and its traboules. These little passageways allow you to get from one street to another by traversing courtyards and buildings. Just look up to see a few architectural curiosities, such as spiral staircases that were a feature of the Renaissance or the galleries popular in the seventeenth century. For example, 27 rue du Boeuf features the longest traboule in Old Lyon, taking you through four courtyards and four buildings to emerge near la Place Saint-Jean which is home to the magnificent Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Lyon Cathedral.
- The threat of destruction
During the Renaissance, its peak, neighborhoods are organized around three religious buildings: in the south, Saint George with the craftsmen; central location, Saint John, area of the upper clergy and aristocracy; in the north, Saint Paul district of the "bourgeoisie", financial and commercial center. Large families of Italian bankers and merchants have established themselves, by building sumptuous residences.
In 1960, the Old Lyon was in a sad state. Many buildings were threatened and urban projects planned destruction and mutilation. Thanks to the action of the State ( André Malraux, Minister of Culture ), the association "Renaissance Vieux Lyon" and the City, Old Lyon was the first French Quarter "safeguarded area" in 1964.
Winding their way through buildings, courtyards, and up and down staircases, Lyon’s secret covered passageways, or traboules, are an ideal way of visiting the city’s hidden and colourful past.
Every traboule is different though. Each has a unique pastel colour, a particular curve or spiral staircase, vaulted ceilings or Renaissance arches.
Some have counted as many as 400 traboules in Lyon, but just over 40 are open to the public, each clearly marked with a small identifying seal. It’s the atmospheric Vieux Lyon and the arty Croix Rousse that house the lion’s share.
Why do we say “traboule”?
The word ‘traboules’ is a corruption of the Latin ‘trans-ambulare’, or ‘to pass through’, dating back to the 4th century, allowing folk more direct access to the town’s fresh water source than the winding streets provided.
A wander through the history of the traboules
The first examples of traboules are thought to have been built in Lyon in the 4th century. Due to lack of water and malfunctioning aqueducts, the inhabitants of what was Lugdunum had to move to the banks of the river Saône, in the lower town, at the foot of Fourvière hill. The traboules were dreamed up to allow people to get from their homes to the river quickly.
In Vieux Lyon (5th district), most streets run parallel to the river, making it tricky to get from one street to the next without having to make a huge detour, so courtyards with connected through a network of passages and a large number of shortcuts were created. The traboules of the Lyon’s Old Quarter thus allowed workers and craftspeople to transport clothes and other textiles more quickly through the city while remaining sheltered from the miserable weather.
A century later it saw an entirely different use. During the Second World War, the traboules were used by the resistance for secret meetings, thus preventing the Nazis from occupying the whole of Lyon.
The longest traboule
The longest traboule in Lyon runs between 54 Rue Saint-Jean and 27 Rue du Bœuf, and a famously picturesque traboule begins at 9 Place Colbert/14 bis montee Saint Sebastion, and features a historic six-story external staircase.
The experience for visitors
Visitors are usually enchanted by Old Lyon, especially by the square in front of the Gothic St. Jean Cathedral, the inside of the Cathedral and the beautiful view to the Notre-Dame Basilica at Fourvière Hill. It is amazing to realize that it was actually here that the city was founded by Romans in 43BC.
The Gothic St. Jean Cathedral is one of the highlights of the city. It took 300 years to build and each panel tells a biblical story including the tale of Adam and Eve and the tree of wisdom. The interior of the Cathedral is magnificent with baroque-style paintings on the walls, 13th and 14th century stained glass above the altar and halls, and a medieval astronomical clock dating back to 1383.
Another highlight of Vieux Lyon are the passageways, called traboules, hidden between buildings. Some are shortcuts to the river, others to the town’s main streets. During WWII traboules were used as hiding places for French resistance efforts.
By wandering deeper into Vieux Lyon one can get to Place de la Basoche. Its coral-colored Renaissance building and courtyard are often pictured in photographs and paintings of the Old City. The Musee Des Miniatures Et Decors De Cinema is located there. There are about 300 old buildings remaining from the 15th century protected by the UNESCO.
The history of Lyon can be lived again while strolling along cobblestone streets. Lyon became a big trading city dating back to Roman times, but most of the buildings were built during the Renaissance.