The "traboules" in Vieux Lyon are a fascinating tourist attraction
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Recently I have started thinking about what my next vacances in France will look like and about my list of places to visit that I haven’t yet been to. The top of that list is Lyon.
A little while back I chatted to fabulous pastry chef based in Versailles Molly Wilkinson in LFF episode 47 and I saw on her Instagram that she went to Lyon for the weekend. I was suddenly struck by how far away we are here in Australia with the thought of popping across to Lyon for the weekend not really being a possibility, but it also made me more determined than ever to get back to international travel!
So why Lyon? Well for regular listeners to the Loulabelle’s FrancoFiles podcast you will know I have inherited much of my love of France from my dear Papa. I even chatted to my dad in LFF episode 29 about some of his fave places to visit in France. One that he often mentions to me that he would love to return to is Lyon and I know I have always loved every place he has recommended!
So Lyon is the capital of both the Rhône département and the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes région, in the east-central part of France. It is set on a hill where the Rhône and Saône rivers meet. It is the third largest city in France, after Paris and Marseille and is divided into arrondissements just like Paris. Whilst it’s France’s second most popular city to visit, after Paris of course, it never feels cramped or crowded according to everyone I know who has been there. There has been a colony on the site since BC times which was expanded by the Romans, but the city flourished through the Renaissance period and by the 17th century it was the silk making capital of Europe.
Lyon is the most important educational centre outside Paris with a highly respected university and the prestigious Paul Bocuse School of Cuisine based there as well. That’s where another of our Loulabelle’s guests Jean Marc Villard taught for many years. I did a cooking day with Jean Marc on a beautiful September day some years ago pre-COVID and I recall him saying how wonderful Lyon was. Another recommendation for me! Not that I need any convincing!
So Lyon is also full of wonderful French culture that is reflected in the riches of the local museums. Music and drama festivals are held every year in June in the Roman theatre at Fourvière. So much to see and do! It is a thriving hub of culture and learning.
I have found a fabulously useful app with an interactive map of something very particular to Lyon. Through the part of Lyon known as Vieux Lyon or Old Lyon and two other districts close to the rivers, are around 500 or so traboules. The word traboule comes from the Latin trans ambulare, meaning “to cross”, and the first of them may have been built as early as the 4th century. A traboule is a petite passageway, around three feet wide which criss-cross the city. They at times open out into interior courtyards of private houses and they contain a world of quirky windows, Gothic galleries, ancient wells and even a spiral staircase carved out of stone. They are a miracle of medieval engineering. For centuries they were used by people to fetch water from the river and then by craftsmen and traders to transport their goods. By the 18th century they were invaluable to what had become the city’s silk industry. During the second world war in German occupied France, the traboules were used by the resistance as many of the secret passageways were unknown to anyone not a local and so they were a great way to get around the city undetected.
Some of the traboules cut right through a house or, in the case of the longer traboules, a whole city block, linking one street with another. If you know where to go, it is possible to walk around the Vieux Lyon area, as well as the Croix-Rousse and the Presqu’ile parts of town via the traboules, avoiding the crowds — and sheltered from the rain too. And that’s where my “Traboule App” will come in handy when I eventually get there!
Now, traboules are found in other French cities, but in most cases, unless you happen to live in a house that has one, you won’t know they are there. Lyon is different. About 80 of its traboules are open to the public. Residents living around a traboule must agree to keep it open to the public between 8 am and 7 pm. But like the traboules themselves, the agreement is a two-way street. Visitors are expected to be quiet and respect the fact that the apartments surrounding the fascinating old passages are private homes.
Lyon is a gastronomic centre. Just a quick glance at the city’s tourist website shows dozens of gourmet tours and wine tours! Sandwiched between Burgundy to the North and The Rhone Valley to the South, it probably comes as no surprise that the wine offerings in Lyon are quite remarkable. When I visit, I’m going to take the opportunity to head out and visit a winery or two. Vineyards surrounding Lyon have varieties from Beaujolais to a Cote de Rhone and many others. Wine lovers and also wine professionals use Lyon as a base for their expeditions. I’ll be renting a car to get around more easily and like I did in Provence, I may also pre-organise a wine tour.
If like me you are obsessed by French food and plan more of a food pilgrimage to Lyon, you must stop at the covered market Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse. Apparently it is a “foodies” heaven! Guided tasting tours are available there which sounds like a good idea to me as finding the hidden gems in a place like this can be tricky when travelling without complete fluency of the language and also if you don’t have loads of time in the town.
So, Lyon being one of the strongholds of French gastronomy, has its specialties served in the Bouchons Lyonnais, the famous Lyon-style local restaurants and a visit is not complete without trying some “Cochonnaille”! This word is often used in the area of Lyon to refer to pork products, which are more commonly named “Charcuterie” in other parts of France.
Mobilis In Mobile by L’Affaire Louis Trio
L’Affaire Louis’ Trio were a 3 piece band from Lyon. The band which formed in 1982 by two brothers and another friend was awarded the prize for best newcomers at the Victoires de la Musique. They stayed together until 1997. Two of the band members have since passed away but their music lives on.
A specialty of the Lyon region is pink praline, or pralines rose. They are almonds coated with caramelized and coloured sugar. I found a terrific 5- ingredient French pralines recipe to make this wonderful gourmet pleasure – a crisp pink treat. Apparently it takes 20 minutes from start to finish!
Other Lyon recommendations to visit
Pâtisserie Grains de Sucres – Rue de Trions, Lyon.
Specialty Lyonnais boutique Le Sirop de la rue – Rue Saint Jean, Lyons.