“So, are any of you English?” asks Annaliese. There are a couple of dozen takers for the English Language tour of Lyon’s Old Town but we’re a pretty cosmopolitan lot. ActorLaddie and I mumble a bit. I suspect we’re not about to be congratulated on our Good Governance.
“I’ve been reading the news,” says Annaliese. “About Boris Johnson.” Everyone chortles – apart from us. Then the tour begins.
Right, a quick reminder first on the geography of Lyon. The city is on the confluence of the rivers Rhône and Saône, usefully positioned between the Med and Northern Europe. As such, it was established as an important trading centre by the Romans and remained so when they bailed out.
The Old Town is on the steep west bank of the Saône: medieval streets largely parallel to the river. The houses have survived partly because they are built from regional stone – so no Great Fire of Lyon; partly because the city was occupied in the Second World War rather than bombed; partly through luck. Of which more later.
As Lyon grew as a market town, it became especially important for the trading of fabrics – in particular, silk – with mulberry bushes grown in the surrounding countryside and water and transport readily available from the river.
Now, if you were paying attention, you’ll remember me telling you that the streets were on the hillside, largely parallel to the river. So, to ease access to the river, most of the buildings have passageways, allowing people to cut through. These passageways are known as traboules from the Latin trabulare meaning “to cross”. There will be a short test later.
There are around four hundred traboules of which about forty are still open to the public and Annaliese took us into some half a dozen. On entry, you feel as if you are walking through someone’s front door:
But the door leads to a passage:
and then the passage opens, Tardis-like, into a central courtyard serving both the building you’ve just walked through and the one backing onto it. The courtyards contain a spiral staircase – still, mostly, the only way of accessing the buildings. We saw some chap lugging his bike down the staircase. Must be murder if you’ve got young children.
The courtyard also contained a well and sometimes a privy; still there in the examples we saw, though not still in use!
All pretty prosaic stuff – until you look up.
It’s the combination of colour and height and light and shape which makes these spaces so beautiful.
I mentioned earlier that luck played a part in the preservation of these buildings. For most of their existence, the stone of the buildings would have been soot-black so nowhere near as attractive as they are now.
More than once, the civic authorities were on the point of pulling them down; in the Fifties they came very close to being replaced by something becoming in concrete. But as the city became cleaner, the traboules emerged for the gems they are today.
If you carry on through the courtyard, there’s another passage leading to the adjacent street.
At the end of the tour, Annaliese sees us off with another jolly quip about Brexit. ActorLaddie and I drown our traboules and, after lunch, visit the basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière. It’s the church you can see in the middle of the photo below.
Difficult to imagine a more contrasting sort of beauty looking up – every inch highly decorated.
Then back to the digs, passing on the way this notice.
I need to finish this blog by saying thanks to all those who contacted me after Saturday’s unpleasantness with sympathies and offers of help. We really are fine but it’s jolly kind of you all.