The year is 1826. The place is Lyon, France, the European capital of silk and the industry is booming. Now, imagine a boy, about 14 or 15, with a bolt of precious cloth on his shoulder. He exits a silk workshop in the Saint-Jean neighborhood. It's drizzling and this young silk worker wants to protect his wares as he carries them. So, he takes a "traboule" or shortcut which weaves through buildings, private courtyards, and narrow alleyways from the silk workers' district to the waiting boat on the Saône River. This vessel may carry the precious silk to the French bourgeoisie, European royalty, or even the Vatican City.

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The History Of Silk In Lyon

According to Culture Trip, Lyon became Europe's silk capital in 1540 when King Francois I decreed that all raw silk entering France must first pass through Lyon. Weavers from this city grew more knowledgeable and talented with each generation during the following centuries.

Unfortunately, much of this expertise was lost during the French Revolution in the 1790s. Soldiers routinely executed skilled silk workers. Many weavers went into hiding and stopped producing their luxurious fabrics. In just one decade, the industry shrank by about 90%. It grew back quickly, though. By the 1820s there were around 25,000 silk workers in the city and 100,000 looms.

Silk has left a lasting mark on the city. In addition to its network of 400 traboules, visitors will notice mulberry bushes planted in the city's squares. This is because silkworms only eat mulberry leaves. People designed the buildings in the Croix-Rousse district with large windows so weavers would have plenty of light. The high ceilings made room for large looms.

Lyon's silk industry has also left a lasting mark on humanity--the Canuts' Jacquard looms are forerunners to modern computers. These machines used punch cards to program fabric designs. These punch cards were eerily similar to those used by early computers until the 1980s. Joseph Marie Jacquard, a Lyon native, invented the system in 1801. The city rewarded him with a large pension which he received until his death. Now, a statue of this innovative thinker graces Vieux-Lyon.

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Lyon's Traboules

Today, visitors can walk through the same passageways that Canuts used to take their silks to transport boats for three centuries, from 1540 to the mid-1800s. The City of Lyon has counted as many as 400 traboules, but only 40 of them are open to the public. These are some of the most famous:

  • La Longue Traboule
  • Traboule et Cour des Voraces
  • Traboule Passage
  • Traboule "Les Deux Cours"

People walking from Traboule Passage to Traboule et Cour des Voraces will take about half an hour and cover just over a mile. This path will guide them along and across the Saône River. It is free to walk through these passageways and they are open from the morning until the night. Visitors should remember to be quiet since they're walking through buildings where people still live.

As its name indicates, La Longue Traboule, is Lyon's longest passageway. It stretches through four buildings and five courtyards. People looking for Traboule et Cour des Voraces will recognize it when they see little blue plaques with lion heads on them. These markers will guide them through the maze of alleys and hallways that Canuts used to frequent.

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Maison des Canuts

Like most hidden passageways, traboules are not easy to find. In her Google review of La Longue Traboule, Cristelle Sfeir wrote, "Amazing experience, I found it by accident and couldn't go back to it a second time even with google maps 🤦🏻‍♀️ but it is beautiful!"

This is a good reason to visit the Maison des Canuts. This museum, located in the Croix-Rousse district, offers a combination guided tour. First, a guide takes visitors through the displays, which include a Jacquard machine. Next, the tour leaves the confines of the museum and follows traboule passageways. That means that travelers won't have to find them on their own. An added bonus: the museum has access to several traboules that the general public doesn't.

Guided tours are in French, but travelers who only speak English don't need to worry. They can reserve an English language group tour by calling or emailing ahead of time.

  • Address: 10 et 12 rue d’Ivry, tourists can access the Maison des Canuts via the metro line C
  • Visitor hours: Tuesday through Friday 10 am - 1 pm and 2 pm - 6 pm, Saturdays 10 am - 6 pm
  • Contact: 047-828-6204, maisondescanuts@wanadoo.fr
  • Tour price: 14€ per person for the combination tour of the Maison des Canuts and the traboules

Travelers passing through Lyon will understand the city in a new way after learning about how its history intertwines with the history of silk. Of course, a silk scarf is a necessary souvenir before continuing to a new destination. Visitors will love shopping at L'Atelier de Soire, located at 33 rue Romarin. This shop offers a beautiful range of silk products including scarves and ties. All of their products are made in France. Shoppers may even ask to see the workroom in the back. There, they can watch modern silk workers busy at their trade.

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