Old Lyons


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.

Known the world over 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.

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 ...

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...