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  3. The Silk Weavers of Croix-Rousse

ode to croix-rousse, lyon's bohemian silk weaving hill

Looking up the hill of Croix-Rousse, you might curse not having worn better gripping shoes as you slide across across a cobblestone step or wonder just how much higher you'll have to go. 

croix-rousse: piercing through Lyon's silk district

Central Lyon is flat, but I’ve been climbing for what seems hours.

I look up the Montée de la Grande Côte, once a country lane bordered by vineyards. It later became a proper street along which Lyon’s canuts, or silk workers, scurried from their hilltop workshops to do business with merchants and traders below.

Today, the street is partly pedestrian, starting out narrow and broadening, lined with shops and eateries and side streets that twist and darken into the distance.

Croix-Rousse hill, pedestrians, Lyon, FranceLooking down towards Lyon from halfway up the Croix-Rousse

Behind me is an extravagance of sceneries, flower pots at eye level and a cascade of buildings unfurling towards the Saône below, their ochre roof tiles warmed by the afternoon sun, like stone steps on a hot summer day.

If you continue the climb, you'll cross students and shoppers skipping lightly down the steps, eyeing you against the flow, with curiosity. If I concentrate I can imagine hearing operatic divas practice their scales, shrill voices echoing off the buildings on either side of the street.

Heading up, the cobblestones give way to a park whose modern steps are separated by a railing. No shame in using it to propel yourself forward. 

I cheat and sit on a bench I share with an Argentinian couple too preoccupied about a missed train to admire the scenery below.

lyon: a city or many cities?

Lyon has always reminded me of an onion, shedding layers as one cuts deeper or looks more attentively. More than a city, it is an agglomeration of neighbourhoods that history has stuck together, whether they wanted it or not.

There are so many unusual and interesting things to know about Lyon...

I began my uphill trek at the Place des Terreaux, a complex square in the city proper that houses Lyon’s historic mid-17th century City Hall and the Opera House.

As I began to climb, cars disappeared and people started wandering into the center of the street, knowing they would be safe.

I had entered the hill of Croix-Rousse, a once-independent village so proud that today, more than 150 years after it joined Lyon, its residents still call themselves Croix-Roussiens, not Lyonnais.

Nearing the top, a small sunlit square has been taken over by students sunning themselves on the café terrace of the Montana (an unlikely name for a Moroccan Berber restaurant) or swinging their legs over the void at the edge of the wall above the park.

The Grande Côte becomes the Rue des Pierres Plantées, and so it stays until it reaches a vast plateau where it opens onto, of all things, a cheerful carousel and country-ish fair.

But it is lunchtime and I’m not one to delay that daily event so I settle down for a delightful andouillette (chitterlings and pork, with onion, wine, cream and mustard in the sauce...) and gratin dauphinois at the Café du Gros Caillou, or Great Rock, named so for a great rock that sits right out front like a crown upon Croix-Rousse.

Plate of andouillette and gratin dauphinois in LyonMore to the point is what in inside, on the plate: a classic Andouillette with mustard cream sauce and a Gratin Dauphinois, not light, but exquisite

From the top of Croix-Rousse, the city looks a lot farther than the distance I thought I’d walked.

Croix-Rousse, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is to a certain extent organized to help the walker, and small signs on buildings help direct you towards the main sights (not always, though!).

After wandering around for a bit, you may feel it's time to start the journey back down. You can return the same way, but I wouldn't. Instead, I'd work my way slowly down the hill, winding through the streets and, when necessary, using  the stairways that appear at intervals in case the cobblestones are too treacherous. This is the best way to discover the silk-weaving soul of Croix-Rousse.

the silky heritage of croix-rousse

For centuries Croix-Rousse was the heart of Lyon’s silk trade, and Lyon the European capital of silk. Little silk is made here these days but you’d never know that from visiting the workshops and sites dedicated to the ancient art.

silkscreen workshop in Croix-Rousse, LyonSilk-screener at work in Croix-Rousse, Lyon

You'll find silk everywhere.

It is in the names: on the plaques adorning buildings whose façades are pierced by many windows, allowing daylight into former silk workshops. It’s in the word canut – or silk worker – which appears everywhere from food (cervelle de canuts, a white herb and garlic cheese) to street names (Boulevard des Canuts) to museums (House of Silk or Maison de la Soie). 

Silk is in the guignol, that most local of puppet shows born to entertain silk workers on Sundays.

Silk also pops up in restaurant lore.

Those famous Lyonnais eating establishments, the bouchons, were initially opened to feed silk workers a mid-morning snack –  potatoes, herring or cod or anything pig-related, often left over from dinner the night before. The woman would be in the kitchen (of course) and the man would handle service and the wine cellar.

These eateries, in their heyday, were frequented by men of all classes: businessmen, silk industrialists, workshop supervisors and silk workers. 

Today, we women are welcomed. And the fare has diversified to such Lyonnais staples as the salami-type rosette, fried pork rinds, various gratins (baked vegetables with a creamy béchamel sauce) or local cheeses. And wine. Much wine, given that this region is called Côte du Rhône.

I end my silk-informed afternoon at the Maison des Canuts, a former silk-weaving cooperative turned museum that traces silk’s history in Lyon and shows how it was made, original machinery intact.

Maison des Canuts silk museum - a weaving demonstration
Maison des Canuts silk museum - a bobbin of silk thread up closeThe Maison des Canuts provides a fascinating visit, not only about the history of silk in Croix-Rousse and Lyon more generally but on the weaving process; much machinery is still in working order and demonstrations will help you understand just how much was involved in preparing that precious scarf when everything was made by hand

There are plenty of silk shops on Croix-Rousse, by the way, in case you want to get up close and personal. Of course, I didn't walk out empty-handed… (Here are some Etsy shops with French silk scarves, if you'd like to buy yourself a present!)

Silk shop in Lyon FranceOne of Lyon's many delightful silk shops

wandering the streets of croix-rousse

As I make my way back downwards, I search for one of the most famous traboules. Traboules are ingenious passageways that connect Croix-Rousse to Lyon below. Visitors find them intriguing but they originally kept bolts of silk from being spotted and splashed by heavy rains as they were carried from the workshops on the hill to the expensive shops along the riverbanks. (Traboules aren't the monopoly of Croix-Rousse: you'll find them all over town, and a few of the most visited are in the Old Town of Lyon.)

So I search for the well-known Cour des Voraces.

Not only is it one of the area’s longest passageways, but it played a role in the silk weavers’ revolution, launched to fight for better working conditions. The Voraces also has links to the French resistance during World War II, helping rebels escape the Nazis who then occupied Lyon.

Traboules of Lyon: cour des VoracesThe Cour des Voraces, one of the city's most visited traboules - a passageway beneath the stairwell will take you through to the other side

Most signs on the traboule map point to the Place Colbert but once here, the signs disappear, expecting you might magically intuit the traboule’s location.

As I look in vain for the entrance, I watch others search for the noted passageway. They hold maps, point at walls and try to avoid two inebriated men sprawled on a bench.

Eventually I spot two women walking with purpose and follow them into a dark hallway whose stairs leads into a courtyard, around a corner, down a dark passage and out into a narrow alley. I cross the street and enter another dark doorway.

I eventually find not only the Cour des Voraces, but many other traboules which will, one after the other, take me halfway down Croix-Rousse hill by luring me into one door and propelling me out of another.

Traboule courtyard on Croix-Rousse, Lyon
Traboule passageway on Croix-Rousse, LyonIt’s easy to imagine a silk worker rushing madly from top to bottom with a heavy bolt of silk on his shoulder to avoid the rain

As I wander the streets looking for traboules, I discover an atmosphere that doesn’t feel like Lyon at all. (It isn’t Lyon, the Croix-Roussiens would say.)

The people aren’t beautifully dressed burghers or tourists. They are students staggering under the weight of their books, or they are old men calling park benches home, their belongings hooked into their elbows or fingers while they sleep. On this warm autumn day they are part of the scenery. Winter is a different story...

Signs on streets and shops are in French – and Spanish and Arabic and Turkish, a cauldron of cultures in which immigrants haven’t lost their roots. I stumble into an art gallery whose owner is explaining his art to a wealthy Swiss couple.

“That wave isn’t a wave. It is the evolution of feeling, of love, it is my vision of the Midi, where the land meets the water.”

The artwork is pasted onto brown wrapping paper which itself is mysteriously mounted on the wall. Should the Swiss decide to buy it I’m not clear how they’ll take it home.

There is art on street walls, too, graffiti designed to bring color to streets whose narrowness prevents sunlight from piercing through. And theater, tiny establishments which probably still smell of smoke many years after the ban, with squeaky wooden seats and youthful spectators in turtleneck sweaters, fresh from their aperitifs.

Croix-Rousse is part village, part festival, a bit of a rebel, an alternative Lyon away from the staid, upstanding plains below.

You can see the Croix-Rousse hill from almost anywhere in Lyon, a crowded incline that may remind you a bit of Montmartre in Paris, but without the street painters and with far fewer tourists. Whereas Montmartre has art at its heart, Croix-Rousse owns the world of silk.

You may be tempted to brush off silk as a quaint historical footnote but as I wander, I realize that Croix-Rousse has been shaped by silk, from the light that bounces off workshop windows on the upper hill to the homes of those who owned or worked in them a bit below.

And lest we forget, Croix-Rousse has painted its history in public, on a huge wall called the Mur des Canuts.

Look closely. Are you seeing a painted fresco or a slice of daily life? The wall depicts part of the silk history of the area but mixes it with present-day scenes in a near-mirage of reality over art. Lyon is famous for its murals but this particular one is so monumental you could gaze at it for an hour and still not see every intricacy.

Mur des Canuts mural, LyonThis is a small corner of the fabulous Mur des Canuts, one of Lyon's most spectacular murals

Even if you've been to Lyon before, you may never have ventured far from the core, beyond the refurbished and gentrified old town, the alleys crowded with restaurants, the shopping boulevards. 

Yet understanding Lyon and its history will inevitably route you through Croix-Rousse.

They say Lyon was built on silk, but they must actually mean Croix-Rousse because this, after all, is Lyon's heart of silk.

where to buy silk in lyon

Plenty of shops offer locally made silk and here are just a few of the highly reputable ones:

There are many more – these are simply designed to whet your appetite.

To find out more about silk in Lyon, visit the following:

Let me know if you've ever visited Croix-Rousse and if not, whether you have a favourite neighbourhood in Lyon!

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