Follow by Email

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Les Aventures de Madame Beaubien: La Croix Rousse

Inflexyon, my French language school, held its first excursion of the month in La Croix Rousse, a famous neighborhood located on a hill (colline) very near the school.

The Croix Rousse neighborhood (voisine) is divided into les pentes (slopes) with le plateau (the top the hill). Climbing steps is part of daily life and it certainly was a part of our tour. There were so many steps that the very nice Korean women students on the tour were constantly checking to see that I hadn’t passed out or suffered a heart attack climbing the steps.

La Croix Rousse means “red cross,” which comes from a reddish-brown stone cross that was erected here in the 16th century. 


This old part of the city dates back to the Renaissance. You can recognize the Renaissance buildings by their pastel colors of pink, yellow, blue, and white. 


The district started developing in the 18th century when the silk workshops moved to the La Croix Rousse neighborhood from the older part of the city, Vieux Lyon. The buildings are uncharacteristically tall with large vaulted ceilings and exposed rafters because this is the area where the silk industry thrived and the silk makers needed such spaces to accommodate their looms.

Silk (silk=soie) brought great wealth to the city, however, as can be expected, the silk workers (canuts) endured extremely poor working conditions. As a result, they staged a series of Canut revolts beginning in October 1831, among the first labor revolts in the world. Their issues were salaries, the conditions of their lives and the dignity of their labor.  

Many of the interior stairways (les escaliers) of La Croix Rousse are made from very hard, fossilized stone. There are also many unique shapes and spaces that architects seemed to have fun adding to their buildings.  

Round sewer top is between the man's shoe and the planter.
In our modern cities, we have a vast network of pipes that provide us with all the water we need. Providing water to the residents of the Renaissance was a bit more problematic. Engineers, thus, devised a series of sewers that brought water to the people. With pulleys and buckets, they hoisted up the water to their apartments. You can still see the sewer tops in some areas, although they are now cemented shut. Our guide mentioned that as a young teenager, he and his friends used to play in these sewers. Wow, imagine!

It appears that very few of the old buildings in Lyon have been removed. Instead, the mayor and city folk work hard to restore as much of the past as is possible but also to build the new. Involved in many restorations is the re-purposing of old buildings. For example, this building on the right was once a convent. Today, it is a school. (St. Bonaventure near the Hôtel de Ville, a Dominican monastery originally built 1325-1327, was made into a granary after the French revolution destroyed most churches in France (1789-99). It was re-commissioned in 1806 as an active church, one of the few Middle Ages churches to survive.)

Local, home-grown food is important in the Lyon region and La Croix Rousse is no exception. Here is one neighborhood that promotes local agriculture through composting and distributing literature about the movement. 

With local food are the farmers markets.
Every Sunday, Boulevard de la Croix Rousse has a farmers market.

 Local identity is also important to the people who live here; they like to call themselves as "Croix-roussiens" (Croix-Roussians) to distinguish themselves from the Lyonnaise. Croix Rousse is a lovely part of the city, so I guess I can see why the people take an enduring pride in their "place." 

Once we walked up the last of many, many, many stairs into Croix Rousse, we reached the plateau where we saw a fantastic view of the city. Here is a panoramic view of Lyon from the hill (colline) of Croix Rousse. C'est très jolie, non?!? You can also see how high up it is in comparison to the city below. Way in the distance you can also see the Alps and the stadium (big white space).

La Croix-Rousse is nicknamed la colline qui travaille (the hill that works). This name contrasts the hill to the southwest on our right, Fourvière, which is known as la colline qui prie (the hill that prays). Notice the white church on the top of the hill: Notre Dame. The structure to the right of the church is a radio tower that resembles the Eiffle Tower of Paris.
Fourvière, la colline qui prie (the hill that prays)

On our tour we saw a typical French park that sports hard, yellowish ground surrounded by trees, benches, maybe a statue, a fountain, or some playground equipment. On the streets bordering the park is usually a church, most probably a café, un bureau de tabac (tobacco shop also with magazines, transport tickets and other small things), and maybe an epicerie (grocery store), boulangerie or patissierie (bakery or pastry shop), or bar (bar). This is an example of the French way of life that is truly an outdoor, interactive culture that values public space. I’ve even seen people take their coffee at a little table outside the café not only in sunny weather, but in the colder winter weather! 

Today, La Croix Rousse has a reputation as an art center. You can see art for sale in various shops but also enjoy a lot of free murals. much of which is either very weird or very comical.

La Croix Rousse was a center of the French Resistance during World War II. The labyrinth of sewers and traboules helped the Resistance hide--just as the silk makers did during their rebellions. The traboules are covered passageways the silk makers used to transport their silk between buildings to protect it from inclement weather.

At the end of our tour is St. Polycarp, a church completed in 1670 just outside La Croix Rousse. On its facade are the marks of the French Revolution: a big gouge from a cannon ball on one of the pilasters (to the right of the clock) and the decapitation of  some de-bas figures over the front portal. Ouch!

Finally, as another mark of the past, I found a building that used to be the “silk condition building” where the relative humidity of the silk was measured to avoid fraud in the weight of the silk. The Chamber of Commerce commissioned the building that was completed in 1814. Today, the building is a modern library and social and cultural center. On the outside of the building is a memorial plaque of Louis Pasteur (1822-95) who discovered and treated maladies brought on in silk manufacturing. 

By the way, Lyon has long had a reputation as a city dedicated to health since the 6th century when a bishop requested that a hospital be built. It has one of the highest concentrations of hospital beds in Europe and people go there as they do the Mayo Clinic for the best in research and medical care around. The World Health Organisation [WHO] chose Lyon for the Cancer Research International Center in 1965.


  1. Oh, Olga. Thank you so much! A beautiful article. I worked in Lyon for 4 months over 50 years ago. Reading this and seeing your beautiful photos opened memories long shuttered. I realize that there is much my youthful (25) and distracted mind was unable to absorb. Re-experiencing important journeys of many kinds, and in any ways possible, seems to deepen their impact on my soul. This touched me! Merci beaucoup.

  2. thanks for your thoughts. so glad you had a chance to rekindle your memories of this fantastic place.