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This past weekend, I got to experience a delightful festival for the first time: Lyon’s Fête des Lumières, or Festival of Lights. Every year from December 8-11, Lyon’s nights are filled with brilliant light shows that are as technologically savvy as they are artistically scintillating.
Despite my lifelong francophilia, I had never heard of this festival — but it turned out to be one of the highlights of my year!
The Festival of Lights dates back to 1643, when Lyon was struck by the plague. The townspeople prayed to the Virgin Mary to spare Lyon from the disease.
Since then, every year on December 8, the people of Lyon lit candles for Mary. Today, however, the festival has evolved into a fantastical showcasing the latest innovations in the artistry and technology of lights, played against Lyon’s greatest landmarks!
A Town Filled with Lights
There was a statue surrounded by screens, a ring of bikes beyond. The harder you pedaled the bikes, the more the light would change from hot pink to bright white, until it exploded in fireworks. (Kind of euphemistic.)
Buildings on the riverfront were an ever-changing display of color, featuring bright sixties-style designs that reminded me of the Beatles club in Vegas.
Some displays were simple — a display of electronic candles reminiscent of the tradition that held for centuries.
And sitting on the highest point in town, the words “Merci Marie” were illuminated for all to see.
The Best Show
The best show we saw was at Cathedral St. Jean. While several of the light shows did very intelligent work with using the architecture as a device, this show took it to the next level. Demons of fire climbed all over the church, swinging from the eaves, crawling through the stained glass windows.
I was aghast watching this show, set to new age music. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before and I can’t recommend it enough.
Beyond the Lights
Throughout Lyon, there were street vendors serving up hearty French fare that would stick to your ribs — the infamous raclette and tartiflette (basically, a cholesterol-filled concoction of melted cheese), onion soup, crepes, waffles, and plenty of hot wine to wash it all down.
Tips for the Festival of Lights
Bundle up! It’s freezing. Especially make sure to protect your toes with warm boots and socks.
Mark your hotel location on your map in advance. The maps they give out at the festival actually don’t list the names of any of the smaller streets, and it’s hard to find your way back if your hotel is in the middle of them.
Don’t buy food or hot wine from right in front of one of the major light shows. Walk a block or two away and I guarantee it will be a few euros cheaper.
It takes a lot to get me out into the freezing winter in the mountains — but this festival is absolutely worth it. Days later, I still find myself incredibly charmed — I’m hoping I can return!