If you’re looking for a “must-do” travel excursion, why not the Fête des Lumières or Festival of Lights in Lyon, France. If you've been reading this blog, you will have figured out that I'm somewhat of a Francophile...and that I have a special place in my heart for Lyon. There are various reasons for that, mainly its people, the food, and its history. But it is also the core of the city that makes it so great. In NYC there was an uproar when Bloomberg campaigned to overturn the term limits and was elected to a third term in office. Lyon's mayor, Gérard Collomb, has been around since 2001 (that's 12 years), and it seems that the people of Lyon love him. I heard nothing but good things about this mayor, and the city reflects his leadership. Lyon is clean, functional, welcoming, and affluent. It has also been making a huge push towards tourism, which has apparently paid off because the city was booming during the Festival of Lights this past December. Before I move on, I will let you know that the city gets crowded during the festival...very crowded. This is usually a negative for me. However, the people of Lyon keep the city clean, tourists are safe, and the air in the city is of a controlled revelry. The Festival of Lights would NEVER work in the US. Here, we'd end up with robberies, drunken fights, and most likely people would end up in hospitals. In Lyon, people rejoice, drink vin chaud, have a great time and all manage to do so without screwing things up. We could learn a few things from them. The Fête des Lumières in Lyon is on par with Carnival in Rio or Oktoberfest in Munich, just more orderly. An early holiday visit to Lyon will allow you to experience this truly breathtaking, and spiritually rooted, event. Two of the unique features of this festival that are unusual for European festivals are that the events take place at night, and that the festival itself takes place in the winter. This means you better have some pretty good Under Armour, comfortable shoes, and a really good coat.
A Tradition with Spiritual Roots
What started as a one-day feast has now expanded over four days. The tradition dates back to 1653 and is intended to express gratitude toward Mary the Mother of Jesus for sparing the city from a great plague. The event peaks with a solemn procession to the Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourviere (known as "The Soul of Lyon") on December 8 which in the Roman Catholic tradition celebrates the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Traditionally, during these four days, homes would place candles in all the exterior-facing windows. Nowadays, homes go all out to bedeck their homes in lights, businesses get creative with their displays, and the city's most famous buildings are bedecked in light shows accompanied by music and fireworks. I have never seen anything like it. Over the four nights, the festival provides a different theme and color scheme to create a unique experience. Over four million tourists come to Lyon to see this stunning effect. The festival has now expanded to include other activities all centering on light. From its humble beginnings, the event has become an elaborate production that has designers from all over the world lending their talent to the event. The vibrant lighting has been enhanced by video, music, and sound effects that add to the experience.
How to Work It
Lyon is kinda like NYC. I mean if you're trying to get around. You've got an island surrounded by two cities (Manhattan & Lyon's 1st, 2nd & 4th Arrondissements). What would be Queens/Brooklyn is over on the 3rd, 6th, 7th & 8th Arrondissements. Jersey would be the 5th & 9th. This makes it pretty easy for those familiar with NYC to move around town. Although Lyon is France's 3rd largest city, it's normally pretty calm. The population booms during the festival. Expect the city to be crowded and plan your light show itinerary accordingly. Bring cash so you can enjoy goodies like vin chaud (mulled wine), roasted chestnuts, and plenty of delicious street foods. Also, make sure to wear warm clothes. The festival takes place in December, so you can expect the city to be cold. I've added some basic tips to make your life easier at the fete to the bottom of the post, so make sure to check those out.
The festival covers every part of the city; Parc de la Tête d'Or, the Hôtel de Ville de Lyon, to landmarks in the old city. You’ll find that the most innovative and original lighting effects and sculptures are displayed prominently. You can get a map of the city at your hotel and take a different walking route each night. These were the sites for 2013:
Parc de la Tête d'Or: (6th Arrondissement) - Chinese Corner - The theme this year was the "Chinese Corner", executed by Studio 3003. It was spectacular. The trees were bedecked in Chinese lanterns and you could go to the lake and set a candle to float on the water on a lily pad as you made a wish.
Quai du Rhône : (6th Arrondissement) - Nid-Lum - Lighted nests hung from trees by Erik Barray brought a feeling of warmth to the area near the Parc de la Tete d'Or and Pont Churchill. There was a dream-like, surreal quality to them.
Tunnel Croix Rousse: (1st Arrondissement) - Anamorphose - This past year, Hélène Richard and Jean-Michel Quesne who are part of Skertzò designed the show at the Tunnel. This one will be a permanent installation, so if you want to check it out, you still can. If you do decide to check this one now, give yourself about 25 minutes to watch the whole show.
Rue Royale: (1st Arrondissement) - Let's Stroll in the Woods -
Bergers du Rhone - Pont Morand: (1st/6th Arrondissement) -Le Village Dans Le Ciel - These charming homes in the sky recall a magical wonderland where I imagined forest dwellers would have relocated after their homes were replaced by the city.
Rhone - Up the Walkway to the College: (1st Arrondissement) - Les Crayons de Coleur - These crayons floated on the Rhone as if a giant child had dropped his box of colors on the Rhone.
Pradel - Jean Moulin: (1st Arrondissement) - La Marguerite - The petals on Franck Pelletier's daisy playfully changed color.
Place Louis Pradel: (1st Arrondissement) - Festicolor - Dar La Luz's installation projected a playful light show on Ipoustéguy fountain and dressed up its adjacent modernist building.
Rue de La Republique - Nord: (1st Arrondissement) - Lumiere Verticale - The trees in the rue de la République were bedecked with hanging "lumitubes" that added whimsy to the city as they led to Serenade and the show over by the Hotel De Ville.
Place de la Bourse: (1st Arrondissement) - Serenade - This was the first light show I ran into. Chantal Thomass is a lingerie designer who brought a bouquet of roses to life. The flowers shone in lace, pink, and flower petals that made lovers swoon.
Rue du President Henriot: (1st Arrondissement) - Nuages - Little child-like cloud lit up this charming street.
Place Saint-Nizier: (1st Arrondissement) -Les Anges Gardiens - Not sure how these delightful watering tins that nourished the flowers outside Église Saint-Nizier are related to guardian angels, but darn it they were cute.
Rue Paul Chenavard: (1st Arrondissement) - Suspension Chrominerale - This installation was reminiscent of diamonds impaled on their settings.
Hotel de Ville: (1st Arrondissement) - Lost Paradise - Fashion designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac teamed up with Blachere Illumination created a paradise lost at L'hotel de Ville whose courtyard was invaded by vibrant vegetation.
Place des Terreaux: (1st Arrondissement) - Le Prince des Lumieres - Composer/director Damien Fontaine won the Trophée des Lumières (trophy of lights) for his telling of the story of the Prince of Lights.
Gare Saint Paul: (5th Arrondissement) - Dress Code - Helen Eastwood and Laurent Brun Helen Eastwood and Lawrence Brown styled the walls of the Gare Saint-Paul in 8 different dress codes and textile prints.
Quais de Saone - by Palais de Justice: (5th Arrondissement) - Allebrilles - Les Grandes Personnes created these gorgeous Marionettes to reflect the Lyonnaise tradition of Gadagne. The marionettes were colorful, bright and reminded me of bioluminescent creatures of the deep.
Quais de Saone: (5th Arrondissement) - Le Grand Orchestre de Fourviere - I saw this one possibly 4 times. I could not get away from its grandiosity. One watched from the banks of the Saône as the orchestra played a selection from Lawrence of Arabia. The Fourviere Church, Parc des Hauteurs, Palais de Justice, and even the parking deck next to the river were under the skillful direction of Jean-Luc Hervé .
Place and Cathedral Saint-Jean: (5th Arrondissement) - Rencontres - Here the light played off the cathedral's facade to emphasize its rosettes and architectural features.
Place des Celestins: (2nd Arrondissement) - Lumignons du Coeur - Along with les Petits Freres des Pauvres the city of Lyon sold heart candles for €2 at the Place des Celestins to benefit those in need.
Place des Jacobins: (2nd Arrondissement) - Showcase - The fountain at the Place des Jacobins was covered in a translucent cube that was used to display its beauty throughout the year in a game of lights and geometry. It was a kaleidoscope of sorts to showcase its daily existence and beauty.
Rue de la Republique Sud: (2nd Arrondissement) - Byzance - Byzantium was the theme created by Hexagon Illumination. The street was bedecked in glowing ogee arches that framed Rue de La Republique.
Hotel-Dieux: (2nd Arrondissement) - Caresses Climatiques - The hotel Dieux (site of the old hospital) was a festival of light and texture as raindrops were actualized by strands of light reminiscent of a bead curtain.
Terrases de la Guilloterie: (7th Arrondissement) - Mikado Celeste - Fluorescent sculptures made of sticks vibrated in tune with the music in a melody of color. They sat atop water that reflected their dance.
Rue Auguste Comte: (2nd Arrondissement) - Labo des Aspho - I saw these as they were being put up. They looked like ghosts or spirits coming out of the walls.
Place Bellecour: (2nd Arrondissement) - Pierrot Le Fou - This was my second favorite after the Lawrence of Arabia piece at Fourviere Hill. Place Bellecour's Ferris Wheel told a surrealist story of a little boy. There were fireworks, fire dancers and much more to get your heart pumping.
Place Gailleton: (2nd Arrondissement) - L'abime - As its name suggest this abyss was full of mystery.
Hotel de la Region: (2nd Arrondissement) - Grid - As its name so aptly implies, this show was all about geometry, light, and grids.
Voutes de Perrache: (2nd Arrondissement) - Voiture 21/Cote Fenetres - Artist Milosh Luczynski put you on a magical train trip where you'd go from pastoral scenes to busy city streets.
Pole de Loisir: (2nd Arrondissement) - Water Light Graffiti - This one was made of lots of LEDs that would light up when they touched water. It begged to be played with and touched. I'd love to have a wall like this at home.
Mur des Lyonnais: (1st Arrondissement) Dessine Moi Des Lumieres - This was another award winner for the 2013 Fete. The building that served as light's canvas came alive with people in their daily routine, playing instruments and coquettishly dancing to the lively music that filled the streets.
Darse Nautique: (2nd Arrondissement) - Flammes - Sponsored by Toshiba and executed by "La Machine" was made up of sculptures lit by fire on the river.
Place Sathonay: (1st Arrondissement) - Experimentations Etudiantes - This was one of 15 student projects submitted for the Fete des Lumieres. The contest was open to all higher education students whose aim was to direct the light in the streets of Lyon.
Amphiteatre des 3 Gaules: (1st Arrondissement) - 40 Hexaedres - Cute, small and fun. This one was made up of 4 lines of ten cubes that danced around as if in a futuristic dance hall.
Montee de la Grande Cote: (1st Arrondissement) - Un Printemps en Hiver - The lights of this installation were meant to bring a touch of Spring to wintery Lyon. Instead of flowers, trees were dressed up in lights.
Esplanade de Gros Caillou: (1st Arrondissement) - Metamorphose 2 - Reminiscent of a child's toys, this area was lit up by cubes and spheres decorated in brightly colored shapes.
Place Colbert: (1st Arrondissement) - Luminon - I have to admit this one was a bit spooky. It reminded me of tripe, or some sort of internal organ, or was it origami paper?
Passage Thiaffait: (st Arrondissement) - Street Score/Partition de Rue - This one was not as impressive as the rest, seemed to be just light fixtures in the Passage.
Tips for Your Visit During La Fete Des Lumieres
Book Lodging Early: It’s important to plan your trip early. Hotels, particularly the budget hotels, will fill up early. You’ll also have to realize that although the events happen at night, they tend to end “early” because of the weather. I'm not a fan of hotels, so I usually stay in an Airbnb apartment. Stephane is an amazing host and his flat is gorgeous. You will love it.
Bring Warm Clothing: Lyon is located in northern France, near the Alps and get quite cold in early December. There are also two rivers which make the city colder. Make sure to layer up and bring hats, scarves, and gloves. I even bring hand warmers, it's cold out there and if you're freezing you won't be able to enjoy yourself.
Wear Comfortable Shoes: You'll be walking the city, so skip the heels and get yourself some nice walking shoes, but skip the sneakers - only American tourists wear these & you'll definitely stick out.
Book Restaurants Early: And I mean at least a month in advance. Most restaurants will be packed if you wait until the last minute and it would be a shame if you miss out on the amazing restaurants in Lyon. It is, after all, the culinary capital of France.
Bring Cash: There's plenty of delicious street food and stuff to buy, so make sure to have cash on you.
What to Eat: As mentioned above, you will not go hungry here. I suggest you try roasted chestnuts (they kinda taste like bacon - makes sense since good pork is fed chestnuts), sausage sandwiches, shawarmas, and vin chaud. Also, many restaurants will sell plates of a half dozen fine de claire oysters with a glass of white wine at somewhere between 5 to 10 euros. A steal if you ask me.
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