Lyon has just celebrated its Fête des Lumières – France’s biggest winter festival – a massive festival of lights and I was there. And by massive, I mean that surprisingly it’s the world’s third biggest annual event (in terms of visitor numbers) after Rio carnival and Oktoberfest. Who knew? Certainly not me. With an estimated 3-4 million visitors, it really is massive!
Quiet beginnings for la Fête des Lumières
But it hasn’t always been this way, it only really started to get big about 15 years ago, originally it was a quiet affair which began in the 19th century. A golden statue of the Virgin Mary was erected on Fourvière hill, next to the Basilica, in gratitude for saving Lyon from the Plague (many centuries before). The date for the inauguration was planned for the 6th of September 1852 but owing to floods it was delayed for two months until the 8th of December. A series of manifestations including fireworks were planned for the day but they were cancelled because of bad weather. In their disappointment, having had the celebrations delayed already, the people of Lyon spontaneously lit up their windows with candles in coloured jars. Thus a tradition was born which continues to this day. In 1989 the city of Lyon started illuminating the main historical sites and the rivers though it wasn’t until 1999 that the festival was officially declared over a 4 day period and it became the event that it is now.
The modern Fête des Lumières, France’s biggest winter festival
Nowadays technology mixes with artistic creativity and artists from all over the world exhibit across the city. This year there were over 70 different installations from the enormous spectacle in Place Bellecour, marking the 70th anniversary of the death of Antoine de St-Exupéry (a Lyonnais) to small static displays and just about everything in between. The incredibly varied and imaginative programme, of often crazy ideas, illuminates the city for 4 days around the 8th of December and is completely free.
I went to Lyon with 3 friends, one of whom is from there, and consequently, I put myself in her hands letting myself be led around the town. I hadn’t done any research and didn’t really know what to expect. I think I was concentrating more on the fact that I was going away without kids for the first time in a long time than on the event itself. I had no idea how big and crowded it was going to be and several times throughout the night felt relieved my children weren’t with me. For sure, they would have loved the light displays, but they would have hated the crowds. We were often packed body to body going nowhere other than further into the person in front’s back. Small medieval alleyways aren’t designed for 3 million people! But having said that, the light displays were amazing and the atmosphere in the streets was buzzing with festive cheer. Outside every café, bar and restaurant there were steaming vats of mulled wine, onion soup and various types of local sausages for sale. The smells were delicious, and ever so tempting, but laden with a camera and (stupidly) shopping bags I don’t know how I could have managed a full cup of vin chaud in those crowds, I had visions of it all down my front.
We started the evening in front of the Cathedral of St Jean in the heart of the Old Town where I soon found myself caught up in the magic, watching a ballet of colours and sounds projected on to the facade of the beautiful gothic building. Its windows, doors, clock and gorgeous stained-glass rose window became the backdrop onto which different patterns were projected, morphing and twisting in time to the soundtrack. At times it resembled a child’s colouring book, then it would change to Chinese ink – it swapped from bright hallucinogenic patterns to calm sepia tones, always highlighting the church’s beautiful architectural details. It even seemed to vibrate with the music. We watched the whole show and then hit the crowds. It was on leaving the cathedral square that the phenomenal amount of people squashed into a small space became obvious. We soon realised there were enormous one way arrows for pedestrians and it was impossible to go anywhere but with the flow. It turned out this would be the only full show we’d see as the rest of the evening was spent trying to get from one place to another and mainly missing the lights.
After taking forever to leave the square we squashed across the bridge, passing the show on the footbridge leading to the Palais de Justice, briefly, as we were swept along with the crowds and found ourselves in front of the Céléstins theatre. We arrived during the show and were pushed out in a human wave before another started so we didn’t manage to see the whole thing from start to finish. At this stage we realised the extent of the crowds and it suddenly no longer seemed fun. The main aim was to find some breathing space. Finding ourselves going round and round in circles being directed to turn left, left, left only to find another no entry one way street dead end meant we caught glimpses of some of the light displays in the distance but couldn’t stop and appreciate them and never really got to where we were aiming for. Once again I was very pleased not to have my children with me. The sense of claustrophobia was deepening and by now all we wanted was to get out and find somewhere to have a drink.
Even this was looking unlikely for quite a while as everywhere was so packed we couldn’t get in and more than anything we wanted to sit. We nearly ended up having sushi in Lyon! All 4 of us love sushi, but let’s face it, it isn’t what you go to the gastronomic heart of France for and I could just imagine JF’s derision had we succumbed to the need to sit over the desire to find local food. But we finally found a genuine bistro and had a lovely meal (without a piece of raw fish in site!) Fortified we braved the crowds (and freezing drizzle) once again and in an attempt to stay in more open spaces we found ourselves in the enormous central square, Place Bellecour, just in time for the end of the last show of the night. It was on a gigantic scale, with projections across the whole square and on to the big wheel. Impressive stuff. St-Exupéry flew from building to building in his little plane and acrobats twirled high above us. But you should have seen the queues for the metro at the end! Enough to ruin the evening. Luckily being with a Lyonnaise she led us to another station where we managed to avoid the worst of the squash.
Overall I felt the event was a victim of its own success and far too popular to be fully enjoyable. The lights we saw were without a doubt impressive, unusual and very pretty but the crowds were awful. If only it was possible to see such a show with a couple of hundred people instead of millions! Looking at the programme I realise we saw about a tenth of what was on show, but other than staying for all 4 nights I don’t think we could have done much better.
Would I go again? Yes, on reflection I think I probably would. As a winter festival it’s cutting-edge, festive and stylish at all once, but I’d do a lot of planning beforehand to work out the best route and despite being a photo fanatic, I wouldn’t take a camera. Having a large DSLR around my neck was an added hassle (and my hands were freezing). I would love to see more of the wild and wacky displays but for this year will just have to content myself with other people’s photos and videos.
Have you been to the Fête des Lumières? How do you feel about enormous crowds? I’d love to hear from you.
Other winter festivals in France
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