Experiencing the Famous Festival of Lights in Lyon, France

Around the first week of December, Lyon hosts a giant light festival all over the city. From large sculptures, projections on the buildings and spectacles in the sky, La Fête des Lumières was a breathtaking sight. The first hint of the festival was several weeks before when they began setting up the Ferris wheel in Place Bellecour. The Ferris wheel itself changed colors and was soon joined by the “garden.” Giant flower and butterfly sculptures were placed in the square giving it a magical illusion as they shifted colors. They even gave Louis XIV a light-up flower cape. On top of the hill behind the square was the Fourvière with a large sign that said “Merci Marie” and colorful lights projected into the sky.

My favorite exhibits were hands down the projections on the buildings. Out of these, the best one was in Vieux Lyon on the front of the Saint Jean Cathedral. They built the architecture of the church itself into the projections and there were times when the lights even made the building look like it was falling. The instrumental music and the “story” told captivated audiences. Here is a short video I took of it.

The festival was first created to celebrate the installation of the Virgin Mary on the Fourvière Hill in 1852. Bad weather had pushed back the celebrations from September to December, but were once again stopped due to a storm. The weather miraculously improved once night fell, and the citizens all lit their homes with candles and lights before going out. This is where the tradition of the little lights came from. Every year since, the windows and balconies of buildings are adorned with thousands of candles, particularly in the older parts of the city. In 1889, it became an urban event that has evolved into the light show of today. This past year, Lyon attracted 1.8 million visitors.

Place Bellecour during the festival of lights in Lyon, France
Place Bellecour

My second favorite was the story of The Odyssey on the front of one of the train stations. It was unique in that the entire epic was told through the perspective of a video game as if Odysseus was moving onto the next level with each step in his journey. Every scene left you guessing where in the story he was. The siren songs were depicted with several large cartoon lips taunted the small stick figure. There was even a quote at the beginning from an author that I had studied in my literature class! I definitely came back to this one multiple times.

Gallo-Roman Ruins during the festival of lights in Lyon, France
Gallo-Roman Ruins

My third favorite was the most popular show of the entire weekend. Taking place in Place des Terreaux – a World Heritage site – with the crowd jam packed, the tribute to film was amazing. Lyon is the birthplace of film and once housed the famous Lumière brothers, so this spectacle exemplified the city’s history and culture. In addition, this square is the heart of the historical center with the Musee des Beaux Arts and the Hôtel de Ville as the most prominent buildings. The streets around the square were so crowded that there was a stand-still for over two blocks around the entrance. The projections themselves displayed a young girl and her cat traveling through various films together. She was 007 as she snuck across the facade with her hairdryer in hand, she battled Darth Vader to defeat the Empire, and danced with her animal sidekick to the love ballad in West Side Story. I managed to watch it twice on “local’s” night, but didn’t brave the crowds on the others.

Guignol sur la colline – “Punch” puppet show during Festival of Lights in Lyon, France
Guignol sur la colline – “Punch” puppet show

If you are ever studying abroad in France or just traveling, I highly suggest trying to attend this event. Even though it rained and snowed the entire weekend, I just kept going back. My freezing hands and feet were worth the sites that I saw and the photos that I took. Plus, if you were cold, there were vin chaud stands on every corner to warm up!

Here is the official website for more information: http://www.fetedeslumieres.lyon.fr/en

Taylor is USAC Lyon alumna and a Pyschology and French major from the University of Nevada, Reno. This article originally appeared on her blog, Chameleon Adventure.