“ Lyon / France „
I recently had the pleasure to be in Lyon, which is located in south-eastern France. Lyon is apparently France's second largest city, narrowly beating the city of Marseilles and second to Paris. I timed my visit to enjoy an annual event, the Fête des Lumières (Festival/Celebration of Lights).
The origins of the festival can be found back in 1643, when the city was suffering with an outbreak of the plague. The city leaders promised to honour the Virgin Mary if the city survived the plague. The city survived. A small church, the Chapel of Notre-Dame-de-Fourvière, was dedicated to the Virgin Mary on Fourvière Hill overlooking the city.
To celebrate 200 years since the city was saved, a statue of the Virgin Mary was erected next to the chapel. The inauguration of the statue took place on December 8th 1852, delayed several months by floods. The celebrations for the inauguration included fireworks from Fourvière Hill and people illuminated the outsides of their houses with candles. It was a huge event in Lyon and since this time it has been repeated every year.
In around 1896 the Basilica Notre-Dame de Fourvière was completed on Fourvière Hill and became the focal point for celebrations. The Basillica (and Chapel) is located on the site of (what was) a Roman forum.
How is it celebrated now?
On December 8th, people in Lyon light candles and place them on their windowsills, a procession heads to the Basillica where candles are lit and offerings made.
The city council also arranges a series of shows around the city, usually starting around December 5th. This causes a great deal of disruption to the city, with changes made to the transport systems (buses and metro operate differently) and the city centre is closed to traffic after around 5pm each evening.
I didn't get to see every show. Some consist of civic or church buildings being used as the setting for sound and light shows, varying from external lighting to lighting and projection from within the buildings. Performances of some description take part in almost every district of the city.
The most interesting performances involve some of the larger buildings, the theatre and the building around Place des Terreaux were used for some fantastic projection shows that actually transform the appearance of the buildings completely. Converting the Fine Art Museum and Hotel de Ville into what appears to be a Meccano set or giving the impression of being underater for example. Combined with the music these shows are worth a viewing. It was particularly funny to see these buildings apparently being splattered with paint by a young child :-)
As well as the shows involving the buildings there are various installations. The most memorable for me was the "La fontaine aux poissons", which really was a fountain of fish if you're translating that! Brightly coloured fish suspended from a crane over what is normally a fountain, with projections of fish darting around the buildings in the surrounding square. The colours of the fish changing constantly.
The installations vary in size and complexity, from lights on the river, to fountains, projections on a building or even the streetlamps alternating on and off in sequence.
The Hotel de Ville (I should maybe have mentioned that it is the city hall, sorry if you already knew that) has an interesting walk through where you pass through the courtyard into darkness and rows of lights are illuminated above your head, it's a bit magical and I realised I am hopeless at describing it :-)
But let's not forget the origins of the festival. From the bank of the river Saône you can enjoy one of the largest performances. At the top of Fourvière Hill the Basillica is lit, as are the surrounding gardens down to the cathedral nearer the water. The words 'Merci Marie' are clearly visible, a grand reminder of why all this is taking place. The Basillica, Cathedral and gardens display a choreographed light show which includes the buildings seeming to burn at one point and flood at another. It's beautiful to see.
Is it really really busy?
Of course if you don't like big crowds then you may not have the best time of your life. But to be fair it didn't feel that claustrophobic. If you go earlier in the evening you'll see plenty. The shows are repeated every few minutes or so, so there's no mad rush for everyone to be in the same place. Some of the more popular attractions can get very busy though (such as the Hotel de Ville). Others can be almost empty!
How to get there
Lyon is served by Saint-Exupéry International Airport, which is a little way from the city. It takes about 50 minutes on the airport bus (8 Euros one way if I remember correctly). There is also a TGV station for fast connection from Paris.
I hope to have at least brought the festival to your attention, if you needed an excuse to visit Lyon, it's a good one! The city is worth a visit in my opinion with or without the festival.
Apologies for any lack of detail or historical inaccuracies :-)
The festival stretches over 4 days. It is a fest of gratitude towards Mary, mother of Jesus, with the peak day being December 8.