The biggest festival of the year in Lyon is Fête des Lumières (festival of lights). December 8th is the biggest day of the festival, which has expanded for the whole weekend, until December 11th. The festival started with a tradition of each family placing candles in their windows, as a gesture of thanks to the Virgin Mary. Nobody really knows when this started – possibly as a thank you for saving the city from the plague in the 17th century or from another illness in the 19th century? The festival itself has been going on since 1852, and this year is expected to draw 4 million people to this city of 1 million (Lyon itself has 1 million people, with about another million in the Greater Lyon area).
Fireworks on the left, a giant number "8" lit up on the Part Dieu tower. View from Fourvière hill.
Candles in the windows of a house, near Fouvière. Houses and apartments all over Lyon had candles or artificial lights in their windows on the 8th.
Artificial candles light up l'Hôtel de Ville (city hall).
The religious aspect of the festival centers around the Basilique de la Fourvière, on the hill overlooking the city. Next to it is an enormous sign giving thanks to Mary, “Merci Marie”, which you can see from across the city. We saw some religious processions, where people carried votive candles and walked behind a statue of Mary carried by priests from St. Jean Cathedral up the hill to La Fourvière.
Fourvière basilica and St. Jean cathedral, seen from the banks of the Sâone.
The big tourist draw are the light shows around the city, every night during the festival. I was totally blown away – they did things with light I didn’t even imagine were possible!
On the 8th, I went with friends to Fourvière hill. It’s always a good idea to start at the top of the hill and work your way down, but unfortunately the line for the funicular to get up the hill was an hour long so we hiked up instead. The hill offered an amazing view of the city, especially of the giant Ferris wheel in Place Bellecour. There were fireworks on the Rhône as well, which were fun to watch. Fourvière itself was lit up (and the lights kept changing). Every 15 minutes or so a green “laser” would shine from the basilica down onto the bridge on the Saône below.
Fireworks on Dec. 8, seen from Fourvière hill.
We walked down the hill through La Rosaire (a rose garden in summer), which involved a very long set of stairs that would be daunting to climb up! Lyon has a lot of these narrow staircases, in the hilly, older parts of the city, which are mainly on the east bank of the Saône and in Croix-Rousse.
My favorite part of the whole festival was the light show at the St. Jean Cathedral. The light show consisted of colors projected onto the façade of the cathedral, which would change with the mood of the classical music being played – a concert for the eyes and ears. Some tricks, like lighting the whole façade in red but leaving the carvings white, I have no idea how they managed it but it was really quite something!
We walked across the Saône on Pont Bonaparte, which had a wonderful view of the light show on one of the bridges that was closed, also with music, this time to Vivaldi’s Winter. This show consisted of white spotlights which would move in time with the music. All of these shows would last for 5-10 minutes, and then repeat. The river gave us a beautiful view of one of the small churches on the Saône, which was absolutely stunning.
In Place Bellecour, a ferris wheel with a view of the city was set up temporarily, and there were giant balloons floating above the statue of Louis XIV.
Ferris wheel in Place Bellecour.
I loved the lighting in the streets between Bellecour and Hôtel de Ville, on the Presqu’île between the Saône and Rhône (the Saône is a tributary of the Rhône, flowing into it at La Confluence). The best was Rue de la République, which had lights strung over the street and many of the civic buildings lit up. Projected onto the Théâtre was a virtual game of pinball – you could wait in line to play with a machine, with the game projected onto the face of the building! Very cool, but too long a line for me, plus my video game skills aren’t nearly good enough to be put on display in front of the hundreds of people in the square!
Rue de la République.
There is a square “pond” in the middle of Rue de la République, where a stick-man display was set up. They would light up in sync with the music – it’s easier to see in the video than to describe in words:
Light show in Rue de la République.
In Places des Terreaux, behind the Hôtel de Ville, there was a “light movie” projected onto all four walls of the square. It felt like you were in the middle of the movie, with it going on on all found sides of you. I thought it was particularly cool how they projected an image of the building onto the building itself to give it an extra dimension.
Public transport on the first day of the festival was free, so we thought it might be easier to skip the crowds at Hôtel de Ville and walk to the next metro stop. Beautiful decorations along the way! The trains were so packed it took 3 tries to get on one.
Decorations in the Hôtel de Ville courtyard.
Display in the square in front of Hôtel de Ville.
View of the Rhône.
The Friday, we started at the Christmas market at Perrache. From there we walked up the Presqu'île to Bellecour, taking a different route to Hôtel de Ville. Beyond that is the Croix Rousse, an old neighborhood where they used to make silk, one of Lyon’s major industries in the past (at one time over 50% of inhabitants worked in the silk weaving industry). The neighborhood is on a large hill, and the way up was one big light show.
Enjoying some vin chaud at the Christmas market.
Carousel at the Christmas market. Seriously, they're everywhere!
Walking up the Croix Rousse hill. The cowboy in the background is blowing bubbles.
View of the St. Nizier church (in purple), across the river.
Enjoying the festivities with Marc (Spain) and Ângelo (Brazil).
Saturday, we walked to Parc Tête d’Or, near my residence building, since the trams weren’t running because of a strike. The show here was set up as a story, with narrations over the speakers and wire frames lit up to go along.
Light show in Parc Tête d'Or.
View of the lake in Parc Tête d'Or.
My friends were stopped by the police, not because they were drinking wine, but because it was in a glass bottle. The alcohol wasn’t the problem, just the glass! In France it’s legal to drink in public (although public intoxication is not allowed). On every street near the festival sites, there would be people selling “vin chaud” (mulled wine), out of a pot over a camp stove or even at tram stops out of a thermos in one of the “grocery bag on wheels” people use. Completely legal! It’s quite delicious, a mix of red wine, rum or vodka (or whatever, really), and spices.. Tastes like Christmas cake. It’s very nice and warm on a chilly winter day, and is only 1-2,5€, so we stopped for several during the festival, a nice treat!