There are very few, if any, celebrations in Europe as colourful and boisterous as Lyon’s Fête des Lumières, or the Festival of Lights. It is guaranteed to blow your mind. Few European festivals that take place at night and even fewer that take place in the winter, except the Festival of Lights.
Lyon is in east-central France, and I went to Lyon in December along with a friend of mine from London. We had been in Paris, so Lyon was a convenient rain ride south into the heart of France. La Fête des Lumières is held on a weekend in mid-December; it is a celebration of the beauty of colour and the majesty of light through the use of innovative art and high-powered projection systems onto the architectural treasures of the city. Not only are the large buildings illuminated but also the monuments, streets, and river banks. It is a massive project and it is exhilarating, a magnificently presented pageantry of light that will guarantee a visual experience you have never seen before.
Many of the events take place outside of cathedrals, an inevitability for any citywide festival in any major city in Europe. When night falls during this weekend, the lightworks and festivities begin. The façades of Lyon’s old, faded cathedrals and other equally stately buildings across the city become focal points, giant canvases for coloured lights to painting them with vibrant and astounding images.
The illuminated buildings become colourful marvels that toy with your eyes and will have you questioning how it is done. It makes you wonder why you never noticed how beautiful these buildings appeared just a short while ago. In the plazas in front of some of the larger buildings, people cram inside to watch entire scripted stories unfold at various designated times of the night.Some of the smaller attractions come in the form of multicoloured lanterns hanging in intricate designs off of statues and fountains on the street and games of light that make you feel you are walking in an optical illusion. The entire festival will wow any attendee regardless of their age and will impress the inner artist in all of us.
If you have a hard time picturing what all of this looks like, let your computer do the picturing for you and look up some festival images from previous years online, but keep in mind that actually being at this event in person and seeing it live with the full impact of its sensations cannot be adequately depicted on a relatively small, flat computer screen. But you will get an idea of what is in store for you.
With all of the excitement of the festival going on in town, it is easy to forget about the pleasant city you are in. Let the weekend also be a chance for you to experience a little bit of Lyon, a city that deserves more time than a night or a weekend you may plan on spending there.
Paris dominates tourism, so Lyon is a frequently overlooked destination for many visitors, both North American and even European. This is incredible considering it is the second largest city in France, an elegant and lovely city with many treasures, and it is a veritable Mecca for French gastronomy. A number of major cooking schools are located in the city.
Once dull and grey, much like today’s Marseille, Lyon has transformed itself into a clean, chic, and dynamic city. Lyon is located on a narrow peninsula between the Rhône and Saône rivers. It is a gay-friendly city and there is a very active nightlife. But there is just as much to offer when the sun is shining as when the coloured lights come up. There are many museums focusing on various topics and treasures in the city. Many are open later than usual during festival nights, and some are free.
Of particular interest to me was L’Institut Lumière, the museum of the Lumière Brothers. They created the first motion picture camera and produced the first film in 1895. The museum has a collection of objects used in the creation the first movie, including the motion camera that started it all.
La Fête des Lumières draws several million visitors that fit into a city of maybe a half-million people. There are a number of hostels and hotels, but nowhere near as many as Paris. So, making reservations for accommodations months ahead of time is an absolute necessity.
Every budget hostel will be the first to be booked up, months ahead of the festival. Then the buyers’ momentum will quickly eat up all of the lower and then the medium range hotel rooms. The only rooms available for reservations a week before the festival might only be a very expensive luxury suite. The type you can’t afford.
My friend and I were uni students and we didn’t think or plan ahead. Just be aware that if you show up on Saturday afternoon and plan to roam the streets and explore the lights all night and take the first train in the morning to your next destination, you will chillingly regret your lack of foresight. By 2AM (02:00 h) you will wonder how you could be so obtuse. By 4AM (04:00 h) you’ll be dead tired with no place to sleep and you will begin to think you are in a homeless fantasy camp. You will contemplate your surprise that most of the night’s events were done by eleven and most people are at home in bed not long after, and for good reason- it is cold outside. (Lyon is not far from the Alps.)
If you negligently happen to choose this way to spend your night in Lyon after the excitement of the festival that blew your mind has ended, you will learn four things:
If you plan your trip in advance all of this unpleasantness can be avoided and you can enjoy the annual festival of lights as its planners intended: amazed, but warm and comfortable.
Not only are the light exhibits more vibrant than most paintings in any museum you have already visited, but the sheer scale of seeing them presented on centuries old, huge buildings will make you feel like you are truly experiencing something sacred. It will make an eighty year old feel the wonder and awe of being a kid again. It will make you feel like you are seeing a movie on the big screen again for the first time. A fitting sensation in an especially fitting locale where movies were born.