A towering Gothic cathedral that’s stood solidly on a square in Lyon for centuries has just come crashing down, only to be reassembled in brilliant abstract swirls of color. Glowing birds swoop through the night sky. And a unicorn joins flying horses on a hillside that’s glittering with candles.
Everywhere you look, Lyon is constantly transforming as colorful moving images appear on buildings and glowing kinetic sculptures and lighted decorations fill the streets.
I was fortunate enough to be in the city for its annual Fête des lumières, a December tradition that predates most festivals of light anywhere else. Lyon is the starting or ending point for cruises on France’s Rhone and Saone rivers and itineraries often include two or three days docked in the city.
Lyon’s festival is a phenomenon that draws 3-million visitors from across Europe each year, but is virtually unknown in North America. Here’s a brief look at what you’re missing:
A long-developing tradition
Lyon’s annual festival of lights started with a uniquely Lyonnaise tradition of lighting up every window with votive candles in honor of Mary, the mother of Jesus, on the Dec. 8 Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
By the 1960s, it expanded with a competition for the best-lit shop windows, and in later years evolved again into a festival of lighting art, with artists competing to light up and project scenes on the city’s many ornate buildings and churches.
Even though the festival coincides with the Christmas season, the artworks aren’t seasonal and they only appear for the four days of the festival and aren’t repeated in later years. Planning for the event starts in January, with hundreds of lighting artists submitting concepts based on the latest in lighting technology to an organization called the Lighting Urban Community International, which started in Lyon but now has members involved in light art in dozens of countries around the world.
Winning artists receive grants and spend months setting up their installations, whose vivid video shows can be so large they can cover entire buildings or even hillsides.
Seeing as much as possible
The festival covers so much of old Lyon that it will take at least three full evenings to hope to see everything. There are three main routes through the city and some of the exhibits are so popular there are long queues that barely move through the narrow streets.
A highlight of the 2017 event was a 15-minute spectacle on the Gothic façade of the Saint-Jean Cathedral that by stages tore down and rebuilt the structure in fantastic abstract forms to the accompaniment of a musical score. Called Unisson, the soaring light show is the creation of “dreamer” Helen Eastwood and lighting designer Laurent Brun and it held the assembled crowd in awe.
The city hall and fine arts museum around the Place des Terreaux square became the screen for Enoha Fait son Cinéma, an homage to the movies by video designer Nathanaëlle Picot that has the main character Enoha—a seven-year old girl– moving happily through scenes that reference everything from early silent films to James Bond to Hollywood musicals.
Another stunningly dramatic effect was Golden Hours by Jacques Rival that turned a statue in The Place des Jacobins into what appeared to be a mantle clock inside a vast glass dome. It came dramatically to life with a light show and puffs of smoke every quarter hour.
Most popular of all was the vast projection across an entire valley of the fantasy of horses from the sky coming to earth. The otherworldly flying steeds mingled with real horses who pranced and galloped in lighted liveries across the ancient stage of a Roman ampitheater on the Fourviere hill. Called Balaha, it was produced by video producer Damien Fontaine and brought excited cheers and gasps from the packed crowd gathered on a cobblestone courtyard at the base of the hill.
Flashes of creativity have lasting benefits
The popularity of the festival has had an impact on the appearance of Lyon throughout the year. To act as bright canvases for the light shows, the handsome French Baroque buildings of the city center have been immaculately cleaned. The limestone walls of the city’s cathedrals are as white as they were when they were built centuries ago. Interiors and exteriors of public buildings are impressively lit in dramatic colors.
And the festival is having spinoff effects in cities across the globe. Lighting artists who had their start in Lyon have done installations in recent lighting exhibitions in Montreal and Hong Kong.
As brilliant as they are, these shows are fleeting. Most of the displays for the Lyon festival were purpose-built for the festival and won’t be repeated.
To join the fun
Lyon is super busy during the festival that runs from Dec. 7 to Dec 10 each year. You’ll need to make a hotel booking months in advance. And because restaurants are stretched, it’s also a good idea to make dinner reservations as well.
The festival events happen in the evening, when the temperatures can cool to near freezing, so it’s essential to dress in layers. Comfort takes precedence over style in the days of the festival; a lot of walking is involved and comfortable shoes are essential. It can rain, so a waterproof jacket and umbrella are wise accessories. In the darkness, it’s also easy to get separated in the crowds from your companions, so it’s also a good idea to have a colored light or luminaire to signal your location.
More information on visiting is on the OnlyLyon website.
Canadians have a logistical advantage because Air Canada offers daily direct flights to Lyon from Montreal. They’re the only direct flights to the city from North America.