Last weekend a friend and I spent the weekend in Lyon for the Fête des lumières, or the Festival of Lights. We found lodging through Couchsurfing, a web site where people agree to host visitors for free. It was my first time couchsurfing, so I didn’t know what to expect.
We arrived in Lyon late due to a fire in a tunnel that blocked up traffic for at least half an hour. As it was already 10:30pm and our host was a woman in her 80s, we thought that she would just let us in and then we’d be in for the night. However, instead of pajamas and slippers she was wearing a skirt and boots, and after a brief conversation, she said, “Shall we go out and see the Fête des lumières now?”
And so at 11pm, the three of us headed out into the cold and walked through the Croix Russe tunnel, the longest tunnel in Europe. It had only opened two days prior. Closed to cars, it is traversed uniquely by pedestrians, bikes, and buses. The tunnel was en pleine forme for the Fête des lumières.Moving images covered the walls: of Lyon and distant places; of gymnasts, dancers, and skateboarders; of animals, flowers, and colors. At times the projections submerged us into the deep sea. At other times they flung us into space among the constellations.The unexpected closure of the tunnel at midnight forced us to take another route home. It was freezing cold, although apparently I was the only one who felt it, as my friend and our host strolled and chatted easily and as if there was no rush to get inside.
We did come upon this magical land of lights, which brightened up our nighttime walk.We arrived home past 1am. The kitchen was warm, and mulled wine was on the stove. Tending to it was a young Brazilian couple also staying with our host. Two Chinese students were to join us the next night. In case you haven’t been counting, our host welcomed six strangers in her home! A French woman, she was incredibly generous, warm, and maternal. Little did we know when we arrived in Lyon earlier that night that we would spend over two hours being led around the city by this adorable lady.
The following night, we joined throngs of people to see lights shows at sites all over the city. We started at Cathedrale Saint Jean-Baptiste.At Place Bellecour, a huge plaza, we watched a wordless film projected onto the Ferris wheel. We didn’t quite understand the story, but I admired how the Ferris wheel was very much incorporated into the film. For example, at times the character ran around the wheel as it turned.We saw a spectacular show at Place des Terreaux. Like the other works, it was wordless and accompanied by music. Using the Little Prince’s journey as the cohesive thread, it was a display of artistry that used the city hall’s grand façade as a canvas. The author of The Little Prince, Antoine St-Exupery, came from Lyon and so it was a fitting tribute to him and the city.According to the locals we spoke with, the Festival of Lights dates back to the Middle Ages, when Lyon was struck by a plague. The city prayed to the Virgin Mary, who saved them. Thus, around town we saw signs that said “Merci Marie” (Thank you, Mary).December 8th marks the last and most important day of the festival. Catholics will know that it is the feast of the Immaculate Conception, a holy day that honors Mary. In Lyon, people place candles in their windows on this day.
As a local Lyonnais pointed out to us, La fête des lumières is special because it is unique to Lyon. La fête de la musique and La nuit des musées are celebrated in many regions, but only Lyon holds this lights extravagnza leading up to December 8th.