Fête des lumières, or the Festival of Lights, the longest-existing and grandest light festival in the world is the most awaited annual public event of Lyon, drawing over three million people over four days of festivities, with the peak of activity occurring on the 8th December. A city known world-wide for its expertise in urban lighting, the Lyonnaise festival centres around illuminating the city’s architecture with spectacular light installations. The city centre is closed to traffic and public transport offered free of charge during the four festival evenings so as to allow visitors to easily get around the installation sites, so you imagine the sheer size of the entire festival. Surprisingly, the energy cost of the whole event accounts for only 0.1% of the annual consumption of Lyon’s street lighting.
Fête des lumières’ origins date back to 1643 when the inhabitants of Lyon were struck by the plague and spared. During the outbreak, the city council promised to pay tribute to the Virgin Mary should she save them, so every year on 8 December candles were lit and offerings were given in her name. This uniquely Lyonnaise tradition of families placing candles on window sills is still observed today, in addition to the extravagant and professionally run light performances.
And this is the part of the festival that I truly like – it came from the people and not from the authorities or an event organizer, thus it is quite moving to see how the entire city comes together year after year to put on such a spectacular show for the world. Imagine four nights of light projections outside your apartment window coupled with dramatic music, millions of people looking up at your window.
Over 60 significant locations across all nine districts of Lyon become the canvas for the festival light installations – main shopping street Place de la République, city centre Place Bellecour, city square Place des Terreaux, churches like Cathedral Saint-Jean and its latest project La Confluence. Each year these key sites form the canvas for artists to interpret the public spaces through their artistic expression, transforming how the sites are typically viewed and unveiling the architectural treasures of the city in a beautiful and unique way.
We explored the light installations every night in the freezing cold winter until after midnight. The legs were sore, tummies hungry again when we got home from all the walking, yet there were so many more wonderful installations to see. And that’s why we have a Part 2 of the festival coming up…