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The Bright Lights of Lyon! By Lucy Franklin

Lyon’s Festival of Light seems to announce the arrival of christmas time in the Rhône-Alpes with typical French flair and panache for the theatrical and demonstrable art of imagery.

Since 1852 the residents of Lyon have celebrated the anniversary of the unveiling of a gold-leafed, bronze statue of the Virgin Mary on the Fourviere hillside overlooking Lyon.

On average, Lyon’s ‘Fête des Lumieres’ event means that Lyon welcomes over 4 million visitors during 4 days of eventful celebrations. Visitors, both local and international, all come to view the 80, or so, different light projects that are staged throughout the city.

Around 8 million small candles are also sold in Greater Lyon, and surrounding towns, to be placed on window ledges at dusk on the 8th December as a ‘thank you’ to the Virgin Mary (or Saint Marie, as she is known in France.)

This delightful tradition was a surprise to me the day before we visited Lyon for the event. When I picked up Ellis from his village school in Perreux, Roannais, all the children came out carrying lit candles that they then placed on the window ledges around the school – so sweet!

Anyway, back to Lyon!

For the very first time we visited Lyon’s Fête des Lumieres this year. We were a little apprehensive, wondering just how busy the Lyon was going to be, and where on earth we would park.

We arrived early afternoon on the Saturday – Day 2 of the event – and were pleased to drive into Lyon without much of a problem, and we eventually ended up parking at ‘Perrache’, Lyon’s main railway station. We walked into Lyon centre.

As dusk fell the light show began, and this grand city was illuminated. We wandered from one venue to another (albeit very slowly due to the vast numbers of people.) The atmosphere was magical!

Whilst at one time the buildings would have been lit up fairly simply, with advancing technology this has now meant that incredibly spectacular , colourful, and animated displays illuminate the great facades of the churches and various historical and important buildings.

Music and commentary is piped through loudspeakers, helping to create the overall atmosphere – from choirs singing outside the cathedral Saint Jean-Baptiste in Vieux-Lyon (Old Lyon), to the fantastic and elaborate children’s story told and animated at the Hotel de Ville.

Of course, the streets are decorated for christmas and this adds to the festive cheer, along with the annual ‘Big Wheel’ that graces La Bellecour, and the traditional Swiss market that fills the square near Perrache station.

Both of which are well worth a visit – though I did leave it to my husband, Brian and son, Ellis, to test the wheel which was 60 metres high with open carriages and no strapping-in! Definitely not for me!

Although we only managed to visit 7, or so, of the special light shows we really felt that we had got a true flavour of the whole event. We had certainly walked far enough, and had been in Lyon for over 7 hours!

Lyon, as a truly international and cosmopolitan city, does France proud with this spectacle. Whilst showing off the beautiful architecture of its many historical buildings in an imaginative and technologically brilliant way, it does not forget the fundamental religious historical basis, and true meaning, of its Fête de Lumiere.

We will certainly be back next year to soak up this pre-Christmas festival, and marvel at the night-time beauty of one of our favourite cities!

Some Interesting Facts!

Following the wishes of the Lyon magistrates in 1643, to mark the end of the plague, the 8th September was chosen as a festival to celebrate the event.

This date was also then chosen to inaugurate the grand bronze statue of the Virgin Mary, placed on the new dome of the steeple that dominates the city.

This statue, measuring 5.6 metres in height, was a commission of the sculptor, Fabisch, who in 1863 was to make the statue of the ‘Immaculate Conception’ at the grotto in Lourdes.

For more information on Lyon, the Rhone-Alpes, and the Roannais visit our dedicated website: