Sunday, December 10, 2017

Playing with fire in France - Lyon's Fête des lumières

For the last four days, for just two hours a day, a big chunk of the center of Lyon has been converted into a kind of artsy urban theme park.  The theme is light – illuminations, light sculptures, and short films projected against every convenient large flat surface.  It's the Fête des lumières!

It is something to see, a French city emptied of cars and buses, surrounded by soldiers, and packed with people – several million people – wandering around, sipping hot wine, and taking what must be some desperately bad cell phone photos of light-based art exhibits.  I know most of my photos were awful.

This one is not bad.  An example of a light sculpture, the flying fish flapping around.  Or perhaps it is a bird, since I know, in spite of the bad crowd, that there is a nest in middle of the fountain, because I saw people constructing it earlier in the week.  I know there is a fountain because etc.  This is one of the pleasures of living in Lyon, witnessing not just the festival but the preparations for the festival.  To see a bubble appear around a fountain.

The short films attract large enough – enormous – crowds that I was being literal about the theme park.  Ordinary city streets are converted into cattle chutes, or whatever they call the crowd-control corridors at Disney World.  Get in line, wait, advance, wait, and emerge in one of the big city plazas to watch the cartoon.  The highlight for me was the tribute to film (visible on Youtube) that made simultaneous use of the facades of the City Hall and the Art Museum.  Only in France would the films selected for a cute cartoon make a pretty decent syllabus for an Intro to Film course; only in Lyon would the spectacle start with a long excerpt from Workers Leaving the Factory, the first film.

Curiously, the festival has a religious purpose as well.  The first sign that the festival was upon us was the appearance of the illuminated words “MERCI MARIE” on the hill over the city.  A religious procession mounts the hill and thanks Mary for protecting the city from pestilence and revolution and so on.  I glimpsed the procession on Friday while helping build a candle-sculpture at the base of a Roman amphitheater.  You can see the shape of the head, yes?

That night, the wind and rain and sleet were so bad that there were not many candles lit when we gave up.  Saturday, the weather was good and the artist was more ambitious, so it was a solid two hours of lighting candles with a gas campfire starter.  I am not sure what the design is, exactly, because by the time we had the whole thing lit, the crowds above us were too thick to bother with.

I was supposed to help again tonight, but the weather was and is too miserable.  Still: constructing candle art that a million people will see in a Roman theater while a procession of priests pass by – when else will I have the chance to do this?


  1. I see you had a great time. I didn't see all the lights but the ones on the Théâtre des Célestins were gorgeous.

  2. I jumped right in, at least, and saw a lot. I did not make it up to Croix Rousse, so I missed an entire section.

    It was an unusual experience.

  3. What fun! I think your bird is an owl. At least it looks a lot like an owl in flight.

  4. How utterly magical! I remember being in France for Bastille Day as a child, and surely the French can celebrate a holiday magnificently. Although I am a bit surprised to see the lighted spectacles (the bubble is nifty!). While I salute the imagination, I miss the German Kristkindlemarkt. With real candles and real gingerbread. Not that I'm not wishing I am where you are. Joyeaux Noel!

  5. Sure, an owl, why not. Vya notta chicken?

    The French love illuminations. Most cathedrals seem to have them now. The one we saw in Chartres was classy, even educational. The one in Strasbourg was tacky - a dragon climbing up the tower - and surprisingly pagan.

    This festival in Lyon, though, is of a whole 'nother magnitude. 1.8 million visitors was the estimate in the paper.

    Lyon now has a German-style Christmas market, an Alsatian Christmas market really. It is a recent innovation. I bought pain d'épice there a couple hours ago. Not quite gingerbread, I guess, but close.

  6. I haven't been to Lyon since I was eleven.It's fun to see it now through your eyes.

  7. Lyon has changed a lot since then. France has changed a lot since then. I have an idea about how to spend some of your time as a retiree.