Let there BE LIGHT
France|December 2020
Lyon’s annual Fête des Lumières brightens up the darkest of December nights in spectacular fashion, finds David Atkinson on a winter visit to the Rhône capital

Lyon par nuit. We’re in the deepest, darkest depths of midwinter but the streets are thronging with people: tourists, local families and office-leaving commuters all happily rubbing shoulders. They cradle hot chocolates and hug themselves against the cold but, most of all, they look up and marvel at the winter night. I’ve come to join them in France’s third-largest city to witness the Fête des Lumières, the annual festival of light that illuminates Lyon in an artistic glow each December. The self-guided trail of light art installations makes for a spirit-lifting nocturnal journey through the city alongside the annual Christmas market. It’s big business too, the four-night festival accompanied by a global symposium about the use of light in urban planning.

The festival celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2019 and has inspired spin-off events in places as diverse as Quito, Bucharest and Shanghai. Indeed, the British cathedral city of Durham now hosts its own bi-annual Lumiere festival.

“Lyon is the mother of all light festivals,” said the event’s white-haired creative director Jean-François Zurawik. “For me,” he added, “the battle between light and darkness has always been fundamental to the human condition.”

Back in time

But how did Lyon, or Lugdunum as it was founded by the Romans in 43 AD, become the global centre for light art? The answer dates from the Middle Ages when the Lyonnais first placed lighted candles in their homes, praying to the Virgin Mary to save the city from the plague. They reprised the gesture in 1852 when, during a winter of severe storms, the statue of the Virgin Mary at Fourvière cathedral came under threat.

The self-guided trail of light-art installations makes for a spirit-lifting nocturnal journey through the city

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