France’s second city of light
PUBLISHED: 17:11 05 December 2011
Lyon defies drab mid-winter with its stunning Festival of Lights, but this is an exciting town to visit at any time of year
»Lyon rivals Paris as the French City of Light. All through the year, come nightfall, its main hilltop and riverside monuments are splendidly lit up. Then, around December 8 each year, millions of visitors are drawn like so many moths to the flamboyant light shows created around town for its amazing Fête des Lumières. Whatever the season, though, I’d highly recommend a stopover in Lyon. Ignore the daunting industrial outskirts. Explore the centre, a glorious, glamorous, deeply cultured place, a fact recognized by its UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
The setting is exhilarating. The rhyming rivers Rhône and Saône meet dramatically here. The stylish heart of town extends across the flat Presqu’île, or peninsula, between the two. From atop the city’s steep hills, views extend to the Alps on clear days. Central Lyon’s layers of civilization, stretching from classical to contemporary, are extraordinarily rich. Although I’ve enjoyed visiting the city numerous times, until recently it was always when huge plane trees shaded the quaysides and gushing fountains offered a refreshing sight from café-lined squares.
Time to don a warm coat and see the city brighten up mid-winter by attending the Fête des Lumières. Arriving on a crisp December day, it was strange to view Lyon without leaves. The place looked more Italian than ever – and the historic links here are as strong with Italy as with northern France. We’re talking about a town that has the rare distinction of having conserved not one, not two, but three Roman theatres. Beside the two on Fourvière hillside lies a fine museum on Gallo-Roman Lugdunum, birthplace of Emperor Claudius, he who conquered England. The more neglected Amphithéâtre des Trois Gaules on equally steep and central Croix-Rousse hillside is where some of the earliest Christian martyrdoms in France occurred.
The reason for the Fête des Lumières is bound up with the strong Catholic revival in the 19th century, following the trauma of the French Revolution. Far above the stocky Saône-side Gothic cathedral, a much showier church was erected on top of Fourvière in the 1870s. The origins of the Fête des Lumières go back a little earlier, marking the occasion when a statue of the Virgin Mary was painstakingly placed up top in 1852, the Lyonnais lighting candles in their windows to celebrate.
Nowadays, the festival’s appeal has broadened and it lasts over four days, or rather, four nights. The first evening I attended with a bunch of international journalists, one Dutchman back for his fifth visit. We started at Lyon’s most obvious social hub, Place des Terreaux. Here, what looked like a giant disco ball began spinning at breakneck speed, colourful rays shooting out in all directions. The accompanying manic electronic music sounded to me like an extraordinarily loud dripping tap. Before I had time to scream for a plumber, we were dragged off.
With this wide-ranging, often experimental festival, inevitably some effects prove more popular than others. A favourite for me when I attended was Newton’s Pendulum, a ripple of changing coloured lights cleverly making a row of enormous suspended spheres appear to swing back and forth. The most enchanting creation I encountered was in a small central garden, where everything was wrapped in gold foil; it made you feel like you’d fallen into a giant’s sweetie box. On immense Place Bellecour, the equestrian statue of Louis XIV had been covered by a large, see-through bubble, irreverently turning it into an outsized snowball – we were amused.
The ambiance changes according to the night, and to the quarter. The second evening, I was joined by a good French friend, Pierre. The centre was completely inundated with people and we were swept along in currents and counter-currents. However, the crowds, rather than being drunken and rowdy, mostly proceeded at gentle speed, in contemplative mood.
Religion still plays a significant role. Big signs on Fourvière hillside gave thanks to the Virgin, while the basilica on high was backlit in melodramatically biblical fashion – you almost expected God to send down an admonitory thunderbolt from time to time. All the churches were open to visitors, and we stepped inside several to appreciate their atmosphere by night.
To escape the masses, Pierre and I walked up Croix-Rousse. We entered a tasteful red light, or rather, red-lit, district. We found a bench from which to contemplate the installation and the vast Rhône Valley lights beyond. The dreamy atmosphere was intensified by human-sized glow-worms suddenly dancing crazily around us before vanishing; flash performers also formed part of the event.
Reaching the top of Croix-Rousse, we squeezed into a North African couscouserie, where a deafening blues band stopped any possibility of talking. Pierre and I resorted to writing notes to each other, an amusing game you might find helpful in many a London restaurant. Our Berber and Blues evening provided a surreal end to our taste of the Fête des Lumières.
As you clearly need to wait until winter nightfall for the light shows to get going, let me start outlining the mass of possibilities for how to fill your days in Lyon at this or any time of year. Pierre and I put the city’s Velo’v bicycle rental scheme to the test. Along the brilliantly transformed east bank of the Rhône, we happily cycled five kilometres through the centre, uninterrupted by a single road.
Our cheeks pink as piggies’, we stayed east of the Rhône to lunch at this culinary city’s hallowed Halles (covered market), dazzled by the displays, although the area around is drab. South down the Rhône, the war museum occupies an unappealing building, but is compelling, recalling the harrowing story of how, during World War II, Lyon became capital of the French Resistance – its greatest unifying figure, Jean Moulin, was tragically captured here.
Back with brighter times, in summer, twin Olympic-sized outdoor pools entice you to swim beside the Rhône. For romance, take the magical short river-cruise on the Saône. Shopaholics will find satisfaction on the Presqu’île, and foodies will too – some of the pâtisseries here look like art galleries. On which, you’ll be spoilt for choice of museums on the peninsula: the Beaux-Arts offers an oasis of art off Place des Terreaux; at the Arts Décoratifs, you’re plunged into the most sumptuous interiors; the stunning neighbouring textiles museum reveals the virtuoso side of weaving from Egyptian times to Lyon’s great Ancien Régime tradition. There are many other specialist museums too.
Culture is high on Lyon’s agenda. Its opera house has an international reputation, while Fourvière’s Roman theatres serve as outdoor settings for a panoply of cultural events in high summer, under the umbrella name of Les Nuits de Fourvière. Don’t confuse December’s Fête des Lumières with the city’s October Festival Lumière. The latter recognizes the fact that Lyon saw the birth of world cinema thanks to its fabulous Lumière brothers. The first film of all time was shot at the exit to the family’s photography factory, next to the palatial family home, now the fascinating Villa Lumière cinema museum.
What with the Fête des Lumières, Christmas may come early to the city, but many other great festivals, sights and attractions make Lyon a sparkling stop any time of year.
n Read more about Lyon and its region in Philippe Barbour’s Rhône-Alpes, in the Cadogan Guides series.
© Philippe Barbour 2011