LYON: A Fête to Remember

The lights at Place des Terreaux

My college roommate Angela and I have been chasing each other across Europe for some time now. We lived together for a semester in fall 2010, then I left to study abroad in Germany. I returned to Marquette in fall 2011, but then Angela decided to do a second semester abroad, this time in London. We finally got to live together in spring 2012, but after graduation she moved to Lyon, France to work as an English teaching assistant, while I moved to Madison to start working.

Finally, in August, I moved to Germany to start my own year of teaching abroad. At long last, the two of us were finally on the same continent again, since Angela decided to spend a second year working in Lyon (here's a link to her blog, by the way). We thought for sure we would see each other multiple times, but as the months dragged on, our schedules diverged, and our money ebbed and flowed, it began to look as though I was going to go four months having never seen her despite only living a country away.

Angry with myself for squandering this opportunity, I began to look for a way to visit Angela before we both went home for Christmas. I soon learned that Lyon would be celebrating its annual Fête des Lumiéres, held over a weekend every December. Having previously seen Angela's pictures of the event, I decided this was too good an opportunity to miss -- I had the chance to visit old friends as well as see an incredible light festival. I asked my school if I could have a day off to make the trip, and they graciously agreed. With that, the trip was set -- I would head to Lyon Dec. 5-9.

I was a little uncertain whether visiting Lyon during the Fête was the best idea -- although the light displays looked like they would be incredible, the crowds were also supposed to be tremendous. Some three to four million people pour into the city for the annual festival, which was originally begun as a way of honoring Mary and celebrating the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. I wouldn't necessarily be seeing Lyon at it's best or most accessible.

But this seemed like something you just have to experience, at least once. The entire city becomes a playground of lights and projections, with dozens of installations big and small spread throughout. The closest I had come to experiencing something like that was the Signal Light Festival in Prague, but I can safely say now that Prague's attempt doesn't even hold a candle to what Lyon does. It was almost unbelievable how massive and impressive Lyon's festival was -- but more on that in a bit.

As a result of living in a community of Americans and international students at Marquette, I have quite a few connections abroad, both in terms of foreigners who returned home after studying abroad at Marquette and Americans who have since moved abroad for work or other opportunities. As such, I was actually able to see quite a few familiar faces in Lyon beyond Angela.

Another Marquette grad, Lauren, is also living in Lyon this year to work as an English TA. My friend Helena, who studied abroad at Marquette and whom I previously met up with in Madrid, is from Lyon. And in addition to these two, Melanie, another French person who studied abroad at Marquette, decided to come down from around Strasbourg for a couple days. It was especially exciting to see her, because we had not seen each other for nearly three years. It's a bit strange that despite having never studied French (and having made only one trip there before) that I would be able to see so many old friends in Lyon, but it helped make the experience that much richer.

I took a six-hour train from Frankfurt to Lyon, arriving Thursday night. Angela met me on the platform, and we had a joyous hug once we found each other. It had been nearly a year since we had last seen each other, but it didn't take long for us to feel like no time had passed at all.

She took me back to her apartment, which was conveniently very centrally located. We were able to see some previews of the light and video installations on the way. The festival didn't technically begin until Friday, but Thursday night was used as a sort of practice run to make sure everything was in order.

Shortly after we arrived at her apartment, Helena came over and the three of us grabbed a late dinner together at a sandwich place close to Angela's apartment called Crock and Roll. Their shtick was serving variations of croque monsieurs, so I had a hot, cheesy sandwich with ham and onions. From there, we headed to Angela's preferred expat bar, a British-style pub called Elephant and Castle. We had a beer and chatted with some of her friends, but we didn't stay out too late since I was tired and Angela had to work in the morning.

Looking over the Saône on a rainy day.

Since Angela had to work until 5 p.m. on Friday, our friend Lauren was nice enough to volunteer to take me around town during the day. This was my first chance to really see the city proper, and although the weather was a little lackluster (dreary and rainy), I was still thoroughly impressed with what I saw of Lyon. It's not a city that anyone ever talks about or recommends you to visit, at least in my experience -- I would have never thought to go there if I didn't know people there. But it's really a beautiful city, and more colorful and liveable than Paris, I would say (which I suppose you must take with a grain of salt since it's not like I've ever lived in Paris, but Lyon just seems more manageable without sacrificing culture and entertainment).

There are two rivers that converge in Lyon, the Rhône and the Saône. The strip of land between the two is called the Presqu'île, which is sort of the center of Lyon, home to many of its sights, shops and restaurants. Just across the river to the west of the Presqu'île is Vieux Lyon, which trades the stately commercial streets of the city center for cute and narrow cobblestone roads that wind their way between bouchons (traditional Lyonnais restaurants) and small, niche-oriented shops.

Lauren took me through most of the major, must-see parts of Lyon, and overall I loved it. Lyon is not small (the metro area is home to about 2 million people), but you can see pretty much all of its major sights by foot -- and it's worth taking the time to explore. We also got to see the setups for the installations that would be starting that night, some of which looked downright impressive. It became clear very quickly that the city does not skimp when it comes to the Fête.

The streets of Vieux Lyon
 

After spending a few hours walking around, Lauren took me up to her apartment in Vieux Lyon so we could relax in warmth for a couple hours before meeting up with Angela. Around 4:15 p.m., we headed out to the city's main Christmas market to meet Angela and indulge in some of the market's food options. Coming from a country (Germany) that more or less dominates the Christmas market game, I thought Lyon's market was perhaps a little lacking in charm, but it definitely made up for it in the types of goods being offered as well as some of the food options -- it all just seemed a little fancier than what you would find in Germany.

We made sure to get a cup of vin chaud, France's take on hot spiced wine, and for dinner we each got a half kilo of tartiflette, a hot, delicious mixture of potatoes, onions, cheese and lardons (bacon bits, essentially). Simple and delicious.

An illuminated building set to a classical music soundtrack

From the market we had to head back to Angela's apartment so we could meet with Mel, who was arriving that evening from Strasbourg. This was not a straightforward task, because we were located across town from Angela's apartment, and we were starting our journey back just as the festival was beginning. The metro was a complete nonstarter due to crowds, so we set out on foot, navigating massive crowds and unexpected road closures. We were also occasionally sidelined by the displays themselves, as we finally got a chance to see what this year had in store.

I was amazed by what we saw -- videos projected onto massive ferris wheels with accompanying fireworks and pyrotechnics, building facades lit up in synchronization with a classical music soundtrack... you began to see what a huge endeavor the whole festival was, both in terms of presentation and logistics, and how much thought was put into each individual display.

Since Mel was just as hampered by the massive crowds, we were still able to beat her to the apartment despite our slow going. Seeing her for the first time in nearly three years was wonderful  -- it's always nice to know that friendships can continue to thrive across great distances and long spans of time. We regrouped, and later that night the four of us went out to a wine bar called Le Terrier du Lapin Blanc (The White Rabbit's Hole) a hip, vaguely Alice in Wonderland-themed bar that served excellent vin chaud. You could order different syrups to put in your vin chaud to give it more flavor -- Germany should definitely look into that because it made a delicious thing even more absurdly tasty. We also met a couple of Angela's friends that night, Shannon and Karen, who were Americans also working in Lyon as teachers.

The view from Croix-Rousse

The next day, Angela had some work she needed to finish for the coming week, so we headed to a cafe in Croix-Rousse so we could get some food and she could do some work. After eating, we left her alone for about an hour to work. Lauren, Mel and I wandered around the area a little more, finding a small Christmas market complete with a sort of petting zoo (although it was never clear to me if it was a legitimate petting zoo or if the goats and donkeys were just there to look at? Regardless I made a goat friend.). This part of town is uphill, which means there are some nice views of the city down below. Hilly European cities can be hell on your feet, but at least they tend to reward you with a good overlook.

That night was our main night for seeing the lights of the Fête. The evening began with raclette at the apartment of one of Angela's friends, Shannon. I had only learned about raclette recently. Basically, there's this little grill/griddle looking contraption that has a top surface for grilling/heating food and small trays with handles that you place in the middle of the grill. You put a slice of raclette cheese in the tray, put it into the grill to heat it up to the point of being deliciously gooey, and then you scrape the heated cheese onto the food of your choice. We used pre-cooked potatoes and various cold cuts. I had never had anything like it before, but I am a huge fan -- possibly going to buy my own raclette grill soon.

A display as part of the Fête.

We set out as a group of 10 around 9 p.m. with the goal of seeing as many of the lights as possible before we got too cold and tired. We started near Shannon's apartment in Croix-Rousse and worked our way down from there (literally, since she lives on a hill). The installations we saw ranged from a bunch of colorful, lit-up balls and squares sitting in a cluster, to the likely high point of the Fête, the show at the Place des Terreaux.

The display at Terreaux was a massive video mapping projection on two different buildings with a full soundtrack. This year's show was themed after the popular children's book Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince). Having never read the book, the show had no specific meaning for me beyond being something cool to look at, but that was more than enough for me. The quality of the show was just incredible -- the way they used the buildings as a canvas and played with your perspective is unlike anything I have ever seen before, and the visuals themselves were creative and stunning. Everything was powered forward by a beautiful, energetic soundtrack. Frankly, the show at Terreaux was probably worth the trip in and of itself. Take a look at this video I took of the last three minutes and see for yourself:

We saw several other displays that night. None were as grand as Terreaux, although the projection on the ferris wheel at Bellecour was fairly impressive in its own right, making use of multiple projection surfaces as well as pyrotechnics and fireworks. We finally arrived home a little after 2 a.m., exhausted after a night well spent.

The next day, Mel was heading out in the mid-afternoon, so we all dragged ourselves out of bed at a reasonable hour (9:30 a.m. -- the horror!) so that we would have enough time to head up the hill of Fourviére. The hill itself offers great views of the city, and the basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourviére and a roman amphitheater are also located on the hill.

Not feeling overly ambitious, we took the funicular up the hill rather than enduring the steep walk. The car lets out right in front of the basilica, which is a beautiful, bright building built in the late 19th century (so not terribly old by European standards). Since it's perched right on the top of the hill, the church can be seen from all over the city. The interior of the basilica was gorgeous, mostly decorated with bright, light hues that give the building a very warm feeling. There is essentially another church below the main church, not as impressively decorated but still pretty.

Inside the basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourviére

When we left the church, we spent some time admiring the view of Lyon, jockeying for a position among the crowds to get a spot along the overlook. After that, we began working our way back down the hill, stopping to explore the remains of a Roman amphitheater. All told, the ruins are incredibly well preserved, and the space is still used to hold concerts today, a fact that I find absolutely amazing.

We made our way back into the city to retrieve Mel's suitcase from Angela's apartment. We parted ways, as Mel made her way to the train station and Angela and I wondered around the city in search of food. We bummed around for a bit, then headed over to the western part of Lyon (technically a different city called Villeurbanne) to visit Helena in her apartment. We stayed with her a couple hours, then walked back to Angela's apartment, stopping to see some more light displays.

This night, Dec. 8, is traditionally when homes in Lyon put candles on their windowsills in honor of Mary. It was lovely walking through the city on my last night, taking in the crowds and the lights and the candles shining in windowsills. It just made the city seem so full of life, light and joy.

The next day, Monday, was time to leave. I packed up my bags and Angela and exchanged a warm hug before I boarded my bus to head back to the train station. 

My trip to Lyon was nothing short of fantastic. Having the chance to experience an absolutely incredible light festival in a beautiful city while accompanied by both old and new friends is simply unbeatable. In my opinion, the Fête des Lumiéres is easily one of Europe’s top festival experiences, which is a little strange because I feel like many people outside of France have still never heard of it. Like Lyon itself, I feel like the whole thing is a bit underrated and overlooked by much of the rest of the world.

But, perhaps that's the way Lyon prefers it -- it doesn't really seem to me like a city that thinks it needs to prove itself. The Lyonnais know exactly what a gem of a city they have, and I hope more people take the time to discover this city for themselves.