The Gaillac region is usually known for its wonderful vineyards and historical bastides or the medieval city of Albi. But now, all of a sudden, Gaillac is the talk of France thanks to the stunning, world-renowned Chinese Lantern Festival, Festival des Lanternes. It is the first time ever it has appeared in France, or even in Europe. The event opened at the beginning of December after having taken two months to construct by the 40 members of the team. It remains open until the end of January.
The festival has been so popular – 14,000 visitors last Friday alone – that there was even talk of extending it for a further two weeks. Attendance figures are already almost hitting the 150,000 mark – well above the predicted 100,000. People have come from right across France but also from Italy, Spain and the UK to see the enchanting display. Our children thought they were at a Gaillac version of Disneyland!
The festival celebrates Chinese culture originating from the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) in the town of Zigong in the Sichuan Province which has been given the pseudonym ‘Lantern Town of the South Kingdom’.
Held at the Parc Foucaud, itself listed as a place of historical interest, the exhibits are spread right through the grounds, creating a dreamy, glittering backdrop as night falls. The lanterns themselves are shaped to represent ancient stories and myths. But there are also exquisite hand-made models of animals: a field of zebra, a panda forest and a dazzling 80m-long dragon, which is made up of thousands of pieces of crockery laced with tiny lights.
As you enter the park, you walk along a park of Chinese zodiac predictions for 2018. The children loved finding the year of their birth and the corresponding animal among the twelve different display panels. (It seems that only the ‘rats’ are going to have a good year!)
There are over 100 different hand-made sculptures, built from silk, paper, glass and porcelain and individually lit up. Many stand over 10m tall. Aside from sculptures of animals, there are also pagodas and temples and even a specific nod to Gaillac itself: to reflect the town’s history of winemaking, several exhibits in the shape of wine bottles and glasses have been built especially.
There was an amazing dance and juggling show at one end of the park – who knew a human head could catch so many bowls? One very small disappointment was the lack of Chinese-food stalls – I’d been looking forward to some Spring Rolls or Chow Mein!
The mayor, Patrice Gausserand has explained that Gaillac and Zigong are twinned and as such, the festival enhances the cultural relations between the two. Plans are already underway for a repeat performance in 2018 – apparently even bigger than this year. Dates are yet to be released.