Marisol Rifai –
As darkness falls each winter night in the little French town of Gaillac, the glow of dusk is replaced with another — that of a thousand colourful Chinese silk lanterns.
The thousand-year-old town in the southwestern Tarn region was not the most obvious place to launch what it trumpets as “the biggest Chinese event in France.” But Gaillac happens to be twinned with Zigong, a city in China’s Sichuan province which is famous for its lantern festival.
For the second winter, running Gaillac has transformed into a miniature version of its Sichuan twin, lighting up nightly with a dazzling array of giant lanterns in the form of dragons, flowers, birds and pandas.
Among the delighted spectators was a 90-year-old who gave her name as Simone, taking photographs of the imperial palace stretching 75 metres long. “I want to show my grandchildren all these wonders from another world,” she said.
Gaillac’s Mayor Patrice Gausserand was on a trip to China in February 2017 when the idea of twinning with a Chinese town was born.
“I naturally turned towards Sichuan province, which is twinned with our Occitanie region,” Gausserand said. “And that’s how I found Zigong.” Bringing the famous lanterns to Gaillac was “a mad gamble”, he said.
Zigong’s own festival, in February, has been running for centuries and attracts millions of visitors each year.
In Gaillac, a town of 18,000, Gausserand had to find private sponsors to cover the costs, and he wasn’t even sure if people would come.
But 250,000 people attended last year’s inaugural edition — an “enormous surprise” to town authorities which brought a windfall of one million euros ($1.15 million).
This year the mayor expects even more to flood in — by December 15, the town had already sold three times as many tickets than at the same time in 2017.
“The festival creates a strong bond between town staff, volunteers and about 80 Chinese workers who come to Gaillac for two months to put up the lanterns,” he said.
Shop windows, hairdressers, restaurants and residents’ balconies all have red lanterns and dragons on display at a time of year when most French stores sport Christmas decorations.
Chinese fever has also reached the bookshop, which has filled its window with fiction, graphic novels and tourist guides on China.
Extra footfall from the festival, which runs from December 1 until February 6, is a huge boost for local hotels, restaurants and shops.
For Marion Duclot, a senior official in the Gaillac Graulhet local authority, the visitors are especially welcome in a season when the regional economy is “usually flat”.
And local landlords are celebrating too — the Tarn villa rental association is delighted by a doubling in winter bookings over the past two years.