A statue honoring Lyon’s favorite son, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, is hiding in plain sight.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Lyon, France’s second city, has had her fair share of famous citizens from Roman emperor Claudius to chef Paul Bocuse. But, when the airport’s named after you, well, you’ve reached a whole new level.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was born in Lyon in 1900 to a well-to-do titled family of nobility. The family’s fortunes took a sharp turn downwards when Antione’s father died in 1904.
As a young man, Antoine also suffered the loss of his brother, with whom he was very close. Distraught because of his brother’s death, Saint-Exupéry did poorly in school, failed final exams and wound up job-hopping until he entered the army.
Antoine found his calling when he took flying lessons and transferred into the French Air Force. He then began flying postal routes from France to Africa and later in South America. Saint-Exupéry wrote about flying in the novels Courrier Sud (1929) and Vol de Nuit (1931)
The Little Prince
In 1935, Antoine and his navigator André Prévot, crashed in the Libyan desert while trying to break a speed record flying from Paris to Saigon. With limited supplies, including only enough water for one day, and facing the intense heat of the desert, the men nearly died. They were discovered four days later by a Bedouin who rehydrated them and saved their lives.
This incident would be reimagined as part of his master work “The Little Prince.”
Saint-Exupéry flew with the French Air Force against the Nazis until the Germans took over France. At that point he fled to the United States where, in 1942,he wrote “The Little Prince.”
The book was published in English and French in the United States, but wasn’t published in France until after the war as his work was banned by the puppet Vichy government.
Saint-Exupéry returned to Europe to fly with the resistance Free French Air Force in 1943. On July 31st, 1944 Antoine de Saint-Exupéry took off from Corsica on a reconnaissance flight of the Rhone Valley. His plane never returned and while there has been speculation about the crash site, debris and personal effects, his body was never found.
After initially getting mixed reviews, some praised the book, others were puzzled or angered by it, and decent, though not great, sales, “The Little Prince” is today considered a classic. While considered a children’s book, “The Little Prince” is actually quite sophisticated and poetic, dealing somberly with human relationships and the absurd society created by adults. If you have a copy in your house, I suggest digging it out and re-reading it. A film based on the book was released in 2015 and it is magical as well.
In 2000, on the 100th anniversary of Saint-Exupéry’s birth, the city of Lyon unveiled a statue depicting Antoine and his Little Prince. Across from the southwest corner of Place Bellecour (in front of the house where Saint-Exupéry was born), the statue sits on a fifteen foot column. I like to think it represents Antoine and the Little Prince on one of the planets depicted in the book, peering down on the Earth.
The statue itself seems almost hidden. Even though Place Bellecour is one of the most famous and busiest parts of Lyon, I’ve never seen a single person look at the statue or take a picture of it. Maybe that’s because the statue is across from a bus stop and under a canopy of trees so its placement isn’t obvious. In fact, the first time we went looking for statue, we asked someone working in the tourist office on Place Bellecour where “The Little Prince” statue was. Even though it was only a hundred meters or so from the office, we were sent in the wrong direction. For a statue of a guy who crashed in the desert and was lost for four days, this somehow seemed appropriate.