by Isabel Eva Bohrer
July 14th, 1789, marked a turning point in French history. Rising up against the ruling monarchical regime, a bloodthirsty mob stormed the Bastille in Paris. It was half past three, and the beginning of the French revolution. The Bastille turned into a battlefield and ultimately, a place of siege. And once the Bastille had been taken, the mob marched straight on to Versailles, to take none else but King Louis XVI himself.
To this day, July 14th is referred to as “Bastille Day,” or “La Fête Nationale” of France. The whole country joins in the celebration, but the two-day stint is most spectacular in Paris. This year, head to the French capital to witness the festivities first-hand, beginning on the eve of July 13th and running into the late hours of the next day.
The Night Before
On the eve of Bastille Day, the “Bal du 14 Juillet” (July 14th Ball) is held at the Place de la Bastille. Every year, a different theme is chosen for the ball, and attendees will dress accordingly.
At 9 p.m., the Fire Brigades open their firehouses to the public for a down-to-earth fundraising dance. You can dance alongside firefighters until the early morning. Late night fireworks can also be heard, and seen, throughout different neighborhoods in the city.
Early the next morning on July 14th, Parisians head to the Champs Elysées for the grand parade. From the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde, locals and tourists alike cheer on the procession of the Armed Forces of France. Overhead, you’ll see the French Air Force planes put on a flying show, and on the ground, the Paris Fire Brigade will march to finalize the parade. To fit in, wear red, white and blue, the colors of the French flag.
Republican Picnic all around town
After the parade, tradition has it that Parisians feast on a republican picnic. An ideal place to do so is on the banks of the Grand Canal at the Versailles Palace, for example. Bring your own baskets, and share with others. To get your mouth watering, here are some goodies you could try: quiches, crusty baguettes, poached and fresh fruits, assorted cheeses, scrumptious pastries and, of course, aged wine to go along with it all.
The picnic is a modernized version of the Republican Banquet, which reaffirms the values of the Republic: “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.”
Once night falls, it is a custom to gather by the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe in anticipation of the night’s fireworks. 11 p.m. is when the light show starts, and it lasts for about 30 minutes. It’s hard to avoid the crowds at this point, but if you arrive early, you can catch a comfortable spot on land or along the riverfront. For even closer views, reserve a seat on a glassed-in boat on the Seine.
Participation in the Bastille Day celebrations is, of course, not mandatory. Those interested in art might be glad to know that numerous museums offer free admission on July 14th. Consider the Louvre, Orsay, Pompidou, and the Rodin, to mention just a few.