If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in Paris on July 14, you might be tempted to greet a local with a cheery ‘Bonne Bastille.’ Best not to. In France, Bastille Day is formally known as ‘La fête nationale,’ or, more casually, ‘Le quatorze juillet’ — so throw around a merry ‘Bonne fête nationale’ or ‘Joyeux quatorze juillet’ instead. You see, the day marks the 1789 storming of the old Bastille prison, which was a significant event as it was a key trigger for the coming French Revolution, but it was also quite a grisly affair — as was much of the Revolution, too.
Blood and gore aside, July 14 has come to represent the values that so many French people fought so hard for. Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Good working conditions, holidays and holiday pay, free healthcare and education …. Freedom to live a good life.
Freedom also comes from security. And that’s where law and order come into the picture. It might at first seem jarring that on a day when the French celebrate liberty and life, the first big-ticket item is a military parade down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. Well, what can one say except that France is a paradoxical kind of a place! Champagne socialism was invented here, after all. But that’s what the Revolution was about in a way, giving everyone the right to drink champagne.
Also, the French love their pomp and ceremony.
With that in mind, order a flute of champagne at breakfast, and afterwards head towards the Champs-Élysées. The parade starts at 10.10, with the arrival of the president, but you need to get there much earlier if you want a good viewing position. Alternatively, make your way to the grassy area just to the east of the Jardin des Tuileries (which is closed for the morning). Here is a great spot from which to view (from about 10.45am) the spectacular fly-over, which begins with the much anticipated La Patrouille de France, the nine jets that trail a tricolor of blue, white and red smoke. (Let’s just hope that, unlike last year, they’re all fitted with the correct colours!)
While you might not see the march in its entirety, you’ll be able to watch tanks and fire engines roar down Rue de Rivoli, and later spot some horses cantering along Rue Saint-Honoré. Anyway, you can always YouTube it all later. Because now is the time to get the real point of le quatorze juillet underway: having a day of lovely, light-hearted fun.
Unfurl a picnic on the lawn while you wait for the Tuileries to open. When the park’s gates are unlocked, wander around this gorgeous enclosure. The Fête des Tuileries are on; spin around the Ferris Wheel for some magical views across the city. If you have kids, you’ll also find a prettily sparkling carousel in one corner of the gardens, next to a trampoline enclosure.
This day signals for many Parisians the official start of summer, and so it’s a day of leisure and pleasure. One great way to take it all in is to simply wander: along the Seine, around the islands, through to Saint-Germain. Many museums are open but if the weather is as lovely as it has been in past years, you’ll probably want to stay outdoors, or sun yourself on a café terrace, while sipping champagne. From here, venture to the Luxembourg Gardens, where you’ll find Parisians picnicking and playing pétanque and pushing toy sailboats around the pond.
If you feel like paying tribute to this great nation, the nearby Panthéon is free for the day and this year from 3.30pm the orchestra of the Armée de l’Air will perform a one-hour concert. Another spectacular way to celebrate la fête nationale with music is on the Champ de Mars, where a classical concert kicks off at 9.30pm, playing through the 11pm fireworks. You’ll hear a selection of operatic classics, and — bien sûr! — La Marseillaise.
Alternative viewing platforms for the Eiffel Tower firework display are from a bridge, a terrace bar, or all the way up on the hill of Montmartre, in front of Sacré Coeur
If you want to party on well into the night, head to un bal des pompiers at your nearest fire station. It’s a chance to contribute a donation and thank the firefighters for the tough work that they do. Especially in the year in which they saved Notre-Dame from total destruction.
It’s also a chance, of course, to dance into the wee hours — another freedom the revolution was all about!