The Day of The Bastille is an important national holiday, which the French take very seriously – like everything related to their heritage. If by any chance you are going to be in Paris on the 13th and 14th of July you will undoubtedly witness one of the most outrageous festivities you have ever seen.
If you ever wondered why the French celebrate this day in such a serious manner… this is where you’ll get some answers, and also some information about the best celebrations in Paris and, of course, where you should go for the fireworks in the city of lights… So let’s get started!
Let’s begin by understanding what exactly happened some time ago and how July 14th became a national holiday.
Some history of the Day of the Bastille
The truth is that there is no greater and more false myth in French history (except perhaps the myth that 90% of the French were in the Resistance) than that of the conquest of the Bastille. The Bastille was not really the terrible prison we all were made to believe. In fact, it was a “de luxe prison” where most of the people imprisoned were not great political opponents but people whose families had asked the king to imprison them for a while so that they would no longer dishonour the family name.
The interesting thing is that if they waited a little longer, Louis XVI would have probably destroyed the Bastille himself, but history has no time to wait. In the summer of 1789 a number of events took place, which eventually led the Parisian masses to conquer the Bastille.
It was a combination of hunger that resulted from a few unspeakable winters and the dismissal of the esteemed Minister of Finance Necker, who set up virtual fire to the city and caused the masses to begin demonstrating. On July 14th, 1789, a crowd gathered near the Bastille and demanded that the commander of the Bastille de Launay open the gates and handout the weapons. The commander of the Bastille refused the crowd’s demands and so began the negotiations with the rebel leaders (side note: the negotiations took place during breakfast, which shows us that even in the greatest historical moments, food always comes first). Then,while the negotiations were taking place, a shot was suddenly fired from the fortress and the angry mob stormed.
It may sound like a great victory but it wasn’t in anyway such a heroic act. The Bastille was defended by a group of old or wounded soldiers and the occupation of the Bastille was more like the conquest of a lifeguard’s cabin by a crowd in swimsuits, a moment after they announced a special ice cream sale on the beach.
When the mob captured the Bastille and massacred the soldiers holding it, they found seven prisoners, among them were four thieves, one lunatic and two others who were imprisoned in the fortress at the explicit request of their families. So, as you can see, this was not a great victory and the Bastille is not exactly the “Fortress of Darkness,” but the conquest of the Bastille was rightly considered one of the last days of the French Revolution and therefore very quickly became a feast day that we celebrate to this day.
Things to do on The Day of The Bastille
So now that is understood what we (or should we say the French) are celebrating, and if you happen to be in Paris on July 14th (or maybe you carefully chose that date), it’s time to see what is happening around Paris on this famous day.
I personally attended one of the street parties that took place in the Republic Square. The party was a live rock concert where people where having beers on the streets and dancing, laughing and enjoying themselves. The festivities are very similar to the Independence Day celebrations we most know from around the world, with an added Parisian flair.
In addition, there are special parties held at the fire stations throughout the city where the firefighters open the doors and everyone’s invited. There are DJs playing music and these parties are considered amongst the best of the Bastille Festivities in Paris. It is recommended to get to these parties early as the stations fill up very quickly due to the high demand. The parties usually go on until morning.
The Bastille Day Parade
The following day the crowds arrive at the Champs-Elysées to watch the military parade leaving from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde. The parade starts at 10 AM. It is recommended to catch a post as close as possible to the Concorde Square, where the entire performance takes place. To do that it is recommended to arrive at 9 AM and take your place, do to take into account that there are masses of people standing in the crowd. Bring a portable chair and a bottle of water, it gets very hot, there are no shaded spots and it does take time for the parade to begin. All that said, it’s still the best show in town!
Whoever strolls the boulevards of Paris a few weeks before July 14th, may notice the iron bars laid on the floor and the preparations made for the parade, as large sections of the avenue is turned into tribunes that will be sitting hundreds of special invited guests coming to watch the parade.
In addition, if you’ll take a good look at the boulevard, you will notice that the traffic lights have disappeared. The traffic lights system in these weeks is adjusted for the world cycling competition, the Tour de France, arriving into Paris around the 3rd week of July and there for the avenue is freed of any hazards that might disturb the cyclists and the parade.
The parade features the cavalry with hundreds of soldiers on magnificent horses, tanks, fighting units, army jeeps, paratroopers who plummet directly into the square and other attractions. You can watch a live broadcast of the parade on the French national television channel.
The celebrations continue throughout the day with picnics throughout the parks, sailing across the Seine and more. The museums on this day are operating as usual, the restaurants as well. Do take into account that on this day occupancy will be higher, and ques accordingly long.
Please note that the Eiffel Tower is open until 6 PM on this day.
Watching the Fireworks
Thousands of people arrive at the Champ-de-Mars to watch the fireworks show. In addition to the fireworks, there is also a festive concert, featuring the most famous performers from all over France in what is considered the elite of French performances.
People arrive in the afternoon to catch a good spot to enjoy both the concert and fireworks. A few years ago, when I lived in Paris I decided that I had to experience this Parisian experience, I am not likely to repeat it again, since it was so crowded that people actually fought over every piece of free grass space.
After the concert is over all the metro stations surrounding the plaza stay closed so you might have a few kilometres walk to the nearest metro station, bring comfortable shoes!
All streets in Paris eventually lead to the Elysee Avenue, where you can take the metro back to the hotel or a night bus.
How can one view the fireworks of Bastille Day in style and without the mass crowds?
If you do not want to push through crowds of people, to stand in queues and walk a few miles back and forward… there is a solution:
The companies that run the cruises on the Seine have a special cruise that includes a gala dinner and a stop by the Eiffel Tower so you can see the fireworks show, sitting comfortably at a table and drinking champagne. This is not a cheap experience but on the other hand, not every day you are in Paris during the Bastille Day …
Bastille celebrations outside of Paris
In addition to the concert, most of the city’s bars and clubs hold cheerful little parties. Then on July 15 the French leave for their annual holiday. Masses of locals drive out of town and leave the city for tourists. If you are not in Paris during the festivities, there is no reason to worry. Even in the smallest villages in France there are celebrations for Bastille Day with parades, street parties and fireworks.
And if you do ask me… Everyone must experience at least one Bastille day in their life. It’s a MUST.
This Article was written by Zvi Chazanov from Francophiles Anonymous , a website dedicated to French culture and recommendations for those visiting France.
Images by Gal Steiner Yaniv, a tourism counsellor, specialising in Paris and a photographer.