When it comes to traveling to Paris, July is one of the best months to go—there are tons of outdoor festivals, museum exhibitions, and small performances and events to stumble upon. And although it rains a bit more often than during the rest of the year, July also features major national events like Bastille Day and the Tour de France, the final stage of which ends in Paris down the Champs-Elysées.
This past Monday marked Bastille Day 2014, an event I had been looking forward to ever since I registered for my study abroad program. “Bastille Day,” which commemorates the storming of the Bastille during the French Revolution and celebrates French independence, is actually a very American name—here, the holiday is called “La Fête Nationale,” or more colloquially “le 14 juillet” (literally meaning “July 14th”). I wasn’t sure what to expect of the holiday, and kept comparing it to the Fourth of July in my mind: Barbecues, parades, fireworks, and red, white, and blue, right?
There are tons of events throughout Paris to celebrate le 14 juillet, so I’ll focus this post on the events I attended and experienced firsthand. My experience was pretty typical and represents the holiday well.
As on the Fourth of July, many businesses are closed for le 14 juillet, but the celebration begins the night before. A few other Temple students and I traveled to Versailles (an easy train ride) for fireworks and a giant Bastille Day ball. The fireworks over the chatêau were absolutely breathtaking, choreographed perfectly to a variety of songs, among them the French national anthem and, of all things, “Walking on Sunshine” (French taste in music can be strange—they absolutely love old American pop songs. It’s like stepping back in time). Following the fireworks, we headed over to the city around Versailles, where a huge dance party was held. The soundtrack included French pop songs, the “YMCA,” “Summer Lovin'” from Grease, and, in another bizarre twist, “Cotton-eye Joe.” It was a blast to alternate between dancing with the French (this event was not touristy at all), who were super welcoming and would just grab you into a dance circle, and watching the World Cup final in the numerous bars on the street.
The morning of le 14 juillet begins with a military parade. Paris’ parade features all military branches and President Holland, although this year there was some tension with Algerian soldiers marching in the parade (France and Algeria have a bloody past). Helicopters circled to keep order, and the president did not participate in the parade. The parts of the parade I did see were very similar to American Independence Day parades, but substituted tanks for fire engines.
Following the parade, my fellow Temple students and I picnicked in les jardins de Luxembourg, the gardens right across the street from the student hostel where most of us live. In France, le 14 juillet picnics are very common, with the main luncheon held at Versailles. It is traditional to wear all white at these picnics, and so we bought ourselves some bread, cheese, and wine, got dressed up, and picnicked with Parisians.
After the picnic, some of the group went home to rest, but my roommate and I decided to explore the festivities a little more. We headed down to the Champs-Elysées, where a large strip was partitioned off for people to stroll along, and French flags lined the avenue leading up to the Arc de Triomphe. We wandered past soldiers showing the insides of the tanks to French children, tourists taking pictures, and, unexpectedly, the normal hustle of Parisian life (I was very surprised at the fact that many Parisians acted no differently on le 14 juillet, since the Fourth of July is such a huge event). We also stumbled upon a flea market along the Seine and the preparations for an outdoor concert later in the evening.
The festivities for La Fête Nationale do not end until late until the night. Fireworks at the Eiffel Tower began at 11pm, and 2014 marked the first time since the millenium that the fireworks were actually launched from the Eiffel Tower rather than just near it. The show’s theme was “War and Peace,” and featured segments about the French Revolution and both world wars. Again, this fireworks display was one of the most impressive I have ever seen, made only better by the incorporation of the Eiffel Tower, lit up different colors and absolutely breathtaking. Pictures can’t possible do it justice.
A last unique Paris tradition is the “fireman’s balls,” thrown by the six firehouses in the city. The balls start at 9 pm and continue until 4 am. They raise money for the fire companies and honor French soldiers, firemen, and police officers. Again, my fellow travelers and I weren’t sure what to expect, but the balls featured live dj’s, smoke, colored fog, strobe lights, dancing, and of course champagne. We stayed until 4 am, dancing the night away with the French (who again played a lot of old American pop hits).
Overall, Bastille Day/La Fête Nationale/le 14 juillet 2014 was a very fun, unique experience and a cool look into another culture. I had a blast and was swept up in the unity everyone was feeling. Vive la France!
Merci for reading, and stay tuned for my next post!