I immediately knew something was afoot when my dinner in a Parisienne suburban café was interrupted by a complete stranger walking in the door singing the French national anthem. And his slightly wobbly version of the Marseillaise was followed by the sound of wild cheering and fireworks outside. My evening had suddenly turned into a rumbustious street party. It was my first encounter with le quatorze juillet.
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Until then I hadn’t realised that July 14 is the French equivalent of the 4th of July, Hogmanay and Mardi Gras rolled into one crazy festival. It’s France’s national celebration of Bastille Day, a public holiday to commemorate the storming of a notorious Paris prison in 1789.
The conquest of this Royal stronghold by an angry mob was an important escalation in the overthrow of the tyrannical French monarchy famous for telling peasants who had run out of bread to eat cake instead. “Is this a revolt?” Louis XVI famously asked a courtier, who replied: “No Sire, this is a revolution.”
Okay, the French Revolution conjures bad images of guillotines and bloodshed but it had plenty of good bits too. There was lots of pioneering staff about equality. The Declaration of the Rights of Man said that: “Men are born free and remain free and equal” and became a rallying call for human rights around the world. The unifying philosophies of the revolution are one of the reasons why the festivities of le quatorze juillet have lasted so long – and spread so wide across the world.
In Paris you can still visit the spot that inspired the day. Place de la Bastille stands on the site of the old fort at the heart of the lively Bastille area in the east of the city. It remains one of the centres of patriotic palava on the 14th.
Meanwhile many visitors gather to watch the oldest and largest annual military parade in Europe as it marches along the Champs Elysees. There will be a fly-past by jets leaving red, white and blue trails, and free music throughout the city. At sunset the Eiffel Tower becomes covered in a massive firework display.
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But what if you’re not in Paris? Can you find the same excitement and carnival atmosphere anywhere else?
Well, yes, you can. In fact, in 1880 the government decreed that the day should be celebrated everywhere “with all the brilliance that local resources allow”. It means that you’ll find some sort of Bastille Day party, even in the smallest village in the Alps. Look out for communal picnics, dancing to accordion music, and stern-faced military parades.
Here is our pick of some of the best places:
The picturesque medieval walled hilltop city is a World Heritage Site. And it is one of the most spectacular places to witness the French fervour of July 14. Crowds can be enormous but it’s worth battling your way through to find free top quality theatre and music stages, plus amazing street food. Finally look up and enjoy one of Europe’s largest firework’s displays: a 25-minute barrage leading to a climax of 1,200 simultaneous explosions along the city walls.
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France’s second city and gastronomic capital hosts a renowned Bastille Day party. All over France, it’s a tradition for the fire service to organize July 14th events. In Lyon it reaches a pinnacle, with the ‘Pompiers’ turning their fire station into a huge bathing club with a temporary beach outside. Look out for dances in the main streets, bands playing on riverside stages and a major firework display on Fourvière Hill above the river.
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The southern port is France’s third-biggest city and is known for its colourful exuberance. So perhaps it’s no surprise that Marseille extends the Bastille Day festival into two days of partying, on the 13th and 14th. Events include military parades, street music and dancing, traditional folk costumes and carnivals. The highlight is usually the choreographed fireworks over the Vieux Port harbour, on both nights. Many visitors take boat rides to Frioul Island for a few Euros, for a perfect view of the fireworks.
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The historic centre of the west coast wine capital holds its own version of the French national party. Look out for a public picnic in Simone Signoret Park, although the heart of the party is Place des Quinconces, one of Europe’s largest public squares. The 31-acre plaza hosts a massive formal military parade followed by a concert by the Air Force Orchestra, which turns into a quirky public dance. Locals and visitors mingle amid performances of popular French songs until 10.45pm when everyone heads to the banks and bridges of the Garonne River for a colourful firework show.
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The atmospheric historic town on the River Rhone provides a magical setting for Bastille Day traditions. You are even allowed to watch the fireworks along the riverbank from the ruins of the famous bridge. Beware that it gets very crowded; the rocky hill behind the Papal Palace is a less busy viewing spot. Watch out for revellers in traditional folk costumes and classic French accordion players. After the fireworks there’s a late-night public ball in the ancient square in front of the Papal Palace.
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Around The World…
Amazingly, the Bastille Day festivities are spreading around the world so you’ll find special July 14 events in many major cities outside France.
It’s not just neighbouring countries like Belgium and England that hold their own version of Bastille Day. Across the USA there are parades of Citroen 2CVs and running races between French waiters carrying trays of wine and French fries. Celebrations are held in French communities as far flung as South Africa and Australia too.