Rick Steves on Bastille Day

Times Colonist - - Front Page - RICK STEVES Europe

For the ul­ti­mate sum­mer party in France, visit over July 14: Bastille Day, the coun­try’s big na­tional day. This sum­mer hol­i­day is cel­e­brated with gusto, with all-night par­ties, pic­nics and fire­works. And the fun per­me­ates the coun­try, from tiny towns to Paris.

The day marks the sym­bolic start of the French Revo­lu­tion, which brought down its pow­er­ful monar­chy.

In 1789, France was un­der the tyranny of its king, bish­ops and nobles. The cor­rupt monar­chy spent lav­ishly, while the peo­ple suf­fered in poverty. The in­tim­i­dat­ing fortress of Bastille, with eight tow­ers and 100-foot-high walls, had long func­tioned as a state prison — and epit­o­mized the cal­lous op­pres­sion of King Louis XVI. In the streets of Paris, a revo­lu­tion sim­mered.

On the morn­ing of July 14, an an­gry mob gath­ered around the Bastille’s main gates while the king’s troops hun­kered down in­side. Two cit­i­zens scaled the huge wall, cut the chains of the draw­bridge and brought it crash­ing down. The mob poured through and was met with gun­fire. Dozens were killed, and hun­dreds wounded. Nev­er­the­less, rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies opened dark dun­geons and brought pris­on­ers into the light of day, then pa­raded vic­to­ri­ously through Paris. The Revo­lu­tion had be­gun.

Vir­tu­ally no trace of the orig­i­nal Bastille fortress re­mains to­day; the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies dis­man­tled it brick by brick. But the spirit of the Revo­lu­tion lives on in the square where it all be­gan: the Place de la Bastille. To­day, the kick­off of the Revo­lu­tion is cel­e­brated every year with French pride and colour on what we now call “Bastille Day” — which the French usu­ally just call “le 14 juil­let.” In truth, fes­tiv­i­ties ac­tu­ally be­gin the night be­fore on July 13.

Paris hosts the big­gest and most iconic Bastille Day cel­e­bra­tions, with a huge open-air block party cen­tred on the Place de la Bastille. Tens of thou­sands crowd around the statue of Winged Lib­erty — a chaotic scene that vaguely re­sem­bles the mobs that swarmed there two cen­turies ago.

While the main cel­e­bra­tion or­bits the Place de la Bastille, some of the best par­ties are on smaller neigh­bour­hood squares. Most of th­ese are Fire­men’s Balls, spon­sored by lo­cal fire sta­tions to ben­e­fit char­i­ties. For a small do­na­tion, tourists and lo­cals alike are wel­come to join the fun. Bars, cafés, and out­door stages fea­ture big­name acts as well as lo­cal tal­ent. Food, drink and mu­sic spill out into the street. The time I was lucky enough to cel­e­brate along­side Parisians, the first thing I thought in the mid­dle of all that chaos and in­ten­sity was, “Boy, I hope the fire mar­shal doesn’t come by.” And then it oc­curred to me that we were at the fire sta­tion … and that the mar­shal was prob­a­bly right there in the crowd par­ty­ing.

The next morn­ing, on July 14, fes­tiv­i­ties take on a more sober and pa­tri­otic tone. Thou­sands line the Champs-Elysées — Europe’s most renowned boule­vard — for a grand mil­i­tary pa­rade. The pa­rade route it­self is a re­minder of the Revo­lu­tion: It starts at the tow­er­ing Arc de Tri­om­phe, built to hon­our the Revo­lu­tion’s high-wa­ter mark, when France’s cit­i­zen-army tri­umphed over Europe’s monar­chies. But the pa­rade ends with a grim re­minder of the Revo­lu­tion’s dark­est days at the Place de la Con­corde, where a tall obelisk marks the spot where once stood the most grue­some and feared sym­bol of the Revo­lu­tion — the guil­lo­tine.

The fi­nale of Bastille Day un­folds on the big field of the Champ de Mars, where the first Bastille Day an­niver­sary took place in 1790. The Rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies marked the oc­ca­sion with a fes­ti­val they called “La Fête de la Fédéra­tion.” They gath­ered in this spot — where the Eif­fel Tower would one day be built — and re­flected on the in­cred­i­ble changes of the pre­vi­ous year. That first Bastille Day was a heady cel­e­bra­tion of their new-found free­dom. Mem­bers of every so­cial class gath­ered here to min­gle equally, hug­ging and kiss­ing. Fire­works lit up the night, and once starv­ing peo­ple feasted on rich food and fine wine. In ju­bi­la­tion, they shouted what had long been kept in­side: Lib­erty! Equal­ity! Fra­ter­nity!

Th­ese days, some 500,000 rev­ellers gather on the lawn at the Champ de Mars park and spend the day pic­nick­ing with baguettes and wine at the base of the Eif­fel Tower. When dark­ness falls, all eyes turn up to watch the lights turn on, and to see the iconic tower glit­ter and glow with golden bulbs. Fire­works sparkle with the French flag’s colours — blue, red, and white.

The storm­ing of the Bastille trans­formed more than just France. It in­spired many other na­tions to de­mand lib­erty — to progress from me­dieval op­pres­sion to mod­ern democ­racy. Any­one with a sense of his­tory can rec­og­nize the enor­mous debt the world owes to those brave Parisians who stormed the Bastille to fight for a gov­ern­ment of the peo­ple. It’s a cul­tural ral­ly­ing point, sym­bol­iz­ing free­dom of all kinds. If you’re in France on Bastille Day, join the proud lo­cals in their sheer joy of per­sonal lib­erty. In­deed, wher­ever you are on July 14, lift a glass to free­dom and de­clare, “Vive la France!”

Rick Steves (rick­steves.com) writes Euro­pean travel guide­books and hosts travel shows on pub­lic television and pub­lic ra­dio. Email him at rick@rick­steves.com and fol­low his blog on Face­book.


Bastille Day cel­e­bra­tion in Paris cul­mi­nates with a fire­works show at the Eif­fel Tower, where France’s na­tional an­them rings through the Champ de Mars.


Bastille Day block par­ties through­out Paris (and all of France) bring lo­cals and tourists to­gether for mu­sic, danc­ing and pa­tri­otic cel­e­bra­tion.

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