My First Le Fete Nationale (Bastille Day) in Paris
When deciding to pack up and leave it all behind in the States for Paris, one of the things on my Parisian dreams list was to experience the real French Bastille Day. Now as a Parisian, which I can officially refer to it as La Fete Nationale, I planned on experiencing every single July 14th festivity the City of Lights had to offer.
I had already done my research on the traditions in Paris for the oldest and most patriotic French holiday. As it was, Bastille Day in the United States had become enormously popular. From French revolution reenactments in Philadelphia to gala dinners in New Orleans to all- day parties at the Sofitel in Beverly Hills, Bastille Day celebrations were already well known and highly celebrated in the States. However, if you have been dreaming of Paris like I have, the real celebration could only truly be experienced where it all began.
I had been planning my now, La Fete Nationale weekend since I arrived here in France. Though most Parisians leave the city for small town celebrations to escape the large crowds, most Parisians will still suggest experiencing La Fete Nationale in Paris at least one.
I was ready for celebrations with my La Fete Nationale agenda in hand until I came across one side block to the 2014’s celebrations, the final match of the World Cup was at the same time. This past Sunday the 13th, as the French celebrations were ready to begin so were anxious fans waiting to celebrate the most important matchup in 4 years between Germany and Argentina. I of course did not want to miss out on the match either, so I just added another celebration to the list!
My friends and I decided to start the evening by watching this epic game between Germany and Argentina at the most German bar we could find, Kiez in the 18th. As we have several German friends among us, Germany was the mutual vote between this eclectic group of international Parisian settlers. I am glad we decided on this place because the crowd got crazy. If you could not join the action, from what I heard, in what was an insane party throughout the streets of Germany, than this was the next best thing for Paris. Jumping on cars, running down the streets with German flags, it was the start of celebrations that, though not French, made a great start to the night.
Next, after paying tribute to Germany, we headed to the traditional Fireman’s Ball or Bal des Pompiers. Though, you would think since the word “ball” is in the title of this soiree, it would be very fancy. However, no need to grab your prom gown as this very casual ball only requires typical night out on the town attire.
Luckily, we were only a 5 minute walk from the firehouse in the 18th from Kiez. I expected to see a lot of locals but as we spoke to several, they said, “Oh, that is pretty touristy but if it is your first time, you should definitely go once” Bummer, not exactly local but oh well. As he said, something you have to do at least once.
The line was already towards the end of the block when we arrived but we moved quickly and were greeted by extremely, “admirable” fireman, as we walked through the doors to an enormous arena of people. The entrance to the event is free but donations at the entrance are greatly appreciated.
The firehouse clears out it’s trucks and opens it’s garage doors to what transforms into a very high ceiling and bright bar. Don’t get your hopes up if you plan on ordering a Sex on the Beach off the menu, since all the “bartenders'” are the firemen themselves, I don’t think bartending is in their job description. Though beer and soft drinks were the only options, I have to admit the beers were actually only 3 euro. That is not much more than you pay at the grocery store, thanks fireman!
After we grabbed our drinks from the “bar” we went outside to dance to the live band. The entire courtyard was an open aired dance floor decorated with French flags and a giant inflatable French banner. I actually loved that they had a live cover band playing Top 40 and not a DJ. It made the atmosphere different from the normal club, almost like you were at a BBQ or an outdoor wedding. As we danced to Pharrell Williams Happy, we spoke with the fireman making their way through the crowds and enjoyed the night until the wee hours. All the firmans balls end at 4am, exactly. Due to the fact that they are all outdoors and in normally quiet neighborhoods, the closing time has to stay pretty strict.
The next morning, though extremely tired, I prepared to experience my first La Fete Nationale military parade. The parade is the oldest military parade in Europe and runs from the Arc de Triomphe all the way to Place de la Concorde. I decided to head over via Avenue Montaigne, the Rodeo Drive of Paris. The street was closed off and it was great for picture taking with some of the Calvary awaiting departure to march in the parade.
The parade itself, though a bit quiet at times, included enormous tankers, jet fighters, military helicopters, motorcycles, marching bands and Calvary. The president who was scheduled to make his appearance down the avenue around noon, paraded much earlier around 10:30 or so before the final Calvary conclusion at 12 PM. If there is one thing I noticed, which I will take note of for next year, was people who brought their own step stools and ladders to see over the crowd. Living in a rental property, with obviously no ladder included, I was not as prepared to see over 2 million tourists but will be ready for the next one.
After finishing the parade we went home to get ready for the big afternoon into evening celebrations in Champ de Mars. Since there is unfortunately no BBQing with charcoal here like in the US, the “BBQ” was as French as I had hoped. Wine, cheeses, cured meats all on a perfectly placed blankets in the park. I noticed many things about this celebration but one I felt was noticeable, at least to this American, was the subtle presence of celebratory colors during the day. There were flags placed along Champs-Elysees for the parade but not much more than that. Possibly because we were in more of a tourist area or maybe I guess I am just too used to the big 4th of July spectacles in the US.
As we prepared to set up camp in what we knew would an overflowing crowd, I don’t think anyone was truly prepared for how crowded it actually was. Luckily, we had friends who reserved a spot earlier in the center of the grass and thank GOD they did. Just like at any fireworks show there was an enormous crowd but this one was jam packed! I have already learned from this first year to post camp as early as possible on July 14th. Since the symphony starts at 9:30pm leading up to the fireworks at 11 pm, I would now suggest to grab a spot hopefully next time no later than 5pm.
There were good and bad points about being in the 7th on July 14th. Most of the restaurants even the more expensive ones, had pre-made baguette sandwich and quick bite stands outside for 5 to 9 euro. In addition, even restaurants that normally have only a few tables outside had tables set out flowing into the middle of the street to accommodate the packed crowds.
Another thing I noted is, if you plan on bringing beverages, buy early. It is understandable why the city would do this but for a place that lets anyone drink in the streets, take any bottle with them and drink 24 hours, I was surprised how strict they were on alcoholic beverages. The 7th is highly controlled on July 14th restricting any establishment from selling to-go alcohol after 5pm. If you want to bring alcohol to Champ de Mars, which normally always allows beverages, don’t do it if you arrive late. Policeman are checking bags and confiscating bottles should you come past 8:30 PM.
As we sat in our thankfully well designated central location, we enjoyed the lively park atmosphere before the sympathy started. At 9:30 PM no matter where you were, you began to hear the loud and strong percussions among the speakers throughout the park. Big screens made it possible for those in the back half to see the musicians and no matter what, every location was the perfect location once 11 PM hit.
Around 10:55 PM, the crowd began to stand as everyone sang the French national anthem harmoniously while gazing at the tower’s normal sparkles in all it’s glory but then….. darkness. The crowd cheers as all the lights of the tower shut off and a few glows resembling candles, light at the first floor of the tower, then the second floor. The candle like lights continue as the symphony plays a very low, dark melody. As the lights start rising up the tower then the first fireworks begin. They are low and only white but enough to get the crowd energized as if we are watching the entire story of the French Revolution play out through the lights of the Eiffel Tower.
Preparing my camera for the first big bang and attempt to snap photos over all 5 million iphones, I was ready for the loud spectacle when it went silent again.The music went low and as the symphony created anticipation for the next display of lights, we focused on a spotlight beaming out of the middle of the tower. My friend yells, “Oh my God, do you see there is a guy swinging and running in the middle, do you see?” “What?” I had not noticed an acrobat swinging from the middle of the Eiffel Tower and all I could think was one, he is absolutely crazy and two, ok Paris, you have officially outdone yourself. Acrobats swinging in the middle of the tower during a fireworks show? Thank you for making this spectacle better than I had hoped for.
Once the spotlight went down the music got louder and red fireworks started shooting out the sides of the tower top to bottom, perfectly timed with the music. I think I might have swallowed a million bugs in pure jaw dropping aw. As the show continued each song had different colored themed fireworks and the one that really got me was when they played John Lennon’s Imagine with rainbow colored fireworks. The entire crowd sang harmoniously to every word, swaying back and forth creating a very peaceful moment. If only John Lennon could have only seen that moment, people of different races, sexualities, from all over the world ,together as one, in harmony.
I didn’t want it to end. It was the best 45 minutes I have had in Paris and as my friends and I gathered together, smiling and gasping about the most amazing fireworks show we have ever seen, we were all reminded how lucky we are to be here.
The fireworks show at the Eiffel Tower was truly a representation of my dreams coming true. Though starting out as a small flame, it slowing grew into something bigger eventually becoming the full colored display I had always hoped it would. I had dreamed since the first moment I walked through Champ de Mars park, that one day I would be one of the runners on the dirt path under the trees. That I would be able to walk through Champ De Mars any time I wanted to set up a picnic because that was my “backyard”. Every morning now when I run under the trees I always hoped I would, I say hello to the Eiffel Tower and say thank you. I am thankful that you gave me something to work hard towards and gave me a reason to take risks. I am grateful everyday, that I never gave up when it got so bad and never gave up on fulfilling my dreams. Seeing your dreams become reality it something that everyone should experience. Whether big or small, once it happens it is even better than you could have imagined.
Here are a few more photos from 2014’s La Fete Nationale fireworks display. If you went to this years celebrations or celebrations around the world, I would love to hear about them! I hope all of you can experience this amazing show once and enjoy it just as much as I did.