Will Bastille Day, usually known in France as le quatorze juillet (14 July) see you up bright and early at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arc de Triomphe, waiting for the start of the military parade down the Champs-Elysées? Or will you be nursing a hangover and sore toes after dancing in the street at one of the many bals à pompiers (firemen’s balls), that take place in almost every arrondissement of Paris on the eve (13 July) of le quatorze jullet as well as on the evening (14 July) of Bastille Day itself? Both are equally valid ways of celebrating France’s national day.
Le quatorze juillet is France’s main public holiday. It commemorates the storming of the Bastille, an infamous prison that was attacked by revolutionaries in 1789 as the French overthrew their monarchy. If you go there today, you will not find the prison. Pulled down many years ago, it survives in outline in the paving stones of the place de la Bastille.
The official focus for the day is the Champs-Elysées, where crowds traditionally greet a military parade and witness a fly-past trailing tricolor smoke in the colours of the French flag. The route of the parade passes from the Arc de Triomphe to the place de la Concorde from about 9.30 in the morning until 12.30 in the afternoon. The official celebrations conclude late in the evening, usually at about 11pm, with fireworks and music at the Eiffel Tower and the Jardins de Trocadéro.
The night before (13 July) there is usually a big free concert at Bastille, with well-known local artists. The other big event for Parisiens is the chance to interact with the famously handsome sapeurs-pompiers (firemen) who are the frontline emergency service in France. They, too, are a branch of the military, and will be taking pride of place at the official celebrations of 2011 since this year is the bicentenary of the service. The balls in the fire stations of local quartiers usually have a bar, live music and DJs and go on from 9pm until about 4am. All are welcome and the modest admission charge goes towards firemen’s welfare. Prepare to celebrate! (And it might be an idea to learn some of the words of France’s national anthem, La Marseillaise.)