Bastille Day is July 14 – but you’ll find the French celebrating several days beforehand.
The Fête Nationale, as it’s called here, or le 14 juillet, is the perfect excuse for a long weekend, often combined with the summer holidays.
The weekend before it is usually labelled ‘black’, a dangerous driving day during which everyone is enjoined, even begged to try to stay off the roads. No one listens: it’s a holiday after all, so the police is out in full force, radars overheat, and for once France sticks (more or less) to the speed limit. Not a good day to be driving.
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Bastille Day is essentially a military celebration that most people believe commemorates 14 July 1789, when the good citizens of Paris stormed and took over the medieval fortress known as the Bastille, launching the French Revolution and eliminating those pesky Bourbon monarchs.
The Bastille was indeed stormed on that day, but there’s a lot more to that story.
In fact July 14th commemorates an event that took place a full year after the taking of the Bastille: the Fête de la Federation, a day designed to reconcile the French, torn apart by the revolution. And even that was only decided nearly a century later, in 1880.
So 14 July is France’s national holiday, but not because of the Bastille.
The French being the French, it will probably always be known as Bastille Day no matter what its origins.
Bastille Day has evolved far beyond its military origins and is also a good excuse for a party. Few French towns are quiet on this day: there are street fairs, bake-offs, bandstands and bands, speeches by mayors, dances for all ages, parades, and that bane of all dogs’ existences: giant fireworks.
Even the smallest villages have them. I know mine does, but I haven’t taken part yet because I’m busy at home calming down my own dogs, to whom fireworks are worse than thunder and lightning.
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If you like bright lights and parties, the Champs-Elysées in Paris is where you want to be on Bastille Day. As you might expect, it has the biggest fireworks, the showiest military parades, and the most sophisticated fly-overs. And of course Monsieur le Président is there to open all the festivities.Even if you’ve woken up from a century of sleep you’ll immediately know it’s Bastille Day in France because of a million bleu, blanc, rouge stripes hanging from buildings, floating from wires and flittering from lamposts. To many, Bastille Day is about food. Extended families gather in sun-drenched parks or on the beach with their relatives for an elaborate picnic, or a meal at home or in a restaurant. In the past a typical menu might include heavy meats and dorioles, a rich pastry. These days, anything goes and with the crushing summer heat, the lighter the better.
Things every Woman on the Road should know
- The Paris Tourist Office maintains a helpful website with useful information on what’s where, when and why.
- If you didn’t make it this year – start preparing now for the next because things get awfully crowded in Paris – and everywhere in France – this time of year.
- The French celebrate Bastille Day wherever they are, a bit like the US Independence Day or Canada Day. Often, the embassy website in your country will post upcoming activities so don’t forget to check!