Bastille Day: France's party for the people

Rick Steves
Rick Steves' Europe

For the ultimate summer party in France, visit during Bastille Day, the country's Independence Day. This July 14 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 that brought down the 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 Bastille, with eight towers and 100-foot-high walls, was an intimidating fortress that functioned as a prison -- epitomizing 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 on today's square; the revolutionaries dismantled it brick by brick. But the spirit of the Revolution lives on in the square. Today, the Revolution, kicked off with the "Storming of the Bastille" on July 14, is celebrated every year on Bastille Day, with French pride and color. Festivities actually begin the night before on July 13.

Paris hosts the biggest and most iconic Bastille celebrations, with a huge open-air block party located on the square where it all began -- 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 here two centuries ago.

While the main celebration orbits the Place de la Bastille, some of the best parties are on smaller neighborhood squares. Bars, cafés and outdoor stages feature big-name acts and small. Food, drink and music spill out into the street. These are the Firemen's Balls, sponsored by local fire stations to benefit charities, welcoming locals and tourists alike for a small donation. When I celebrated alongside the French in Paris, 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 he was probably here in the crowd partying.

The next morning, on July 14, festivities take on a more somber 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 honor the Revolution's high-water mark, when France's citizen-army triumphed over Europe's monarchies. The parade ends at Place de la Concorde, a grim reminder of the Revolution's darkest days. Here, a tall obelisk pierces the sky, marking the spot where once stood the most gruesome and feared symbol of the Revolution -- the guillotine.

The finale of Bastille Day unfolds at the Eiffel Tower, 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 on the Champ de Mars (the site where the Eiffel Tower would one day be built) and reflected on the incredible changes of the previous year. In jubilation, they shouted what had long been kept inside. 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. That first Bastille Day was a heady celebration of their new-found freedom: Liberty! Equality! Fraternity!

These days, some 500,000 revelers 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 to the tower. The lights come on and it glitters and glows with golden lights. Fireworks sparkle with the French flag's colors -- 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. In fact, wherever you are on July 14, lift a glass to freedom and declare, "Vive la France!"

(Rick Steves (www.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.)

(c)2018 RICK STEVES DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

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