Making the Best of the Best Bastille Day
I promised you a report on Bastille Day in Paris, so that’s what you’re going to get! I do love to be on the Champ-de-Mars to watch the fireworks, and even though it’s quite a challenge…it’s worth it. Here’s the story:
(NOTE: Photos taken by Adrian and Erica Simone)
The night before Bastille Day is when the Paris firemen open their “casernes” (fire stations) to the public for the “Bals des Pompiers”— the Fireman’s Balls. It’s a chance to dance your cares away, ogle and kiss the handsome firemen, eat a bad hot dog or cheesy chips and forget the day’s problems. Even though I have attended the balls at various casernes over the years, my favorite place to celebrate is in front of the Mairie of Paris Centre (formerly the Mairie de 3ème Arrondissement), just steps from my apartment, where there is always a formidable band and good-humored party beginning at 9 p.m. The firemen are missing, but the families of the neighborhood come out to play for good wholesome fun.
The band this year was pretty comical—their voices were terrible and their costuming cheesy (like the corn chips at the casernes), but they had the crowd moving their feet, nonetheless, as they had ours. Exhausted, I headed home before their finale to prepare for the big day—the 14th.
In the morning, the military parade took place on the Champs-Elysées, but the best view is on your TV screen, sad to say. “Sharing the Flame” was the theme of this year’s parade—referring to the “flame of the Resistance, embodied by Hubert Germain, the last companion of the Liberation who passed away recently and also, to the Olympic Flame, which was officially handed to France at the end of the Tokyo Olympic Games for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games.” For this reason, Olympic medalists paraded down what the French regard as “the world’s most beautiful avenue.” It all started at 10 a.m. on the Avenue and in the sky with 6,300 soldiers on foot, 71 aircraft, 25 helicopters, 221 vehicles and 200 horses of the Republican Guard. The parade also honored Ukraine.
Once the parade was over, preparing for our afternoon and evening on the Champ-de-Mars was tantamount.. Knowing it would be sunny and hot, I stuck an umbrella in my rolling bag along with picnic goodies and plenty of water. You may think it nuts to get to the grounds at 4 p.m. for fireworks that start at 11 p.m., but it’s the only thing possible if you want to stake out a good spot and have the most enjoyable experience.
This year, security was a bit disorganized. We were at the head of the line at 4 p.m., but they had to clear out the park first—those who hadn’t gone through a security control earlier. Those leaving were pissed when they saw the long lines to enter, knowing they had to go to the back of the line and start all over. We learned our lesson: be there at 4 p.m.! It took 1.5 hours for them to clear the park and let us in. Meanwhile, we were packed like sardines in the heat standing, remarking how glad we were that we weren’t with people who might not have kept such a good humor as us! We knew eventually we’d get in, but in that position, security had big concrete barriers installed right behind us in order to control the entry of the crowd—a real challenge getting the crowd to back up…to where we couldn’t fathom. Meanwhile, we focused on where we were going to pitch our tent-like parasol (that my friends had) and spread our blankets as widely as we could to stake out a large territory.
The gates opened, we passed through security and ran like hell to get our preferred spot…and scored. At that moment, under the shade of the enormous blue parasol, we were very happy indeed. Little by little, our friends showed up as did the rest of the picnickers and spectators. One of the things I love to do while we are lying around is recording the changes of the scene as the hours pass. The grass is obliterated little by little by those who stake out their own territory, the lighting and the view of La Tour Eiffel changes as the sun moves and the commentary on the loud speakers changes over time to the concert that starts about 9 p.m.
By 8 p.m. it is a serious challenge to find a path to the portable public toilets, but the key is noting the landmarks so that you can find your way back! The toilets were shockingly well organized and clean, equipped with toilet paper, hand sanitizer and the ability to flush it, without being smelly. It was rather incredible considering the many thousands of people they accommodated. According to the official website for the Tour Eiffel, in 2009 when the tower celebrated its 120th anniversary, starting off with a concert given by Johnny Hallyday, there were more than 700,000 people who had gathered on the Champ-de-Mars. I’m not sure I believe this number…but it does feel like it is possible when you’re there bumper-to-bumper with the other picnickers.
We were very unorganized as we tossed all of our goodies into the middle of the blankets for anyone to take part of anything we had brought to the pot-luck free-for-all picnic. Then, I noticed our neighbors had put out a perfectly organized spread in typically French aesthetic fashion. I was jealous, since our spread was like a complete “balagan” (Hebrew for “joyful shambles”).
The concert by the Orchestre National de France, conducted by Cristian Măcelaru, the Radio France Choir and the Maîtrise de Radio France was excellent, as it always is, but the city’s budget to put on this show this year must have been greatly reduced. The large screens projecting the concert normally on the perimeter were not there, nor were the large speakers. The fireworks display was shorter than usual—30 minutes instead of the usual 45 minutes or more! That left a lot to be desired, logically blaming Madame Hidalgo, Paris’ Mayor, for her short-sightedness. (Not sure this is true, but she has to work awfully hard to get back in my good graces for all the stupid things she has done during her terms!)
Nonetheless, the fireworks display is like none other in the world. It’s as magical as it gets. The works light up the sky in perfect harmony with the music and do a dance that boggles the mind. Even La Grande Dame herself does a jig or two achieved with creative lighting. Thirty minutes wasn’t enough. We wanted more, but it didn’t matter…it was a blast from beginning to end, and worth all of the hassle.
After applauding, whistling and howling with cheers, we grabbed our gear and started to stroll off the grounds to find transportation home. My friend took a hard fall. How that happened we were never sure—but when she passed out on the ground, we called for help. Within seconds, a team of paramedics were there examining her and within minutes, an ambulance whisked her away to an emergency station where they examined her further, then took her to a nearby hospital for further tests. Watching the volunteer medics step up without a beat was impressive to say the least.
The rest of us carried on to find the crowd at the Métro station too abundant to consider becoming one of them. Instead, we found a table at an open café, had a nice drink and leisurely entered a crowded, but manageable train car for an easy ride home. At 2 a.m. we hit the hay and called it another Bastille Day. Our friend who fell didn’t land home until 5:30 a.m., but all was well after a bit of a scare and that made it even better.
Will I do it again next year? Bien sûr!
A la prochaine…
The Adrian Leeds Group®
Adrian with her daughter, Erica, from the front and from the back at the same moment
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