Being in Paris now a few years, there appears to be no bigger single-day party than Bastille Day. Now technically it’s not called Bastille day. Rather, locally it’s known as Fête nationale (National Celebration) or Le quatorze juillet (14th of July).
Despite the name the celebration is very much like Independence Day (aka July 4th) in the US. Heck, even the colors are the same (very convenient as an expat by the way). There are tons of events around the city all day and into the night. Here’s a look at five of them that we checked out, though next year we’ll have to also get in and partake in some of the fireman’s balls that occur at fire stations throughout the city.
1) Watched the flyover kick it all off!
While the soldiers had gotten into their initial positions on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, it’s the flyover that really kicks things off. The planes cut a straight line across the city starting with the Arch and then down the Champs-Élysées before hitting Concorde, the Louvre and ultimately over Notre Dame at the official center of the city.
It’s here that I had placed a camera in a window to capture the initial aircraft flyby:
That worked out perfectly! Especially since while my view was good from the Champs-Élysées, the photos were a bit blocked.
2) Checked out the parade on the Champs-Élysées
With the flyover underway (it lasted a while), the main parade got into full swing. While a portion of the parade had started already (enough to get to the presidential viewing stand), the parade was now cruising along with new units coming by every 1-2 minutes.
While you can get a good spot along the fence even at the last minute, some of the best viewing spots were from various buildings along the route.
I stayed for about 30-45 minutes before moving down further along on the parade route. Eventually the parade turns from marching troops to also including vehicles as well.
As I worked my way down the route I passed the area near to where the presidential box was along with all the VIP’s/dignitaries. It was interesting because they had turned a highway that runs in that area into a parking lot (for fancy cars). This is the same highway used for many running events, including the Paris Marathon.
To the right of that they had all the embassy cars lined up. These had dropped off ambassadors that were invited guests. You can see the flags on each of the cars from the various nations, with most of their drivers hanging out chatting with each other near the trees.
3) Checked out helicopter air show
With the parade nearing completion, the helicopter airshow began. It actually started though a bit earlier with the helicopters doing a flyover down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées (and the rest of the city) similar to the fighter jets.
They then disappeared for about 45 minutes before returning to the city. When they do so though, they arrived with extreme flare. They flew low over the river before rising up and turning almost sideways making the sharp turn onto the vast lawn in front of Invalides.
While most of them simply parked there, in the below case one went and picked up a bunch of soldiers to go for a bit of a ‘flight’ (click any photo to expand).
Eventually the helicopters would fill the lawn and you’d be able to go check them out and meet the pilots.
4) Enjoyed a massive 6+ hour picnic on the Champs de Mars
Late afternoon we packed up our soft-sided cooler and blankets and headed over to the Champs de Mars, which is the sprawling grounds under/around Eiffel Tower. Here we met up with friends for a massive picnic.
The key was getting there early enough to claim lawn space. If you’re there early and create vast enough blanket space you can hold down the fort pretty well (staying in the middle away from the edges helps).
You’ll have noticed box wine earlier. Depending on the time of day you arrive they switch from allowing to prohibiting bottles of wines (but still allow boxed wine). Drinking is permitted however (as it always is), and thankfully everyone simply just stays in a good mood.
At the far end of lawn there was a giant stage setup that would hold concerts later in the evening.
And then on the side there were screens that you could sorta see (not very well from our position though):
Sunset was around 10:30PM or so, and was spectacular on this night, with the stage sparkling like Christmas decorations. The concert had started about 90 minutes prior to the fireworks at around 9:30PM – and was comprised of a full symphony orchestra complete with mostly opera singers. They’d be playing the music for the fireworks show as well.
At 11PM, it was time to begin the fireworks show! Oh, I should mention that everything you see in this post was free. No tickets needed, nor entry fee paid.
5) Watched the fireworks at the Eiffel Tower
At just a few minutes past 11PM with the last little bit of sunset sky disappearing the Eiffel Tower was illuminated like a French flag and the fireworks show began.
It’s a bit hard to describe the most incredible fireworks show I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen a lot of ‘major’ fireworks shows around the world – from New York City to Washington DC to Seattle and many more I can remember.
But the difference here was it wasn’t just a ‘themed’ fireworks show that happened to be timed to music. Rather, it was more of an entire performance with dancers in the sky and gigantic fire breathing canons on the tower itself.
For example, if you look at the below photo you’ll see a tiny white dot on the left of the Eiffel Tower. That’s a performer climbing up the tower. There was another that was in the middle of the tower hanging between the arches dancing in the air.
The theme of the show was the centenary of World War 1. The show clearly followed through each of the different time periods between war and peace, with the music and fireworks (and performers) following along.
Impressively, the show lasted about 35 minutes. None of this 4-6 minute stuff here!
Around 11:40PM things wrapped up and the Eiffel Tower turned to display the French flag, wrapping things up for the night.
You can watch the entire show here on the French TV broadcasters’ site. The whole concert is there, but the fireworks start around the 1:36 mark. I think the first few minutes of the show once the music kicks in are probably the most incredible. Note that I think the video link will die in 7 days. There’s a slightly truncated (about half the show) version here in HD. If a full-resolution and full-length version posts I’ll update here.
The crowds quickly dispersed, though it took us and our group a few minutes to deconstruct our giant picnic area. You can see that spectators had attempted to place the garbage in piles (the trash bins had long since filled up many hours prior).
Most impressively however this would all be cleaned up within a few hours. The Parisian government is incredibly efficient and fast about doing so.
With that – Bastille Day 2014! Couldn’t have asked for a better day weather-wise to enjoy it all. Hope you found the photos interesting.
Thanks for reading!
Photographic side notes for the curious: Virtually everything above was shot with a Canon 7D DSLR with a 17-40 lens. The close-up helicopter shots in front of the golden dome were using a 75-300m lens. The two exceptions to that camera would be the flyby photo over Notre Dame was shot with a Garmin VIRB action camera sitting in a window recording 1080p video (and then I grabbed a still later), and one of the Eiffel Tower lawn shots during daytime with my iPhone. Note that I have all my photographic equipment listed here.