7 things I wish I’d known before Bastille Day

15 Jul

Nice hat Photo by Jennifer Flueckiger1. The French like to practice

Last Wednesday morning around 10 am I heard the low droning sound of what I’d grown up to recognise as a tornado siren. It starts loud, progressively gets louder, and then gets quieter again a bit like someone slowly revving their engine.  In Ohio, this siren meant get your bottom to your basement or get in a safe place because a tornado might touch down. However, Paris is not tornado country.

What was this about? It took a matter of a millisecond and the help of my overactive imagination for me to jump from a conversation I had with someone about Paris during WWII to, oh god, these air raid warnings! Where do I go? What do I do? I ran to the window to see if I could detect any activity or clues. As you would expect, it was quiet and everyone was going about their business.  I sort of remembered hearing the same sound about a month ago on a Wednesday, ah a monthly drill…

However, when I heard the unmistakable roar of fighter planes flying very low and almost directly above my building only a few hours later I started to get scared again. There were five in v-formation, then three more, then a bomber and two more jets. I kept thinking it was over and then another roar would bring me to my window. There were too many for this to be an exercise! Was this connected to the sirens I heard in the morning?  What was I supposed to do? What about my husband? My neighbours were also taking a look. But everyone was calm, even taking pictures.

Anxious, I put a call out on twitter, the most obvious thing to do in an emergency:

Sirens this am, 6-10 low military jet flybys over central #Paris just now – Is this all prep for Bastille Day or do I find a shelter?

One reply came from @EvelyneLetawe

@JenFluke Don’t look for shelter in Notre-Dame 🙂 http://t.co/43lYECe

Planes over Notre Dame photo by @EvelyneLetawe @http://twitpic.com/5m1qtzIt linked to a picture of plane flying over the famous towers of Notre Dame with the caption ‘Neat terrorist attack on Paris Notre-Dame or rehearsal for July 14?’

2.       You get a wake up call

Sorry to go back again to my Ohio roots, but on the 4th of July, American Independence Day, a network of volunteers who did not like friends would drive around my town at some ungodly hour shouting through a bull horn, “It’s the 4th of July! It’s time to get up for the Parade!” I always thought this was a quant custom from a small town in America.  However, yesterday at 8am in central Paris I also got a wake-up call.  About 100 military-men in smart red uniforms on horseback blew trumpets at the end of my block. I hate to say it, but this was a slight upgrade from the bullhorn.

3.       When they say military parade, they mean military parade

Tanks down rue Royal Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerA friend who has lived in Paris for 20 years gave us the top tip for watching the parade.  After the parade passes the French President and other dignitaries on the Place de la Concord, it takes a left up rue Royal and past the Madeleine where it finishes. This area is much less crowded than the zoo that is the Champs Elysee. We arrived about 30 minutes before the parade started, got two spaces on the lower steps of the church and had a great view. We even got to see the flybys I’d watched them practice.

This parade is a military parade and is a lesson in different marching styles and variation in military uniforms.  If this is your thing, you will be in heaven.  While this was interesting to me for a while, I like a bit of music with my parade. Some of the groups that pass did sing, but most just march.  The only band brought up the rear of the parade.  Don’t expect to see floats either.  Military hardware is the closest thing. We saw everything from tanks to digger trucks all covered with men and women with guns.

4.       Wear comfortable shoes and carbo load

Quite a lot of walking is required to take in all the Bastille Day sights and activities.  Public transport is running but very crowed so often you will have to walk.  There are also many distractions.

Galleries Lafayette, Paris Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerShopping and looking at the view – I was surprised that most bigger stores were open on the national holiday. The legendary summer sales are on in Paris. Our parade viewing spot was close to Galleries Lafayette, one of Paris’s largest and oldest department stories, and we had to have a look.  Galleries Lafayette is a beautiful store that features a 7-story stained-glass rotunda over the main sales floor. It also has decent food options on the top floor and has one of the great views of Paris from its roof.

Museums– Many of the main museums are free on Bastille Day including Louvre, Musee d’Orsay and many others.

Fair at the Tuileries Gardens – A huge Ferris wheel and other fairground rides are set up in the Jardins des Tuileries. This is also close to the parade route. (Apparently, Madonna and her kids were spotted there yesterday.)

5.       Recharge you camera battery between the parade and the fireworks

No explanation needed, other than this is why I have no good pictures.

6.       The Eiffel Tower is not everything

I must have read 20 times that the fireworks are shot off from the Trocadero, the complex on the other side of the Seine from the Eiffel Tower. However, in my mind the Eiffel Tower was the centre of the fireworks display.  While the Eiffel Tower does play a large part in the finale and is lovely to look at as you stand with everyone waiting for the show to start, the bulk of the fireworks go off on the other bank and many don’t reach the height of the top of the tower.  Keep this in mind when you are choosing a spot to view the fireworks. Just because you can see the Tower does not mean you will have a great view of the show.

We watched on the Pont de l‘Alma and did have a great view of the spectacular show. However, next time, short of finding friends with a flat with a good view, I would probably brave the crowds in the Champs de Mars or the Trocadero.  This is what you would have seen of the finale of the Paris Bastille Day fireworks from the Champs de Mars last night.

Alternatively, it looked like you could get reasonably priced food (read picnic style food and self-service) and a table with an amazing view at the Palais de Tokyo. A few tables were still available when we passed by at about 9pm. Sadly, as newbies, we pressed on. It would be worth checking this option out for next year.

7.       Save a little for after

Tired from a wonderful and full day we staggered from the metro stop at Saint Paul to head home.  As we neared the rue Sevigne we could hear the music pumping out of the Fireman’s Ball at the Marais fire station.  Fireman’s Balls are held as fundraisers in fire stations all around France.  They all have a different personality, but the one in the Marais has a reputation for being one of the liveliest and most popular.  It looked like great fun and we wanted to join the party, however we saw the queue that stretched down the block and we felt our aching legs. Next year!

Really helpful sites:

http://www.bonjourparis.com/

http://en.parisinfo.com/shows-exhibitions-paris/

[photo credit of planes flying over Notre Dame  by @EvelyneLetawe @http://twitpic.com/5m1qtz]

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4 Responses to “7 things I wish I’d known before Bastille Day”

  1. Niall Bradley July 15, 2011 at 6:24 pm #

    Jen it all sounds fantastic. Having spent almost every 14th of July of my formative years in France I am a tad jealous now. Hope I can make use of the top tips soon.

  2. nanskiparis July 15, 2011 at 8:21 pm #

    Great post, Jennifer :-0 )

  3. cartbeforehorse July 24, 2011 at 11:19 am #

    I’m surprised to hear that the Eiffel Tower wasn’t the centre of the fireworks display. It certainly was 2 years ago (2009) when they celebrated the big-boy’s 120th birthday. I remember it looking a lot more like this:

    I agree though that the show is designed to be watched from Trocadero or Champ de Mars. A side-on view is a bit like going to watch the world cup final at the pub, where the only remaining standing place is at an 89 degree angle to the TV. (Yes, I talk from experience).

    • Jennifer Flueckiger July 25, 2011 at 8:44 am #

      Thanks for your link to the past Bastille Day fireworks show off of the tower. Unfortunately, this year nothing like this happened. The tower sparkled a the end but all of the pyrotechnics were elsewhere. Even though we were not head on, it was still worth going. BTW – Hope your neck has recovered from such a difficult world cup final viewing angle 🙂

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