next weekend... ...celebrate Bastille Day

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Indy Lifestyle Online
We call it Bastille Day. The French just call it "le 14 juillet". It's their equivalent of Independence Day: a time for the revolutionary spirit to come to the fore as France commemorates "the victory of the people over feudal oppression". It's also the perfect excuse to hop over the Channel for a weekend in Paris.

14 july? which one?

Nobody knows. When the powers of the Third Republic decreed 14 July as "the annual national day" in 1880, they avoided stipulating which year was being remembered. Was it 14 July 1789, the day revolutionaries stormed the Bastille prison, or 14 July 1790, the day of the Fete de la Federation? The confusion was probably deliberate: in 1880, 90 per cent of all army officers were still in favour of the monarchy and the government was careful to avoid stirring up a revolt. Some French people today don't even know that 14 July has anything to do with the Revolution.

how did it start?

The first celebration took place at Longchamp, when more than 300,000 people watched the war minister present flags to various regiments. Paris and the rest of France partied for a week.

what happens today?

In the morning, there is a military parade. Jacques Chirac arrives at the Arc de Triomphe at 10am, then drives down the Champs-Elysees to the Place de la Concorde. At 10.30am: military music and a flypast. Then come the infantry, the cavalry, the tanks and the fire engines. To wrap up at 11.30am, look to the skies for another flypast.

where to party

Luckily, Bastille Day also has its lighter side. Balls are the traditional way to celebrate and this year one will be held on the Place de la Bastille (where else?) on the evening of 13 July. From 9pm until 1am you can swing your partner round to Parisian accordion music.For those with a penchant for men in uniform, Parisian firemen organise a number of public balls. The tradition started with the opening of one fire station to the public on 14 July 1937. The stationmaster thought the national day was the perfect occasion to show people what went on in his station and an impromptu fete followed. Now you can dance from 9pm to 4am on both the 13th and 14th in fire stations across the city, including at 12 rue Carpeaux in Montmartre; 7 rue de Sevignie in the Marais; 11 rue du Vieux-Colombier at Saint- Germain-des-Pres and 21 rue de Jour at Les Halles.

a bit of culture?

For culture vultures, Bastille Day offers a free fix. Both the Paris Opera and the Comedie Francaise theatre open their doors to the public free of charge. The hiccup, of course, is that there are a limited number of seats in both establishments and the unpleasant business of handing over money is replaced by the unpleasant business of queuing for hours.

The doors open at 11am at the Comedie Francaise (Place Colette) and at 2pm at the Opera Bastille (Place de la Bastille), but if you want a chance of getting a ticket, then try to get there by 8am (pretty tough if you've been at a firemen's ball until 4am). If you get there in time, you can see Moi by the 19th-century dramatist Eugene Labiche at 2.30pm at the Comedie Francaise and choreographer Maurice Bejart's adaptation of Beethoven's 9th Symphony at 3pm at the Opera Bastille.

and to round it all off...

Admire the firework display in the Trocadero Gardens at 10.30pm on 14 July. It will last for 234 minutes and will be accompanied by music based on the theme of "Paris, je t'aime". They will be songs by the likes of Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour, Yves Montand, Serge Gainsbourg and Grace Jones, as well as the overture to Bizet's "Patrie" and a chance for a knees-up to the cancan. Smart spectators will either line the banks of the Seine or watch the proceedings from the Champs de Mars.

Ian Phillips

In next week's Sunday Review: People-watching in Paris cafes.

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