With Bastille Day celebrated this week across France, Madame Vacances’ Joanna La Forge gives an insider’s guide on where to travel for a truly Gallic festive fix.
This Thursday is the most treasured French national holiday, which sets the storming of the Bastille in 1789 as an essential part of the nation’s history and psyche. July 14th is the fête national when all villages in France will hold some sort of festivity, most with firework displays and traditional music, song and sustenance. But these very French fêtes aren’t just reserved for that single day. Bastille Day is really the start of the summer festival season, with numerous weekends throughout July and August set aside to celebrate local traditions. Here’s my pick of the parties…
Picture by Bine Rodenberger
On the July 14th at 6pm, Moliets’ town mayor invites everyone for cheese and ‘barricot’ (a local wine drunk from a tiny barrel) in the town square and, later in the evening, a family-focused dance with a live band and outdoor bar. This tops out at 11pm by fireworks on the long sandy beach.
In August (13th-15th) another local fête lights up the generous beaches of this surf town, with outdoor bars and BBQs, petanque competitions, live music, dancing, and the impressive ‘toro de fuego’ – a giant firework spewing bull that showers sparks and flames. Burning Man eat your heart out.
L’Isle sur-la-Sorgue, Provence
As the name of the village suggests, it’s all about the water here: namely, the river Sorgue. And Bastille Day is no exception with all-out nautical entertainment including a water jousting tournament in precariously small wooden boats and frenetic pedalo races. With the mercury sitting comfortably around 32 degrees, getting wet is almost entirely the point, so a sailor’s skill set isn’t required. An evening torch-lit procession takes place as the sun begins to set, and from 10pm an enormous firework display takes centre stage. Local bands bring in the finale where everyone from infants to oldies are encouraged to get up and get down. Proper family fun.
The Vendée, Pays-de-la-Loire
In France’s big cities, a military parade is de rigueur on Bastille Day morning followed by a concert with fireworks over the town centre once the sun goes down. On the coast of France, Vendée dwellers are lucky enough to enjoy firework displays with their feet in the sand, on the long beaches that line its quaint seaside towns. The sea reflects each explosion in the sky, adding to the buzzing atmosphere on the beaches. But what, perhaps, makes the Vendée so special, is the chance to sail out to nearby islands – Yeu, Noirmoutier and Re – and see the show from there. There are plenty of parties to pick. Here’s two of my favourites:
Saint Jean de Monts (July 14th): at sundown, groups dressed in traditional garb (think lots of lace, big skirts and some impressively tall millinery) walk from shore to village marking the start of celebrations. Children often tag along after the procession, which makes a loop of the main square before returning to the beach. Fireworks kick off at 11pm on the beach followed by a lively village dance (bal) in the town square.
Saint Gilles Croix de Vie (July 14th): a classic Bastille marching band starts the evening's party proceedings in this pretty seafront town, parading from the embankment of the main beach through the village, playing traditional tunes. At the customary hour of 11, a huge pyrotechnic display takes off from the long pier of St. Gilles Croix de Vie, fireworks visible as far as the Boisvinet beach and the main town beach where crowds start to gather at sundown to vie for best positions in the sand.
La Feclaz, eastern Alps
Beaches are a boon to Bastille Day celebrations but to beat beachfront the crowds, the best spot to take in the traditional fireworks display is atop a snowy but sunny mountain, in this case with views over Lac du Bourget and Aix Les Bains, in the pre-alpine Massif des Bauges region. Here, fireworks are launched from boats on the lake against a dramatic mountain backdrop. And not a military marching band in sight.