14 July 2013

Bastille Day – France en Fête

The French don't call their biggest holiday Bastille Day, of course. For them it's la fête nationale, or simply le quatorze juillet – even if half the country celebrates on the 13th rather than the 14th of July. If geography is on your side, you might be able to catch back-to-back festivities. Over the years, I've had the luck to be in France on both nights, and each experience has been as diverse as the country itself.

The village experience
If you're a Francophile, Bastille Day in a small village reinforces every reason why you love France. Last summer, while I was in the Lot Valley, I was taken by my hosts at Lot Cycling Holidays to the small village of Rampoux on 14 July. Several hundred people were squeezed into two long marquees, where €16 bought you five courses of rustic food and unlimited wine and water – capped off with creamy rounds of cabécou cheese. A band played old-fashioned French songs that required no dancing skill apart from a basic ability to waltz. There was raucous singing that went on till the early hours, and at some point I imagined they had set off the fireworks. We didn't stick around long enough to find out, as we had left by 2am. It was one of the most enjoyable nights I'd ever had in France.

The small town experience
Purely by chance I was in St-Girons in the Ariège one year on 13 July, intending just a quick stopover before going on to Carcassonne where I had planned to spend the festivities. I had no idea that St-Girons was one of the towns that celebrated on the 13th, so a stroll into the centre of this pleasant riverside town in the Midi-Pyrénées quickly revealed a massive party going on. More dancing, market stalls, dodgem cars for the kids and an impressive display of fireworks for such a small town.

The slightly bigger town experience
That brings me to Carcassonne, which has the second-largest fireworks display in France. (Paris comes on top, naturally.) The fireworks are set off behind the ramparts of the medieval citadel, La Cité, where the display has all the drama of a five-act play. By the end it looks as though the Cité is on fire. Utterly compelling.

The seaside town experience
A bowl of mussels on the quayside of Sète, followed by cheesy French bands playing in the main square. Then a manic bash on the dodgems before a cocktail at the water's edge and a brilliant fireworks display. I could think of worse ways of spending a July evening in Languedoc.

The twin town experience
Antibes and Juan-les-Pins sit side by side on the Mediterranean, barely a kilometre apart. By sheer luck, I was in Antibes on the 13th when they hold their festival, and in Juan-les-Pins on the 14th for theirs. As restaurants in Antibes were advertising hugely overpriced menus for the night of the fête, we decided to stock up on food from the market in Cours Masséna and have a picnic on the balcony of the seafront flat we were renting. The fireworks were being held just next door on the beach, where an orchestra was playing the theme tunes from James Bond films. It was entertaining, but there was none of the carnival atmosphere I'd seen at other celebrations. Meanwhile, in Juan-les-Pins, we were guests at the jazz festival on the 14th, when the organisers time the fireworks to go off between sets. Jazz on a summer's night and fireworks lighting up the Mediterranean. Pure magic.

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