This past Sunday, July 14, all of Paris celebrated Bastille Day, France’s national holiday, and we were there. Not always in exactly the right spot, mind you, but there.
After our somewhat disappointing dinner at the Michelin-starred Shang Palace on Saturday night, my wife Jan and I set out bright and reasonably early on Sunday morning for a light breakfast. We ate outside at La Terrasse, one of several cafés on our favourite corner in Paris, Place de l’Ecole Militaire.
And then we started walking north to cross the Seine and make our way to the Avenue des Champs-Elysées, where we were to view the legendary Bastille Day parade.
Had we known what was ahead, we would have skipped breakfast. Maybe we would have even skipped going to sleep on Saturday night; we could have just camped out on the parade route. Failing that, we should have brought a couple of tall ladders on the train with us. The reality is that by the time we arrived anywhere near the parade route, most of Paris had arrived ahead of us.
All along the key roads leading to the Champs-Elysées, soldiers and police were re-directing traffic and keeping an eye on the crowds. Here are some serious-looking soldiers doing their job:
Since it was France’s national holiday, and Paris is the capital, the diplomatic crowd was much in evidence. Here’s an incredibly long row of diplomats’ limousines, each bearing a national flag. I managed to walk a few metres along the row, trying to get the “right” photo, when a watchful soldier made it clear that I should get back into the crowd and keep walking. (It was only a flesh wound; I’ll be fine.)
This next photo shows people ambling up a major street, foolishly believing that they could get close to the parade:
Finally, Jan and I arrived at the Champs-Elysées, where it was obvious we wouldn’t be seeing much of anything except perhaps the very tops of soldiers’ hats and a few glimpses of the flags and banners they were carrying. All along the route, the crowds must have been 20-people deep, and only the first few rows (plus those smart citizens standing on ladders) could see much of anything.
I should explain that this parade is all about France’s military might — there are no funny floats or amusing helium balloons, and virtually everything is at street-level, including row after row of marching soldiers, sailors and various police forces.
Eventually, after much shuffling through crowds, we moved into the corner of a turn in the road, and waited next to a barrier to get a glimpse of something — anything. After just a few minutes of that, I gave up and walked onto a small grassy area and sat down.
And that’s when the sky exploded.
Just a minute or two after I had plunked down, a group of military jets blasted along the parade route, with trails of smoke in blue, white and red, France’s national colours. It was a wonderful sight, and the planes just kept on coming — sometimes singly, sometimes in groups. For instance, here’s a group of four fighters — two with conventional wings, and two with delta wings:
Often, the types of planes were mixed, like these fighters that were following a large bomber or cargo plane:
I didn’t try counting the planes, but there were lots of them. Eventually, the sky parade ended, and I figured it was time to start walking back to our hotel, where we were to meet Canadian friends Suzie and Steve at noon.
Meanwhile, RFD’s Chief Staff Photographer, Jan, went off on her own to get some good photos of soldiers and equipment as the parade broke up; unfortunately, she soon found that the battery on her camera had died.
In any case, I walked back to our hotel by myself, stopping in cafés a couple of times for an espresso or a draft beer — and was finally able to see the parade for at least a few minutes, on television. Here’s a group of military police, shown as they’re marching away from the Arc de Triomphe:
With the parade behind us, it was time for seeing friends. First we enjoyed chatting and people-watching with Suzie and Steve while sipping Champagne at one of our favourite cafés on the Place de l’Ecole Militaire. Then the four of us had a short walk to Le Septieme Vin on Avenue Bosquet for lunch. (Mini-review: Le Septieme Vin is a small, cozy, friendly place; always good food and wine; lots of choice on the regular menu and the menu du jour. An essential place for lunch or dinner in the 7th, our arrondissement of choice.)
By mid-afternoon, following our excellent lunch, the four of us said our good-byes, and Jan and I took a taxi to the Gare de Lyon. Our friends Larry and Alix from Florida had checked into a hotel on top of the station, from which they would head south on the TGV the next day. We had only a few hours together, so we made the most of it.
First it was a taxi back to our hotel in the 7th, through especially dense traffic; by now it was early evening and a great time to sit in our hotel’s cool courtyard, sip white wine, and catch up on the news since we last saw our friends, on our visit to Florida in February.
Then it was off to dinner, with a short walk to a trustworthy Italian restaurant where Jan and I had eaten many times before, Romantica Caffé Invalides, on Boulevard de La Tour-Maubourg. (Mini-review: Comfortable, smart, with authentic Italian food, including a creamy pasta that’s prepared inside a giant wheel of cheese. They also serve a tasty Sardinian pasta dish that’s graced only with olive oil, breadcrumbs, garlic and bottarga — fish roe that’s been pressed and dried, and is then shaved onto the pasta. That’s my dish below.)
By 11 p.m., the four of us were back at our hotel — and the explosions were just starting outside. Alix and Larry had to head back to their hotel, since they were leaving Paris early the next morning, but Jan and I began walking toward the Ecole Militaire and all the fireworks.
The military school is at one end of the Parc du Champ-de-Mars, that amazing and immense field that stretches all the way to the Eiffel Tower. And on this night, we witnessed one of the best two or three fireworks shows we’ve ever seen. (I think the only one that rivals it was the display we saw at Edinburgh Castle, more than 20 years ago, at the conclusion of the Edinburgh International Festival.)
For the remainder of this posting, I’ll be showing just a few of the bursts of colour and light that lit up the Tower, the park, and a huge crowd. We’ll start with this one:
As the display continued, Jan and I kept pressing forward, through the crowd and toward the Tower:
All the while, rock music was blasting away from rows of huge speakers. From time to time, the lights on the Tower were turned on, which contributed to the amazing show of colour:
With each new burst, the sky would light up in one or more different colours, including this red display:
And these bursts of white and bright green:
I especially like this next photo, since the white lights are so sharp around the Tower:
And for our finish, here’s a multi-coloured series of bursts that came near the show’s conclusion, after some 45 minutes:
Thankfully, the huge crowd dispersed peacefully through the streets around the Tower. They were watched over by police in black riot gear, including scary shoulder protectors that made them look like a team of Robo Cops. (I also have a feeling that some genetic engineering has taken place, allowing several police to reach seven feet tall.)
It had been quite a day, and Jan and I were dragging a bit as we walked back to our hotel. To put it mildly, we weren’t looking forward to Monday’s long train journey home.
Tomorrow, I’ll provide a short photographic tour of our favourite street in Paris. Don’t worry: no soldiers, no fireworks, no riot police.