Feasts, fêtes and fireworks are the traditional ways to celebrate Bastille Day in France. But before the partying, a brief explanation is in order. Variously called la Fête Nationale or 14 juillet, the holiday is commemorated on July 14, the day that the people of Paris stormed the Bastille prison in 1789 and effectively began the violent overthrow of the monarchy to make way for a republic. So, much like Independence Day in the United States, Bastille Day is a national holiday that marks the beginning of a modern nation.
Traditionally the revelry begins the night before, with elaborate parties and balls. If you are in Paris on the morning of Bastille Day, you will see the world’s largest and oldest military procession make its way from the Arc de Triomphe down the Champs-Élysées to the Place de la Concorde. With the President of France at the head of the parade and jets flying overhead it is a marvelous spectacle.
Afterward, the President hosts a garden party, but don’t expect a personal invitation. Most Parisians, and their countryside counterparts, settle in for an afternoon of outdoor parties, with lots of eating and drinking. As they took to the streets during the revolution, so they take to the streets on Bastille Day, only now it is to share good times.
The day ends in a spectacular fireworks display, with the Eiffel Tower serving as a backdrop, though the colorful explosions are quite common across the country in smaller towns and cities as well.
Wherever you are celebrating, start your Bastille Day right with a French-style breakfast. Thin and delicate crêpes make the perfect choice; you can stuff them with mushrooms and bacon if you are the savory sort, or if you have a sweet tooth, choose fruits or chocolate and top with whipped cream. Did you know the ham and cheese sandwich was first made in France? A hot croque monsieur makes a lovely breakfast or brunch. Delicious truffle butter takes toast from blah to bourgeios (don’t worry, they were from the class called the Third Estate, and were actually part of the revolution).
Let them eat…pâté
By afternoon, après the parade in Paris, or wherever you are in the world, a simple picnic with a French accent is the perfect way to mark the occasion. This is the time for a fresh baguette, bottle of wine, a wheel of cheese and some charcuterie. If you are feeling extravagant, and don’t have a ball to attend, make a quiche the night before, chill it and pack it up for the picnic basket. While there is no traditional food associated with Bastille Day, many choose to eat peasant food in a nod to the proletariat nature of the uprising.
Street parties often feature outdoor grills, and mounds of lamb merguez sausage, which is the national equivalent of the hot dog in the United States. The French have made the spicy merguez sausage which originated in North Africa their own. It is grilled, tucked into a baguette, slathered with Dijon mustard and often topped with a helping of french fries. This sandwich is considered by many to be de rigueur at any Bastille Day party.
Happy Bastille Day! Bonne fête! Joyeux Quatorze Juillet!