Did you know that the title Bastille Day is an invention of the English-speaking world to describe France’s national holiday? The French call it La Fête nationale (The National Holiday) or Le 14 juillet (the 14th of July). You probably noticed this year’s Fête nationale because of the President of France, Emmanuel Macron’s, hosting Donald Trump for the festivities in Paris.
Fortunately, we live rather far from all that. In Carcassonne, the 14th of July is reportedly a full day of festivities and crowds, culminating in one of France’s premier fireworks displays. Each year, fireworks erupt from the castle, or La Cité. We have been told that about 500,000 people come to watch the spectacle, and the city spends about 90,000 euros.
We wanted to claim a great vantage point for the spectacle. But the prospect of 500,000 people also wanting to do the same made us wonder just how early would we need to claim a spot. Carcassonne normally has only about 50,000 people; the thought of 450,000 people converging conjured images of hordes pushing through the streets everywhere. Mike’s French language teacher told us to try to find a spot by about 2 pm — only 8.5 hours before the big show. He cautioned that we avoid the main bridge, from which there is a great view of the entire castle, because of what happened in Nice one year ago exactly. Sobering thought.
The river Aude runs between La Cité and La Bastide (the “new” town below, where the main square and local shops mostly are), which means there is a long stretch of river bank that is good for viewing. We had scoped out a city park along the river, with a nice hill rising up from the water, that seemed perfect.
Cautious, we headed out at about 1 pm from our house, walking the 30 minutes to the park. We treated the day like a beach day, with beach chairs, a sun umbrella, sunscreen, picnic lunch and supper, and two bottles of wine, naturally. On our walk through La Bastide, there were definitely people about, but not the hordes we had imagined. Some shops were even open; I guess the prospect of 500,000 customers is hard to resist. Arriving at our targeted park, we were surprised and relieved to find only a few clusters of people lounging around on the grass. We selected a grassy spot where we could put our feet up, and where we could see many of the ramparts of La Cité. It was a beautiful warm sunny day, a bit hot but also breezy.
As the hours flowed by, we listened to podcasts, read a little, played games on our iPads, wandered around a bit, and watched the crowd slowly gather. By the time dusk fell, the festive crowd completely covered the park; kids were running around endlessly; cups of beer and bottles of wine popped up everywhere. The energy was light and happy.
Here’s how the scene evolved:
Being a public park, there are light posts throughout. Right in our line of sight, one cluster of lamps shone brightly as the evening grew dark. We fretted that all our anticipated fireworks photos and videos would be marred by the very bright foreground lights. No need for worry. At precisely 10:30, all the lights in the park extinguished at once and the cheers of the crowd rose up. The fireworks started gently, tentatively. Then they burst up over the castle, leading to 30 minutes of lush and loud choreography. The time flew by in our delight. And then, before we knew it, it was all over. We just stood there, happy in all the fun.
100% worth the full day in the park, enjoying the summer day, and sharing the holiday with 500,000 of our newest friends.
(There are three videos here that may not show up in the email notice. Please go to the blog post page to see the videos.)