A little bit of history first.

The first stone of the Bastille Fortress was laid in 1370 in the extension of the already existing city walls. The heavy rectangular building was flanked by eight 24 metre high round towers and surrounded by 25 metre wide moats.

It ceased to be a military fortress in the late 16th century and was converted into a state prison. A simple letter signed by the king was enough to send a man inside its cold walls.

Seven prisoners were still imprisoned in the Bastille on 14th July, 1789 when it was seized by the revolutionaries who saw in it the symbol of royal power and absolutism.

Ironically, the 633 men who seized it were cabinetmakers of the nearby St-Antoine district, mostly of German origin.

Demolition began on 15th July, 1789 and was completed in 1792. Most stones were used to complete the Pont de la Concorde.

The remaining stones were used for the creation of 83 models of the fortress, which were sent to each French département to commemorate the end of the monarchy.

Dark cobblestones on the square mark its location.

French Republican guard. Credit: Jastrow via Wikimedia Commons

What is Bastille Day?

Bastille is for us French people known as Quatorze Juillet (14th July) and Fête Nationale or colloquially Fet. Nat. after the abbreviation found on our calendar.

A little anecdote: some French people of African origin from Guadeloupe and Martinique islands are named Fet. Nat. as the previous generations liked naming their children after the saint celebrated on the day they were born.

Bastille Day is not as its name might suggest a commemoration of the storming of the Bastille Fortress on 14th July,1789 but the commemoration of the Fête de la Fédération, which took place a year later on 14th July, 1790.

The storming of the Bastille was in fact deemed too bloody to be able to carry the symbol of freedom, equality and fraternity.  The Festival of the Federation took place on the Champ de Mars and commemorated the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. Even the unfortunate Louis XVI attended it.

How do we celebrate?

Bastille Day is the most important holiday of the year after Christmas and brings together all social classes.

This is an opportunity for a spectacular military parade on the famous Avenue des Champs-Elysées. The parade begins at the Arc de Triomphe. French and foreign guest troops march down towards the Place de la Concorde where they split in front of the huge canopy where the president of the Republic and his guests of honour stand.

Brazilian army band in the 14th July parade. Credit: davric via Wikimedia Commons

The parade is followed by a garden party in the gardens of the Elysée Palace.

It is always advisable to arrive very early to secure a front row spot along the avenue.

A spectacular fireworks display is organised in the evening in the Champ de Mars near the Eiffel Tower and is followed by massive street celebrations.

Bastille Day Ball is a veritable institution; the streets become the venue for a huge popular ball where the whole of France dances and has fun until dawn, and this since 1880!

Bastille Day is eventually an opportunity for the President of the Republic to grant remissions.

If you decide to visit Paris on July 14th, you will find many shops open, but it will be very different if you travel to the province as everyone is busy celebrating.

It’s best to follow the flow and enjoy the day.

About the author

I am French Parisienne and lived in Asia for nearly 20 years before settling in the UK 3 years ago. I have an interest in everything and every culture and am an avid reader. French linguistics is my "specialty" but I have a passion for history and try to mingle them. Humour is very important to me, I love writing, talking, laughing, exchanging ideas, learning more from others... the world is full of fascinating people! I never leave my home without my camera, there is always something unusual, beautiful or strange to capture. I like to pay attention to details, to the world of the "small", a parallel world if you take the time to look for it...And above all, I love my country of birth, France.