Monday, July 14, 2008

Allons Enfants de la Patrie!...

The streets of Paris are quiet today...except for the Champs-Elysées. As the French celebrate their national holiday, the entire city is focused on the parade that follows this symbolic route. Navigating the rest of the city on bike is a breeze; all of the streets within proximity of the main event are literally deserted. No cars, no pedestrians, no other bikes, and no Parisians, who generally prefer to leave summer in Paris to the tourists. But wander closer to the parade and you'll find yourself in a mass of humanity. Patriotic music blares, spectators climb trees and give each other shoulder rides in order to get a better look, and countless French police, gendarmes and soldiers ensure order. Bastille Day, which commemorates the storming of the Bastille prison (a sign of monarchical absolute power) by French commoners, is well under way.

One of the things you'll notice about the July 14th parade is the heavy military influence. No dancing clowns, beauty queens or candy throwers here; just rows and rows of officers, the French Republican Guard, and even foreign heads of state. Some non-military types are thrown into the mix as well, most notably firefighters, but this is without a doubt an event for showcasing the armed forces. Nevertheless, the mood remains festive. You can even take your picture with obliging soldiers who show off their tanks and trucks to the public before the parade. The most impressive part of the spectacle is the coordinated flyover of some serious-looking military planes. First there are the ones trailing red, white and blue smoke, then group after group of stealth fighters, bombers and other large aircraft. The noise and the speed are incredible. And don't forget to keep an eye out for the grand finale: a military helicopter procession that starts at La Défense, zooms over the Arc de Triomphe, up the Champs-Elysees and ends by dropping parachutists with French flag decorated chutes who land at Concorde. Talk about making an entrance!

Besides thoroughly enjoying myself, I learned a few important lessons at today's Bastille Day parade. First, it's important to arrive early. There were so many people lining the Champs that I was never able to get a really good, close view of the procession. If I'm ever here on this day again, I will pack a few croissants and my camera and set out right away in the morning to claim my front-row spot. Secondly, you don't want to try anything stupid in the crowd. When the Le Président de la République, the U.N. Secretary General, and various other V.I.P. guests are in attendance, security doesn't get taken lightly. Most interesting were the snipers on the roof of the Grand Palais. Lastly, after today's extraordinary celebratory events, I can't wait to see tonight's extraordinary celebratory events: fireworks shooting off of the Eiffel Tower. Somehow, I think it promises to be anything but mundane.


Greg Wesson said...

I came down from London to Paris for Bastille Day.

I tried to arrive early at the Parade, with my alarm going off at 7:30 AM, but with all the streets a rat maze of blockades and officers pointing this way and that, it took me an hour to walk from my hotel at Vendome to the Champs Elysee, in time to see the back of rows of peoples heads. I did catch a glimpse of the President (luckily he was standing up in the back of the jeep), hear the tanks and see the planes (that was the easiest part, just look up).

Speaking of security being taken seriously, I did encounter a couple of protesters. They barely got their sign out and got out a few slogans before the police surrounded them and dragged them off. 20 seconds tops, I'd say.

Off to dinner, and then the Champs de Mars for the fireworks!


Tanya said...

I hope you enjoyed the fireworks, Greg! I also hope you didn't have as much trouble as we did in getting home...the crowd was unbelievable. But the show was all worth it!