Bastille Day 1989

I’ve been in Paris on Bastille Day on exactly one occasion, but it was a good one, 1989, the bicentennial of the French Revolution. I had read about the lavish festivities planned for the capital and had jumped on a bus more or less on a whim, with just a small bag and not much cash.

I ended up spending four nights sleeping rough on the streets, which was not as bad as it sounds, since the city was awash with young tourists too cheap to spring for accommodation, and the Gare du Nord in particular resembled a huge public dormitory. Not that I actually slept much, since it was pretty much a constant party, and every street urchin in the city seemed to have been issued with an unlimited supply of fireworks, which they gleefully discharged at all hours and locations.

The weather was fine, the crowds were good-humoured and the cops were (mostly) relaxed, so a good time was had by all. I watched the traditional military parade, and later saw President Mitterrand arrive to open the brand-new Opéra Bastille. While the great and good enjoyed the music inside, the sans-culottes partied outside until dawn. I fell asleep on the steps of the opera house, and was rudely awakened by the outbreak of a mini-riot, complete with bottle-throwing punks, volleys of tear-gas and a climatic charge by baton-wielding riot police which convinced me that discretion was the better part of valour.

The highlight of the celebrations was a grand parade on the Champs-Élysées, but the crowds were so dense that I couldn’t get closer than two blocks away, though I was able to watch it all on a giant TV screen (which was quite a novelty in those days). I wasn’t caring much by that point, as three days and nights of nearly ceaseless movement and intoxication had drained even my youthful energy, and by the next morning I was ready to collapse onto the bus for the long ride home.

I’ve been back to Paris numerous times since, and always had a great time, but I’ve never felt the city as energised as it was that week. If I’m still around in 2039 I’ll go back for the 250th anniversary. I may even stay up all night, just for old times’ sake.

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