Our European trip’s first stop after Toulouse was Carcassonne. Our main reason for visiting this beautiful French town – or more specifically its historic old walled city – was to tick it off Niall’s world wonder list, and my comments purely on the old city as a wonder will follow in a subsequent post.
In this post, however, I want to focus on a happy consequence of our group’s planning, which was to be able to catch Carcassonne’s Bastille Day fireworks on July 14th. Bastille Day, for the uninitiated, is France’s National Day and has its roots in the commemoration of the storming of the Bastille, a key event in the creation of the French republic.
There’s nothing particularly historically relevant or political about the Carcassonne fireworks, though. Their main point of note is that they are truly humungous – apparently the second biggest in France on Bastille Day after Paris. Also, they have as their backdrop the beautiful old city, a hotch-potch of buildings inside walled barricades that represent the influence of numerous different eras in French history. More on the old city, as I say, later.
It’s a beautiful spot, and so to see it as the core of a world-famous fireworks display will inevitably make it popular. We heard that the town’s population grows from 40,000 to around a million on Bastille Day, and you have to get there early to bag a good spot. We arrived at what we thought was a good vantage point – a bit of scrubland across the river from the old city that smelt slightly of sewage but had a great view including a lovely old bridge – at around 2pm. There were plenty people there already, and numbers swelled over the course of the afternoon and evening, despite the fireworks not due to commence until 10.30pm. We were lucky to be a group of nine, taking it in turns to go for explores around the newer parts of Carcasonne while leaving the rest to defend our territory.
It was over eight hours among an increasingly tightly-packed and tetchy crowd where people were fighting to hold their couple of square feet with irritable determination. You’d be right to demand that the fireworks should be bloody good after all that.
Thankfully, they were more than worth the wait. I’d say they were by far and away the best fireworks I’ve ever seen, in fact.
The show started with a lovely effect whereby low-lying fire effects across the ramparts lit up the whole of the old city in a rich red hue, as if burning, soon exploding in a spectacular kaleidoscope of colour and noise. There was a beautiful symphony to the cacophony, with wows from the crowds as the fireworks reflected on the river in front of us while shooting high up into the sky around the city walls.
With astonishing feats of precision such as smiley faces and love hearts, the display soon dulled down to a still-burning lull, the sense of expectation from the crowd growing as it became clear that this was far from the end of it. It was like a post-rock magnum opus, like a quiet part in a Mogwai song, teasing and tempting the crowd with the impending second wave of noise and colour that soon came with renewed vigour and energy and led the crowd to a phenomenal cruscendo.
I’ve uploaded a few photos of the fireworks, but also managed to take about a minute of video towards the end. This wasn’t the finale, and my camera-recording skills are somewhat lacking, so this video doesn’t really do the show justice. Hopefully, though, it gives you a wee flavour of the spectacular show we were treated to.
If you’re in Carcassonne for Bastille Day, it’s of course well worth catching the fireworks. Just as long as you’re willing to hog your spot for the whole day beforehand.
Another wee tip: don’t drive back to a campsite about twenty minutes out of town in the wee small hours afterwards, at the same time as the best part of a million other folk are also trying to get out of Carcassonne. If you do, it’ll take you nearly two hours and your satnav will lead you on a scary but exhilarating night-time off-road pursuit along a dirt track running through a vineyard.
It’s the surprising little detours that make travel, I suppose.