If you ever wondered why the French phrase Joie de vivre became universally known, a brief glimpse of festivals in France will explain everything! With perhaps the best annual holiday entitlements of all European countries – the average is five weeks per employee – the French certainly have time to enjoy their leisure and, with their devotion to good food and drink and their determination to enjoy life to the full, French festivals are amongst the liveliest you’ll find.
With everything from small village fêtes to grand city parades, travellers to France can be certain of finding some special celebrations that will be completely what they’re looking for. Some of the festivals have origins that stretch back for centuries, whilst others are far more contemporary. What they all share in common, though, is unbridled enthusiasm and excitement and a richness of atmosphere that will delight the visitor and entice them back to this fascinating country.
Bastille Day, July 14th, is probably France’s most important secular festival occasion – and one of its oldest, dating back, of course, to the storming of the infamous prison in 1789. The Paris celebrations of the anniversary of the French Republic’s formation are familiar throughout the world, but similar civic ceremonies occur all over the country.
Bastille Day might loom large in the French festive calendar as the Fête Nationale but there is one other event that still dwarfs it in terms of attendance. Every year, the Tour de France is the most watched sporting event in the world, with hundreds of thousands of spectators lining the route as the top cyclists fight for that much-coveted yellow jersey. Each day of the Tour has a carnival-like atmosphere along the French roads and it is a compelling attraction for many people who are not normally cycling aficionados. A sporting event of a very different nature – but with a wonderful ambience for both competitors and spectators – is the annual Medoc Marathon, which has been a spectacular highlight of the Bordeaux region 1984.
Many French festivals are firmly rooted in the history of the country. There are a number of authentic Medieval fairs, with dancing, jousting and street theatre – and, this being France, a tantalising array of food and drink.
Music also features prominently at most French festivals. Those at Avignon and Nice have the highest international reputations but the whole country participates in the unique and highly innovative Fête de la Musique at the end of June when, adopting the ethos of ‘music everywhere, concert nowhere’ musicians perform free of charge in parks, gardens, streets and public buildings.
It’s not only in summer, however, that visitors can enjoy festivals throughout the country. In the run up to Christmas, many towns and villages have their own Christmas markets, which have a lively atmosphere and create a lot of enthusiasm, as well as offering the chance to buy some highly original festive gifts. One of the largest and most popular of these Christmas markets is in the distinctive Alsace city of Strasbourg, around the striking cathedral. In the autumn, the Paris Expo has the increasingly popular Salon du Chocolat, and the special carnival celebrations of places such as Nice in the weeks before Easter are that exciting, enthusiastic mixture of sacred and profane which characterises Carnival.
The festivals in France are some of the many reasons the British continue to regard the country as one of our most popular holiday destinations and the comparatively easy access to all regions of this fascinating country means that we shall continue to search out that unsurpassable ‘joie de vivre’.