A must see destination on my itinerary. I had read a wonderful book during the depths of my despair a couple of years ago about a narrow boat that made its way from somewhere in the Midlands down to London, across the Channel and then through France to Carcassonne. I loved that book, i think that it gave me hope and I needed to visit whilst i was in the area. The main canal marina happened to be right outside the station, so i couldn’t really miss it. My plan was to dump my bags somewhere and scoot round the town for a couple of hours before continuing on to Toulouse for the night. No bag place, so i had to take everything with me. NOt too much bother apart from the fact that it was heading on 30 degrees and humid as hell. I sweated buckets and cursed my less than minimal luggage decisions, though not for long, make it a challenge, I told myself, something to rise against and overcome. It became easier after that. It was July 14th, the biggest national holiday in France and the place was packed. Narrow streets again, this time with thousands of people and stalls outside the shops, making the most of the holiday feeling. Sales everywhere, a reflection of the current economic climate, yet a fun and carefree atmosphere. I headed off in the wrong direction to the old town, checking after a while and having to turn back on myself. Once on the right track, decided that i should pop into the tourist information centre and grab myself a map. You know that the most famous firework display takes place this evening I was told. Over the castle, people come from all over france to see it. Decision made, i would stay here if i could get a room and see the spectacle.
A dorm room in an old convent, just outside the old city. Just what i wanted, and only £16 for the night, sheets were £3 extra but that was fine. I dumped my bags and went on an exploration of the old town. As with everywhere else, the crowds were amazing, the old town, within the ramparts were like a tube platform at rush hour, a mad crush everywhere. The town was great to see, though jammed with tourist shops and overpriced eateries. I did the rounds and escaped back down the hill into relative tranquility and more comfortable stroll, sans back pack. I had gathered that it would be prudent to get a decent spot to watch the fireworks fairly early on. People had started gathering in numbers when i came down the hill, so I had a bite to eat, purchased further provisions for later and made my way back to the river bank opposite the castle and found a near perfect spot. Perfect that was for the view, it was already rather busy and my place was on a steep, grassy bank under the shadow of the Pont Neuf and settled in. It was only half past four. I watched the hoards gathering on both sides of the river, children playing games and adults with their picnics and beers for a while. My Stephen King book of short stories came out and a couple of hours went by. My perfect spot was beginning to be on rather a steep angle, progressively more difficult to keep comfortable, but i had it now and wasn’t about to give it up. There was a rather lumpy rock to lean on that helped and the occasional couple of paragraphs standing up eased my aching seat. Folk kept arriving and most of the grass disappeared under their rugs and coats. I ate some more food and watched the pigeons for a while, gathering under the bridge then taking off and circling again for a while, I bet they were wondering what was going on, all these people disturbing their usual quiet evening.
Thankfully it was rather cloudy, else i would have fried, or shrivelled like a sun dried tomato, it was a lovely afternoon, turning into a very pleasant evening. The gathering continued to swell, more so now as it was beginning to get dark, more from the clouds than nightfall, but that came too, eventually. Kids started letting off little fireworks over on the far bank, creating a piss take of Oohs and Aahs from people around me, though I doubt they heard on the other side. The book came and went, short story after short story consumed, to pass the time as well as for enjoyment. It became dark and the lights went on, illuminating the bridges and the castle in an orange glow. That got more exclamations from the crowd and further people wound their way through the seated masses in search of a patch on which to sit. My extravagant patch continued to shrink until i could have leaned on my neighbours in any direction, I did keep space in front of me to stretch my legs and my bag tucked up by my side, provisions, book and camera ever handy. Voices of many nationalities ebbed and flowed about me in ever changing volumes, Italian, German, English and several other indistinguishables, all eager to catch the amazing spectacle that was soon to break loose. Fire ball poi swingers entertained across the water and tiny fireworks continued to be set off, crackers close by under the bridge giving everyone a start from time to time.
Then the illuminations dimmed and went out all together and a quiet descended on the crowd. A little later a slow hand clap indicated that they were beginning to get restless. THat worked and a single starburst lit the sky. Followed several seconds by another, then another leaving slow moving puffs of smoke to drift off across the night time sky. Then it really began, a volley of shots went out, barely visible tracers rocketed into the sky over the battlements and all at once the sky was filled with light, huge chrysanthemums of bright white light, arcing outwards and upwards in all directions, bathing the area in an eirie glow. The river worked a treat, doubling the effect with reflections from its glistening surface. This was going to be one hell of a show. Red followed white, then greens and blues. A constantly changing theme of starbursts for several minutes and then a bit of a lull. Multi coloured rings of light, like diagrams of the planets in orbit, great circles with stars and flowers inside, and then huge red lovehearts filling the sky. That really triggered some grand appreciation. Fans of buzzing and crackling spirals leapt from the ramparts, huge plumes of single and multicoloured explosions, green over red, then blue over white and just because it is France, red white and blue again and again and again. More high in the sky explosions big stars re-exploding into smaller stars, some screetching, others cracking like thunder, deafening out the Oohs and AAhs from all around. Simple columns of white, probably thirty in all, plain, then topped with red, changing to green, then orange and purple, then red and gold faster and faster, more and more intense and then it died. Right down to a red glow, as if the castle itself was on fire, it started on one tower then spread slowly, with smoke billowing, to the ramparts and to all the other towers right across the hill until the whole of the skyline was burning, or so it seemed. The red glow continued to glow and the smoke continued to billow for a good while, every thing was calm, the sky was still and the crowds were quiet, and it continued to glow. Probably for about five minutes, a good interlude, time to recover and prepare for the next visual onslaught. It eventually came. Cascades of silver, from the tops of the towers and along the ramparts, pouring down like rain, cold wet rain, extinguishing the glow like water would have done, returning the castle to stone. Then up into the sky again, more balls and stars, slowly to start with, then gathering pace, just like before, only different. Clever waves of light, moving from left to right across the sky then back again, in greens then blues then oranges and reds, constant or fading leaping and jumping, ever reflected in the river below. THe display built itself into a frenzy, larger and larger bursts of colour, layer upon layer of effects into the finale, first gold chrysanthemums lighting up the sky, dying in a rain of glittering particles, a few to start with then more and more, exploding and raining down until you couldn’t distinguish between them fading momentarily before being replaced with the brightest ever of silver stars, huge globes of lights, one on the left then one on the right, centre, left, right, fill in the gaps and repeat faster and faster, louder and louder until there didn’t seem to be any space left for more and with one last almighty explosion the whole thing came to an end.
The spectators went wild, whistling and clapping, shouting and cheering, then almost immediately began to disperse. Within ten minutes the grassy bank was clear of people, the rain began to fall and everyone headed home. I marvelled at the fact that i had patiently waited almost half a day for half an hour of visual heaven and even more so when i got to street level to see the roads filled in all directions with thousands and thousands of people. It had been worth it for me, and by the looks on their faces, i can confidently say for most of them too. I got myself a well deserved carton of Frites from a stall on the way back up the hill, only £2.50, a real bargain, they were delicious, let myself into the convent, upstairs to the dormatory with its parallel rows of beds, had a quick shower and slept quite soundly till the next morning.
Will add photos when I find a faster connection - been waiting an hour for them to arrive.................