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What’s on in France: Eleven great things to do in July

Here are 11 reasons to take in a bit of French culture in July.

What's on in France: Eleven great things to do in July
Check out Provence's Lavender festivals in July. Photo: Ming-Yen Hsu/Flickr

After France’s wettest spring in 150 years, the time has come to shed the umbrellas and anoraks and venture outdoors for the holiday season.

And as the skies brighten and summer finally beckons, it’s a good time to enjoy the raft of vibrant festivals and events taking place across France this July. We’ve rounded up a list of some of the best on offer.

Paris Plages, 20th July-21st August

Every summer, the Seine doubles up as a seaside resort complete with palm trees, deckchairs, ice-cream vans and 5,000 tonnes of sand. The brainchild of Bertrand Delanoë, a former Socialist Mayor of Paris, Paris Plages began as an initiative to give some summery respite to weary Parisians unable to escape the sweltering city in July.

(People soak up the sun at Paris Plage last year. Photo: AFP)

Since its inauguration fifteen years ago it has gone from strength to strength. The project’s centrepiece is a beach stretching through the beating heart of historic Paris from the Louvre to Pont du Sully; there is also another, calmer beach area at Bassin de la Villette with a water-sports complex and a library. For more information, click here.

La Villette Open-Air Cinema Festival, Paris, 13th July-21st August

Every year the grassy Parc de La Villette in the 19th arrondisement opens its gates for Paris’ largest open-air cinema festival. It’s the perfect way to enjoy a balmy summer evening in Paris, and, best of all, is totally free (unless you to opt to pay for a deckchair).

(Pack a picnic and arrive early to get a good spot. Photo: AFP)

This years line up offers an eclectic mix of cult classics (Ida, Miami Vice, Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet), modern blockbusters (Casino Royale, Interstellar, Gravity) and short films by up-and-coming directors (projected every Saturday evening).

Fêtes de Bayonne, 27th-31st July

The Fêtes de Bayonne in the Northern Basque Country always draws huge crowds, and this year promises to be no exception – as long as the weather holds. For five weeks at the end of July, the streets of Bayonne brim and bustle with exuberant parades, Basque food and music, tamborradas drum displays, bull running and fighting and participants dressed in red and white.

The festivities begin when King Léon, the festival’s mascot, stands on the balcony of the town hall and flings the city keys into the crowd thronging below. This kickstarts five days of non-stop celebrations, which end on Sunday evening with a grand fireworks show and the departure of King Léon for another year. 

Lavender Festivals, Provence, various

For lovers of lavender, July is a good time to visit Provence. The fields are carpeted purple and you can take in some of the fragrant lavender festivals dotted around the region.

(July and August are the best times to see the lavender that the region is famous for. Photo: Decar66/ Flickr)

 

The Lavender Museum in Coustellet also offers free lavender distillation demonstrations from 1st July to 25th August.

International Festival of Baroque Opera, Beaune, 8th-31st July

Every year Baroque music enthusiasts descend upon the walled city of Beaune, the wine capital of Burgundy, for its International Festival of Baroque Opera. It opens this year on the 8th July with a recital of Handel’s Cantates Italiennes by acclaimed countertenor Andreas Scholl; other notable performers include the Accentus Choir singing Mozart’s The Coronation Mass and Solemn Vespers, and the mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux, who’ll interpret the role of Dido in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Concerts take place in the Basilique Notre-Dame and the Hospices de Beaune, a magical fifteenth-century almshouse.

Festival de Carcassonne, 4th July-1st August

This year there’s a whole host of things on offer at the Festival de Carcassonne, which returns for its eleventh anniversary with an enticing month-long programme of circus, comedy, classical music, dance, film and comedy.

(Festival de Carcassonne from previous year. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Bellet/ Flickr)

80 out of the 120 shows are free of charge. From Jul 15th to 18th, Pharrell Williams, Les Insus and Lefa + Nekfeu + Maître Gims will grace the Grande Scène La Fajeolle, a new venue which boasts a capacity of more than 10,000. French rocker Johnny Hallyday inaugurated the stage last year for the festival’s tenth birthday.

Le Festival de la Vézère, Correze, 12th July-24th August

Le Festival de la Vézère welcomes visitors this July and August to a series of eighteen concerts in 14 different venues (including the Chateau de Saillant, the abbatiale d'aubazine and the cathédrale Notre-Dame de Tulle) in the Correze department.

This year the festival – now in its thirty-sixth year – will shine the spotlight on talented young performers. Programme highlights include soprano Pumeza Matshikiza singing with the Republican Guard Orchestra on the 19th July and Diva Opera’s performances of Cossi Fan Tutte and Don Pasquale on the 12th and 13th August. For more information, click here.

The Avignon Festival, 6th-24th July

Founded in 1947, the Avignon theatre and performing arts festival has established itself over the past seventy years as a key fixture in France’s cultural calendar. This year the festival will have a political tilt under the directorship of actor, author and director Olivier Py, who wants it to be animated by a spirit of ‘révolte’ and ‘amour des possibles’.

(Performer outside Avignon's Palais des Papes at previous year. Photo: AFP)

 

In a packed programme of more than forty shows, the highlight will probably be the Comédie Française’s performance of Les Damnés (based on Luchino Visconti’s film) which opens the festival on the 6th July. More info here

Firemen's Ball, Paris, 14th July

On the 13th and 14th, Paris’s fire stations open their doors to revellers for the ‘Bals des Pompiers’, and on the 14th a military parade marches down the Champs Elysée in the presence of President François Hollande and a huge flag-brandishing crowd. Later on, a kaleidoscopic fireworks display launched from the Eiffel Tower and the Trocadéro gardens will light up the skies of Paris. For more info click here.

Louis XIV, the Fire King: Fireworks show, Château de Versailles, 7th, 8th, 14th and 15th July 2016 – 10pm

This summer Louis XIV returns to haunt his grand domaine for a spectacle of lights, fire, video art and pyrotechnics in the Chateau’s Orangerie gardens. The show will evoke the life and times of Louis XIV, culminating in a grand fireworks display worthy of a King who chose the Sun as his personal emblem. Book tickets here.

Main Square Festival, Arras, 1st-3rd July

Main square festival returns again to Arras, Pas-de-Calais for the first weekend of July. This year’s headliners include Iggy Pop, Disclosure, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, The Offspring and Les Insus, with Ellie Goulding, Jake Bugg and the Cayman Kings also on the line-up. No muddy fields at Main Square: the acts take to the stage in the Vauden Citadel, a UNESCO world heritage site, promising a unique festival experience. Follow the link for more information. 

(Performer at festival  last year. Photo: Alexandre Fumeron/ Flickr)

This website offers helpful information on the different festivals across July. 

by Imogen Wallace

 

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CULTURE

Skulls, beer and a ‘cathedral’: Discover the secrets of underground Paris

You've certainly heard of the Metro, maybe the catacombs and perhaps even the Phantom of the Opera's underground lake - but there are some things lurking beneath Paris that might surprise you.

Skulls, beer and a 'cathedral': Discover the secrets of underground Paris

One of Europe’s most densely populated cities, Paris has over two million people living within its boundaries. As those inhabitants walk along the Champs-Elysées or Rue de Rivoli, they might be entirely unaware of the extensive underground world that exists below their feet. 

These are some of the hidden gems beneath the famous monuments in the City of Light:

Skulls, beer and police

The final resting place for over six million Parisians – the catacombs are the most well-known part of underground Paris, but did you know that the 1,700 metres of catacombs that are open to the public represent less than one percent of the whole of the catacombs in Paris? In fact, the underground network is thought to be around 300 km in size.

The catacombs are also known as the Ossuaire Municipal, and they are located at the site of former limestone quarries. The Ossuaire as we know it was created during the 18th century, because the city’s cemeteries could not withstand its population growth and public health concerns began to be raised. Gradually the remains of millions of Parisians were moved underground.

The bones of Parisians only comprise a small section of Paris’ ‘carrières‘ (or quarries), which can be seen in the above map.

These subterranean passages have fascinated cataphiles for many years – with stories of secret parties, illicit tunnel exploration and much more. During the Covid lockdowns, the catacombs infamously served as a location for clandestine parties. At one point, over 35 people were ticketed for participating in underground raves

The network even has its own police service, the Intervention and Protection Group, known colloquially as the cataflics, who are a specialised police brigade in charge of monitoring the old quarries in Paris.

Though these quarries might be a location to secretly throw back a few pints, they are also connected to beer for another reason, as they are the ideal environment to both store and make beer – with consistently cool temperatures and nearby access to underground water sources.

In 1880, the Dumesnil brewery, located in the 14th arrondissement, invested in the quarries underneath its premises, using them to store the thousands of barrels of beer that it produced each year. Over the years, the brewery simply turned its basement into a real underground factory. 

If you really want to visit the ancient underground quarries specifically, you don’t have to just go to the catacombs. You can also do so by visiting the “Carrières des Capucins.” Found just below the Cochin hospital, located in the 14th arrondissement, access to these tunnels is allowed to the public (with reservation) in small groups.

As for entering the rest of the old quarry system, that has been illegal to enter the old quarries since 1955, which has not stopped several curious visitors and explorers from trying to discover what secrets might be underground. 

Sewer Museum

Recently renovated, this museum might not be at the top of a tourist’s list in the same way the Louvre or Musée d’Orsay might, but the museum of sewers actually has a lot of fascinating history to share. It took almost a century to build Paris’ sewage system, and it is largely to thank for the city’s growth, protecting the public health of inhabitants by helping prevent disease outbreaks. 

Visiting the sewers is not a new activity either – according to the museum’s website, “as early as 1867, the year of the World’s Fair, visits were met with immense public success, the reason being that this underground space had always been hidden from the curious eyes of all those who dwell on the surface of Paris.”

Ghost stations

A total of 16 Metro stations go unused underground in Paris – some were built and never put into use, others were decommissioned after World War II.

The most famous is Porte des Lilas – a working Metro station that has an unused ‘ghost’ section which these days is used for filming scenes in movies and TV.

If you’ve ever watched a scene set in the Metro, chances are it was filmed at Porte des Lilas, which has a section of track that Metro cars can move along if needed for action sequences. 

The extra section was taken out of commission in 1939 due to under-use, and in the 1950s it served as a place to test new metro cars.

Beware if you find yourself in Haxo station – it does not have its own entrance or exit and is only accessible by following the Metro tunnels. It is one of the six that never opened, similar to Porte Molitor, Orly-Sud, La Défense-Michelet, or Élysée-La Défense.

Other stations were closed for being too close to other stations, such as the Saint-Martin station, which was closed after World War II as it was too close to Strasbourg-Saint Denis. 

These phantom stations are usually off-limits to the public, but sometimes access is allowed for special guided tours or events.

Reminders of World War II 

Paris’ underground played an important role during the Second World War.

First, there is the French resistance command bunker, which is now part of the Musée de la Libération at Place Denfert Rochereau.

It was from here that Resistance leaders co-ordinated the battle for the liberation of Paris in 1944.

There is also the anti-bombardment bunker near Gare de l’Est. Normally this is closed during the year, but it is opened on Heritage Day in September. (Journées de patrimoine). 

The bunker was originally commissioned in 1939 to keep trains running, even in the event of a gas attack, and it was completed by the Germans in November 1941. It is located between Metro tracks 3 and 4. The bunker itself – which can fit up to 50 people – has basically been frozen in time, featuring a control room and telephone. 

Another river

You’ve heard of the Seine, but what about the underground river that flows through the city of Paris? Prior to the 20th century, the Bièvre river flowed through the city as well, running through Paris’ 13th and 5th arrondisements. Once upon a time, tanners and dyers set up shop next to the Bievre, shown in the image below. 

The river eventually became quite polluted and concerns arose that it might be a health hazard, so in 1875, as part of his transformation of the city, Georges-Eugène Haussmann decided that the Bièvre had to go. It was mostly covered up, and now what remains of the river flows beneath the city, with some parts of it joining Paris’ sewage system.

The Phantom’s lake

If you are a fan of Phantom of the Opera, you would know that the Phantom’s lair is below the Palais Garnier (the Opera house), and that Christine and the Phantom must cross a subterranean lake to get there.

This body of water is not a figment the imagination of Gaston Leroux – though not an actual lake, a large water tank can be found below the grounds. It is even used to train firefighters to swim in the dark.

The Phantom’s not real, though (probably).

‘Cathedral’

The Montsouris reservoir is one of Paris’ primary drinking water sources, along with L’Haÿ-les-Roses, Saint-Cloud, Ménilmontant and Les Lilas.

But while it’s undoubtedly very useful, it’s most famous for its looks.

The structure resembles a kind of underground water cathedral and is home to over 1,800 pillars, which support its numerous vaults and arches. It’s closed to the public, but its rare beauty means that it’s often photographed by urban explorers.

Mushroom farms

And last but not least – the ‘mushroom houses.’ Les champignons de Paris have been grown below the capital’s soil for centuries.

READ MORE: Inside Paris’ underground mushroom farms

“Paris mushrooms” have been grown since the 17th century. The rosé des près (meadow pink) mushrooms were a favourite of Louis XIV and were originally grown overground – their colour comes from the limestone that Paris is build on.

By the 19th century they went underground, which provided more space and allowed the fungi to be cultivated year-round, but eventually the construction of the Paris Metro pushed many growers out of the capital.

Today, there are just five traditional producers in operation – Shoua-moua Vang runs the largest underground mushroom cave in the Paris region, spread across one and a half hectares of tunnels in a hill overlooking the Seine river. 

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