The day they stormed the Bastille

From the window of our little hotel in the Marais I look down into the fire station. The fire brigade are a fine bunch of fit-looking young Frenchmen. Before the weekend, in between callouts, they spent hours climbing up fire-truck ladders in fetchingly tight t-shirts and running shorts, to put up tricolor bunting. I was beginning to wonder if this was something to do with Saturday’s Gay Pride march when finally a huge banner was strung across the street: “Grand Firemen’s Ball, 13-14 July”. Apparently this is the social event of the year locally, when you can dance with the firemen until the dawn of Bastille Day.

The Place de la Bastille is a short walk away, though the old prison is long gone. To find out more about its history we strolled up our street to the Musée Carnavalet. Like much of the quarter it was built in the early 1600s, and later in the century became home to Mme de Sévigné. Together with the grand mansion next door it has been transformed to house a huge collection of Paris memorabilia – objects ranging from 400-year-old street signs to Marcel Proust’s bed, and hundreds of pictures of historical interest.

You make your way up through rooms full of glimpses of the city’s cultural life and the opulence of the ancien régime to the top floor, devoted to the history of the French revolution. These are the most crowded rooms, full of Parisian visitors still debating the significance of 1789. One picture after another shows the fall of the Bastille, and the sans-culottes setting about its demolition with pickaxes and hammers – a sound that reverberated across the world along with the cry Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The message is reinforced poignantly in dozens of small items – the rough ceramic plates inscribed with slogans, “Defend our revolution”, “Long live liberty”, “Never lay down our arms”, and a frieze of terrific drawings attributed to LeSueur.

The revolution had its Thermidor, its encounter with reaction. It stalled and gave way to the Napoleonic empire, and the firm hand of the state brutally put down popular uprisings in the following decades. But it remains one of those great moments when humanity took a giant leap forward. I’m almost sorry we shan’t still be here on July 14 to dance with the firemen. Tomorrow we move on.


In four short days here we can’t see everything, so we’re fitting museum visits in between seeing friends, always a priority. On Friday we walked through the Tuileries to the Orangerie to see Monet’s Waterlilies in their light-filled home, and on the floor below the Walter-Guillaume collection, so much of it familiar from its visit to the Art Gallery of NSW in 2001 in the show Renoir to Picasso when the building was being renovated.

Later we went to meet Julia Husson, the sister of our old friend Tony Clifton. Tony, after a brilliant four decades as war correspondent and Newsweek bureau chief, returned to Australia to live in Collingwood where he maintains his lifelong commitment to the Magpies. Julia, on the other hand, is the epitome of the elegant Parisian. Graduating in French from Melbourne University, where she was a close friend of Germaine Greer, she came to Paris at the age of 21. A highly qualified interpreter, she has lived all around the world but always returns here, where Tony is a regular visitor. Julia and her partner Andrew, also a translator, live in a charming apartment on the north side of the Marais and took us to an excellent Basque restaurant nearby, Au Bascou. It was a great night. Clifton, eat your heart out!


The following evening we headed for the 19th arrondissement, a lively area with a high proportion of African immigrants, for a joyous reunion with my childhood friend Anne-Marie Lallement and her beautiful daughter Leila. Anne-Marie is an independent documentary film-maker. Leila, whose father is Algerian-born, is a teacher of adult migrants and currently heads a squat for the homeless.

Anne-Marie’s mother Suzanne and my mother were great friends in the 1930s but the war brought tragedy into their lives – especially Suzanne’s. Her husband Pierre was captured by the Gestapo smuggling Jewish families out of Paris, and died in the concentration camps. He was a hero to me growing up, when our families resumed contact. Towards the end of her life Suzanne finally spoke publicly about his fate for Anne-Marie’s film Chroniques Partisanes. She has now given me a copy of it, which I shall treasure always. Both our mothers died recently, in their 90s, but I have this by which to remember what linked them so closely.


Walking this morning towards the Luxembourg Gardens and Museum, which has an excellent show of the Venetian Renaissance painter Cima, we had a heart-stopping moment. The bus had dropped us at the magnificent church of St Sulpice, and we took the little rue Henry de Jouvenel to the gardens. To our astonishment, there inscribed on the high wall in huge letters were the flowing stanzas of Rimbaud’s great poem Le Bateau Ivre. A further engraving informed us that he declaimed it at the age of 17 from the first floor of a café on the other side of the square. The lines run across the wall as though wafted from there by the breeze.

How can you not love a city that so commemorates its transcendent, youthful genius? I feel so privileged to have connected with it, just for these few days.


Paris feels as though its social fabric is in better shape than London’s. Every area has its pavement cafes, its bakers and cobblers and fruit stalls, its sense of neighbourhood. My local friends put it down to the fact that governments of both right and left have felt obliged to maintain a certain level of public housing and social welfare in order to stave off another 1968. In the UK all that been run down ever since Thatcher.

Meanwhile London bankers have been doing all right for themselves. Remember the Barclays chief Bob Diamond who gave himself the massive bonus? Turns out that Barclays had been manipulating the rates to the personal advantage of its executives. That’s a crime. Bank of England governor Mervyn King has said it can’t go on, and business secretary Vince Cable has had to back calls for a criminal investigation. We’ll see which heads roll.


  1. Hello travellers – your musings on the road are rich and entertaining;.I feel like I'm on the journey with you. Thanks for your efforts …. I look forward to the paperback version when you return! Think of us as we endure a very chilly winter made gloomier by our federal elected representatives playing games with asylum seeker policy and "the end of civilisation as we know it" with the startup of the carbon tax. Need someone to carry your bags?

  2. You are certainly having a wonderful trip in Greece!

    Alex, your knowledge of the Greeks in World War II astounds me…….yes their activities delayed the German invasion of Russia, as you say.

    While around Kalamai and Koroni……take care…..occassionly, glance over your shoulder, for there behind may be "King Nestor" of Pylos.


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