Boating in France: Celebrating France’s Summer Festivals

All over France there are cultural festivals, musical performances, dance, theater, art shows, and sporting events that are held to celebrate summer. Many are internationally famous, such as the Avignon Theater Festival, the Cannes Film Festival, or the Tour de France.

Some events such as the Fete de la Musique on the summer solstice, June 21, are celebrated with great exuberance in Paris as well as elsewhere. Amateur and professional musicians perform on the streets, in parks, and in public places during the day and into the late evening. In recent years, many small villages have started some type of musical celebration to celebrate the start of summer.

fete-fireworksThe biggest celebration in France is held on Bastille Day, July 14, commemorating the beginning of the French revolution in 1789. In Paris, there is a military parade on the Champs Elysees with military planes flying overhead, leaving red, white, and blue contrails. That evening, a spectacular fireworks display is held at the Eiffel Tower. All over France, the day is celebrated with music, military commemorative events, and fireworks to end the day.

fete-jazzThere are also many less known events, sponsored by scores of small cities and villages that we have discovered while boating through France. Three years ago as we were going down the Burgundy Canal, we saw a posting in a small town announcing a Dixieland Jazz event at the nearby city of Montbard the next day. The next morning we took an early train and arrived in Montbard just as the opening parade began. The music was fantastic – had you closed your eyes, you would have thought you were in New Orleans. We joined the crowd following the band to the plaza in front of the “Hotel de Ville” (City Hall), where, after more music, there was a kickoff speech by a local authority and everyone was invited a have a glass of champagne. And this was at 10 am!

This year we haven’t yet found anything quite that spectacular. However, here in St Jean de Losne, a Friday evening jazz event started last week along the quay. A small group of musicians travel from café to café along the waterfront, rain or shine. In the last few weeks, just in our homeport of St Jean de Losne or within easy biking distance, we’ve enjoyed speed boat races, flower shows, music, carnivals, fireworks and art shows.

One flower sale/show was held in the tiny village of Franxault. Again we happened to see a notice at a local tourist office, so we biked there from the boat expecting something a bit larger than what we found. In the local park, lovely bedding plants were for sale, individually or in flats. Several women were making “gaufres” (“Belgian” waffles served with powdered sugar), and people were standing in the shade sipping chilled rosé wine while conversing with their friends. We were the only tourists of any nationality, but we were greeted warmly and offered enthusiastic assistance with our selection, a single pink dahlia to put in a pot on our aft deck.

fete-flowersAs a contrast, we saw a similar notice for a flower and art show to be held in St Jean de Losne. We followed the signs to the event, and found very skillfully executed art (watercolors, photography, pastels, etc.) and had a wonderful conversation with an illustrator of botanicals, Patryck Vaucolulon, whose work was being shown. He is a botanist and has researched, written, and illustrated a book on the flora, fauna, and animal life of Burgundy. He has also spent a year living with and drawing the penguins in Antartica for a French scientific organization.

fete-boatAnother festival we stumbled across by accident, while on the Rhone River, a couple of years ago was the Festival of Bulls in Beaucaire. About two hours after we tied up in the port, a marvelous parade passed by within thirty feet of the bow of our boat! There were hundreds of historically costumed participants, some on horseback, many bands (including one from Brittany playing bagpipes), and several dragons from multiple cultures (there is a local legend about a dragon that lives in the river here).  During the following week, certain streets were blocked off every evening to create a course through town. Bulls were then turned loose to run the course, one or a few at a time, accompanied by cowboys on horseback, while teenagers and people old enough to know better tried to touch and even “bulldog” the bulls. On the final evening, 100 bulls were released simultaneously. Talk about the “Thundering Herd!”  This week long event starts 21 July this year.

Socialization seems to be a primary component of each of these events. Everyone is out to enjoy the day and many obviously know each other. In small towns we’ve never felt excluded, but instead have been welcomed and made to feel part of the summer celebration.

For over eight years, Neil and Joan have been spending their summers cruising the canals and rivers of Western Europe aboard their now thirty-year-old Dutch motor-cruiser, the “Estate.”  This year they are sharing their experiences.