Paris: 10 top free events in July and August

By Meg Zimbeck
October 3, 2012
Courtesy Meg Zimbeck

The only thing better than visiting Paris is being able to enjoy free events in Paris. Here's a round-up of activities for the hot summer months of July and August.

Sous La Plage Festival (July 12–13) Electro-loving locals who are "making the bridge" (not working the Monday between the weekend and Bastille Day) will be heading to the Parc André Citroën. The annual Sous La Plage festival features workshops, DJs, performances, and plenty of dancing—plus some great activities for kids. Details here. Parc André Citroën, 15th arrondissement.

Firemen's Balls (July 13 & 14) As I wrote about here Parisians like to celebrate their fraternité by dancing with sexy firemen. Who can blame them? Check here for a good list of (mostly) free Firemen's Balls on and before Bastille Day.

Festival Quartier d'été (July 15–August 9) This annual festival brings high culture down to street level, sponsoring hundreds of dance, theater, and music performances in neighborhoods across the city. You'll find everything from circus and classical music to Cuban hip hop. Consult the full program here.

Paris Plages (July 20–August 20) The original urban beach is back for an eighth edition, with sites along the Seine and the Bassin de la Villette. You'll find palm trees, sand, lounge chairs, activities for kids, and plenty to eat and drink. voie George Pompidou in the 4th arrondissement and the Bassin de la Villette in the 19th arrondissement.

Festival Fnac Indétendances (July 25–August 15) In association with Paris Plages, the music megastore Fnac will be putting on free concerts during the first three weekends of August. Outdoor shows Friday-Sunday, with highlights including Peter von Poehl and Naïve New Beaters on August 15. Full program here. Hôtel de Ville, 4th arrondissement.

Paris Jazz Festival (through July 26) This annual Jazz Festival provides a great excuse to laze about in the Parc Floral, part of the sprawling Bois de Vincennes. Free concerts are held on the grand scène (big stage) every Saturday and Sunday at 3:00 and 4:30 p.m. Consult the online program here. Food and drinks are on sale inside the park, but most people bring their own stock of nibbles and wine. Entry to the Parc Floral is €2.50, but the concerts are all free. Parc Floral, Esplanade de Chateau de Vincennes, 12th arrondissement.

Classique au Vert (August 1–September 20) At the end of July, the sound of jazz in the Parc Floral will give way to the music of Ravel, Dubussy and Mahler. As with its summer predecessor, the classical music festival is an occasion for leisurely picnics before and during the concerts at 4:00 p.m. Parc Floral, Esplanade de Chateau de Vincennes, 12th arrondissement.

Festival Cinéma en Plein Air (July 15–August 16) My personal fave of all the summer festivals, this outdoor film series is once again free in 2009. Screenings begin at nightfall (usually between 9:30–10:00 p.m.) and picnics are encouraged. Chairs and blankets can be rented for a small fee. The lineup includes plenty of English language titles like Brokeback Mountain and Little Miss Sunshine. Consult the full program here.

Clair de Lune Festival (August 5–23) If you can understand a little French, you'll love this quirky festival, which projects classic films like Godard's Pierrot le Fou in offbeat locations every Thursday–Sunday in mid-August. Locations vary, consult the online program here.

Festival Silhouette (August 29–September 6) Short film are the focus of this festival in the beautiful Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. Screenings take place every night at dark on the lawn in front of the lake. Consult the online program here. 1 place Armand Carrel, 19th arrondissement.


Magicien de Fer (through August 31). Give your wallet a rest and check out the free and fascinating exhibit about the career and personal life of Gustave Eiffel. As I wrote about here, this show is helping to celebrate the Eiffel Tower's 120th birthday. Place de l'Hôtel de Ville, 4th arrondissement.


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Talking about "An Irreverent Curiosity"

Hitting bookstores today is a travel book with an unusual story: An Irreverent Curiosity. Writer David Farley attempts to explain the mysterious disappearance of the foreskin of Jesus from the Italian hill town of Calcata. The plot of this nonfiction tale is reminiscent of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, John Berendt's international bestseller about some peculiar goings-on in Savannah, Ga. I recently spoke with Farley about the book: Your story focuses on the Italian village of Calcata, which is about 30 miles north of Rome and has an unusual cast of characters. What's the CliffsNotes version? In 1900 Pope Leo XIII made a decree forbidding (under the threat of excommunication) the speaking of or writing about a strange holy relic that had once been a papal-approved relic and was huge draw in the Middle Ages: the Holy Foreskin, which had resided since the sixteenth century in a medieval hill town near Rome called Calcata. Thirty-five years later, Calcata met the same fate of sorts, as it was condemned by the government (for fear its 450-foot cliffs were crumbling). But the village residents didn't start to abandon the town until the 1960s. As soon as they did, hippies and artists discovered it. They made it their own and even had Calcata removed from "death row." Meanwhile, in 1983, that forbidden relic, the foreskin of Jesus, mysteriously disappeared. So, three years ago, I moved to Calcata to live among these aging hippies and artists to try to find out who stole this once-rapturous remnant. That sounds like you're making fun of Catholicism. Are you? I suppose some people could—and will—see it that way. But I bet most readers won't. I put the relic into a historical context within the history of Christianity and relic veneration, so that the reader will understand how such a curio even existed and why people of past centuries viewed the relic with reverence. Through the same process of historical context, the reader will also see how the relic fell out of favor with the Church in the nineteenth century. I have to say, it was nice to be able to (finally) use that master's degree in history for something other than being good at trivia games. Americans get so little vacation time, and when they visit Italy, they want to visit the famous spots first, such as Rome, Florence, Venice, Pisa, Naples, the Almafi Coast, Bellagio, and Milan. Could you give a few good reasons why Americans ought to consider visiting Calcata, like you recently recommended in a New York Times travel story on Calcata? Besides being one of the best preserved medieval hill town in Italy, it's one of the weirdest (as I mentioned above). It makes for a great day (or weekend) trip from Rome because, as of now, most of the visitors are Romans who just come up for the afternoon. Spend a Saturday night in Calcata and you'll get a great sense of Italy's "counter culture" scene in just one village. It occurs to me that if your book becomes an enormous hit, the locals will start running tours of Calcata and visitors from around the U.S. will descend on the town. What might such a tour cover? Besides the locals themselves, Calcata offers a lot of intrigue for such a small place. The village sits like a cupcake atop 450-foot cliffs and is surrounded by a gorgeous valley. The base of the cliffs is punctured with millennia-old tombs carved out by the Faliscans, a pre-Christian tribe of people related to the Etruscans who were wiped out by the Romans in the third century, B.C. There are also some great artists living there today (some of whom are quite successful) who don't seem to mind showing off their work: Sculptor Costantino Morosin, painters Giancarlo Croce and Romano Vitali, and mosaic artist Pancho Garrison (who also runs a great restaurant called La Grotta dei Germogli) are a few that come to mind. Finally, there's the church—and the niche above the alter—where the Holy Foreskin had been kept. An excerpt from chapter 7 of your book was included in this year's anthology of The Best Travel Writing, as compiled by the folks at Travelers' Tales. It's one of my favorite non-fiction set pieces of all time. The subject is about the troubles a visitor to Italy can land themselves in if they don't use the right Italian phrase. Rather than spoil the fun for readers by mentioning specifically the phrase here, I'll ask a more general question about getting "lost in translation" instead: What's an example of an Italian word or phrase that English-speaking visitors commonly misuse or mispronounce, and what's the correct word or phrase? I've always thought grazie, the word for "thank you," indicates how well (or poorly) a non-Italian spoke the language. Most tourists just let the word dribble from their mouths—saying gra-tzee—probably mimicking what we've heard on TV commercials for frozen pizza. But the proper pronunciation takes a lot more effort and tongue twisting that can only be mastered with serious practice. Also, Americans constantly mispronounce bruschetta. I once ordered some bruschetta at an Italian restaurant in New York—pronouncing it correctly, as "broo-sket-ta"—and the waitress actually corrected me, saying "you mean broo-sheta, right?" At one point in the book, you talk about Halloween and how the holiday is increasingly celebrated in Italy. I was surprised by that. Could you describe for your readers what it's like to witness this classic U.S. holiday "in translation"? Because Halloween doesn't have the long historical legacy in Italy as it does in the United States, it was introduced to the country under different circumstances. It's more of an adult holiday in Italy that, I suspect, alcohol companies are as much responsible for its promotion than anyone. Starting in mid October, every second commercial on Italian TV is a Halloween-themed ad for booze. Thanks to Calcata's bewitching looks and perhaps its reputation as a center of counterculture, it's an almost natural place for people in the area (including Rome) to gravitate to on October 31. As a result, the village turns into one massive party on Halloween and the locals really deck the place out. It must be a dream gig to live in Italy for a year writing a book. What was a happy side benefit of being able to do that? Being accepted by the locals creates an endless amount of experiences that people with the travel bug—people like me who almost fetishize "real" interactions with locals—can only dream of. In the summer, for example, there were nightly dinner parties on the square: everyone would show up with a bowl of something they'd thrown together and a bottle of wine and we'd sit around for hours talking and laughing. Likewise, you end up in situations—like driving around in cars with people—that turns into situations a tourist never would experience. I was privy to seeing cars break down, meetings in the mayor's office, and even the inner circle of geriatric men at the coffee bar. Also, if you show your face at the same restaurants enough, you start to get the regular's discount, which is always nice. When they hopefully make your book into a movie, which actor would you like to play the character of you? The only actors people have said I resemble are self-esteeming crushing in their physical appearances so no one who looks like me would play me in the movie version. But that doesn't quite matter anyway, because by the time the script would go through the major studio machine, my character would probably end up being played by someone like Zac Efron who goes to Calcata in search of a weird relic, but ends up in a romantic tryst with the young village beauty and whose main goal becomes to gain the approval of her incredulous father until he saves the family business with grand heroics. In the end, the couple live happily ever after restoring a villa just outside of Calcata and, as it would be shown in the last scene, he begins typing out on an old typewriter a book about the whole experience. MORE An Irreverent Curiosity for sale at Amazon.


Bastille Day in Paris: Have a ball

On July 14, 1789, a French mob overtook the Bastille, then a state prison that held political prisoners. The day has since become a symbol of the ideology of the French Revolution that followed. Below you'll find how to celebrate in Paris this weekend. [But don't worry if you can't make it. We found the top 10 free events that are happening in Paris throughout July and August. We dish up the best offerings, such as hanging out on an artificial beach along the Seine and enjoying free outdoor jazz concerts. Click here to find 10 top free events in July and August.] The Parade The annual Bastille Day défilé will kick off early at 9:00 a.m. with a parade of tanks and soldiers down the Champs-Elysées. The air above will be filled with jets—the impressive l'armée de l'Air—plus helicopters and parachutists. As this year's guest of honor is India, the parade will also include Indian military and musicians. A strange combination, indeed! Avenue de Champs-Elysées, 8th arrondissement. The Fireworks The Eiffel Tower's 120th birthday is the occasion for a bigger-than-usual Bastille Day fireworks show. The same pyrotechnic posse that managed the Millennium explosions will be putting on this year's show with 30 video projectors, 120 flame throwers, and more than three tons of explosives. The fireworks are scheduled to begin at 10:45 p.m. Before the show, Johnny Hallyday (France's beloved aging rocker) will perform a free concert on the lawn. Massive crowds are expected. Champs de Mars, 7th arrondissement. The Firemen Elsewhere, thousands will be celebrating their fraternité at the annual firemen's balls. I'm not sure about the origin of this tradition, but Bastille Day is, for many Parisians, the occasion to dance with sexy firemen. These parties are usually free (you'll be asked for a donation) and have DJs or live bands to provide a backdrop for the dancing. Some firehouses boast gymnastics shows, strip teases, and other amusements. By my count, there are more than 60 balls taking place in Paris and the near suburbs. Check here, for a full list in French, and here, for a short and lively list in English. EARLIER This weekend: Storm the Bastille… in Philly?! MORE AFFORDABLE PARIS Read the Series


This Weekend: Running with the bulls, sort of

This Saturday, July 11, will see the third annual San Fermin in Nueva Orleans, a faux running of the bulls inspired by the real one in Pamplona, Spain. In New Orleans, the bulls will be played by the Big Easy Rollergirls, the city's roller derby team. (Can anyone explain why roller derby is having a comeback? Have people forgotten Rollerball?) Here's how it works: The run will begin at 8 a.m., but, this being New Orleans, the event actually begins at 6:30 a.m.—at a bar, the Three Legged Dog. After a drink or two (or quite possibly three), the runners will assemble outside the bar for the encierro, or running of the bulls—they will run a little over half a mile, pursued by the rollergirls wearing helmets with bull horns (the actual "goring" will be done with plastic bats, and the women have been instructed to swing hard). Runners are to wear a white shirt, white pants or shorts, and a red cloth around the neck and the waist, just like the runners in Pamplona. One element of the day that presumably has no counterpart in Spain is the Rolling Elvi, a Mardi Gras krewe of Elvis impersonators, who will be making a special appearance. Full details (there are events scheduled for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) here. The organizers of San Fermin are anticipating a crowd of 2,000 to 4,000 runners.


Better than Giant's Causeway in Ireland?

We've been asking top guidebook writers about their picks for their alternatives to the "main attractions" at popular destinations. Today's writer is Camille DeAngelis, author of Moon Handbooks Ireland. She points out that many people want to travel along Northern Ireland's North Antrim coast to the Giant's Causeway, a cluster of rock columns formed by a volcano (or by monsters, depending on your point of view). After all, the remarkable site was picked by Patricia Schultz as one of the 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. Yet while it may appeal to some people, other travelers may prefer to go elsewhere. Here's what DeAngelis has to say: True, the 40,000 hexagonal basalt columns at Giant's Causeway are unique in Ireland, but in terms of overall scenic impact, the prehistoric cliffside forts of Inis Mór are more magnificent—not to mention far less crowded, even in high season. Inis Mór is somewhat popular with tourists, yet the island has retained a wonderful sense of timelessness. Among the one-time forts on the island worth exploring, the Black Fort, (a clifftop stone enclosure), isn't the best preserved. But the view is just as beautiful as other forts—and visitors can often have it all to themselves if they time their arrival right. I recommend going for a long walk (or taking a minibus or taxi from Kilronan) out there on the afternoon of your arrival, then renting a bike early the next morning to arrive at Dun Aengus (and many other prehistoric and early Christian sites along the way) before the minibus groups start arriving around noon. One caveat, though it may not apply to readers of Budget Travel—the Black Fort isn't really accessible for those who aren't in good enough shape for a long walk over craggy rocks. The visitor arrives on Inis Mór by ferry or small plane (more expensive, but you guarantee you won't get seasick if you fly). From the port of Kilronan, you have a choice of renting a bike for a morning-long cycle out to Dun Aengus or boarding a minibus for a guided tour. If time and physical fitness allow, a bike is the best way to get around. Many travelers choose to see Inis Mór as a day trip out of Galway City, but if you budget for a night you'll be very glad you did. Sample the seafood restaurants and lively pubs, and shop for a hand knit Aran sweater. Among the three Irish (Gaelic) speaking Aran Islands, Inis Mór is the largest. It's by turns bleak and beautiful. Consider staying at Kilmurvey House, a rambling 200-year-old stone farmhouse at the foot of Dún Aengus fort and a few minutes from the beach, says Anto Howard, co-author of Fodor's Ireland 2009, who also recommends Inis Mór as an alternative to the Giant's Causeway, which he considers "a bit of a disappointment." (Howard recently told us about an Irish destination that's Better Than Stonehenge.) However, no one at Moon Handbooks, Fodor's, or Budget Travel is saying that you can't have a great time at Giant's Causeway. The hike down from the clifftop to the Causeway can be an event you recall for the rest of your life. (Of course, you can also take a shuttle bus if your body isn't up to the walk.) What's more, the Causeway is part of what I'd argue is the most under-appreciated and glorious drive in Ireland: The Antrim Coast. Nine glens—forested in evergreens and carpeted in shamrocks and other fauna—all roll down to serene seaside villages in Ireland. Be sure to consider making this coastal drive, preferably near dawn or dusk. It is safe to stay overnight in B&Bs; in Northern Ireland (specifically around the Giant's Causeway region). But I wouldn't recommend driving late at night in either Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland, if you can avoid doing so, because of a few factors: You're probably unfamiliar with driving on the opposite side of the road. You may find the roads relatively poorly-lit and more curvy than in the U.S. And the residents on both sides of the border on this island have a reputation for reckless driving. At nighttime, your best off staying near your local lodging rather than driving far. EARLIER Better than Florence's Duomo? Better than Buckingham Palace?