Milwaukee’s Little Piece of Paris
Francophiles, wine-lovers and street festival fans will be in heaven July 11-14 as Bastille Days takes over Cathedral Square Park, and several surrounding blocks. Four fun-filled days are planned to entertain the crowds. According to the East Town Association’s executive director, Kim Morris, “Bastille Days started as a small awareness-building event to highlight local businesses and has grown to accommodate more than 250,000 people annually.
Bastille Days, one of the nation’s largest French-themed street parties, gets started mid-day on Thursday with free cake from Metro Market. While sampling the tasty confections, noontime attendees will be among the first to take in the daily cooking demonstrations by local chefs, introductory French lessons from Alliance Française and performances by CanCan dancers.
Thursday’s events culminate with the annual “Storm the Bastille” 5K run/2-mile walk. Entrants can register in advance for $20 or on the day of the event for $25. The run celebrates a critical moment at the start of the French Revolution when thousands of demonstrators assaulted the Bastille prison. Morris says, “This isn’t a competitive run. It’s meant to be fun! Every year there are around 6,000 runners and a lot of people just having a good time.” The run/walk kicks off at 9 p.m. at the corner of Wells and Jefferson.
Friday highlights the Creole side of the French. Mardi Gras-inspired parades complete with a brass band, rowdy characters and lots of beads set the tone, putting revelers into a New Orleans party mood. Keep an eye out for the new Moulin Rouge float. Several food vendors will feature Creole-style food like beignets and po’ boys. The parade repeats its run three times Friday evening, at 8:30, 9:30, 10:30 p.m., so the vibe continues all night.
Saturday is Kids’ Day and events begin with $3 breakfast deals for children from 10 a.m. to noon. French-inspired art stations and ballet lessons by the Milwaukee Ballet are among the favorite activities. “It’s so much fun to see little girls dancing around in tutus,” says Morris. In addition, special appearances by local sports figures from the Wave, Bucks and Admirals; presentations by the French Immersion School; performances by a 40-member a cappella kids choir from France; and loads of other kid-friendly activities fuel the square until 3 p.m. By then, some parents may be ready for a wine tasting.
For those with a more religious bent, take in a French-language mass at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist at 5:15 p.m. on Saturday. The service will feature French hymns.
The closing day of a celebration, Sunday, promises to be another great day of fun. Don’t miss the amazing feats of skill displayed during the annual Waiter/Waitress race at 3:30 p.m. Cheer on local “wait-people” as they compete to see who is the most agile and quick while dashing through an obstacle course, carrying trays of wine. Á votre santé!
Although there may be some wine sampling in conjunction with the cooking demonstrations, more in-depth tastings are available from an experienced sommelier Friday and Saturday evenings. Purchase $25 tickets in advance, or $35 at the festival for eight tasting tickets good for 2-ounce pours.
If wine isn’t your thing, patrons are invited to try free samples of French whisky by Bastille Whisky—new this year!
More than 25 food vendors will tempt taste buds with foods ranging from French street-food favorites like crepes to festival stalwarts like roasted corn. “We do encourage the restaurants that are here to incorporate some sort of French flair to what they are offering,” says Morris.
More than 75 artists, clothing and craft vendors will feed festivalgoers’ need to shop.
Four stages provide musical and live entertainment to keep the crowds dancing. Popular local performers like Pat McCurdy, Paul Cebar, I'm Not a Pilot, The Love Monkeys, the Extra Crispy Brass Band and the Unity Reggae Band will perform, as well as international groups like Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars. A performance by the Sam Llanas Band is scheduled for Sunday at 7 p.m.
Every day of the festival the crowds can see street performers, chalk artists, living statues and acrobats.
People concerned about parking can find two garages within a block of the festival or ride the Milwaukee Trolley, which offers $1 rides Thursday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
When asked what sets Bastille Days apart from other summer events, Morris explains, “It is one of Milwaukee’s biggest street festivals without any admission fee. Plus, I think it’s just more intimate. It’s right in Downtown Milwaukee, but at times it almost feels like you are in the middle of a more whimsical version of Paris.”
For more information, visit bastilledaysfestival.com.