This year was the first time that I was available and aware of Journées du Patrimoine, or Heritage Days, in France. For one weekend, historic cultural and political institutions are open to the public. Some, like cultural centers or national museums, are usually open to visitors but offer extra hours, free admission, or special exhibits. Others, like government offices or not easily accessible historical sites, are only open for Journées du Patrimoine. I picked up a program listing all of the places participating, and it made me wish that this event lasted a whole month. There are so many things to see that a couple of days are hardly enough.At some sites like the Elysée, where the president lives, you should be prepared to wait for hours. While I would be interested in seeing the presidential residence, I didn’t want to spend my whole day there, so my first stop was a quiet location with more staff representatives milling around than visitors. The Ministère de l’Enseignement supérieur et de la recherche houses the national office of high education and research. I know a number of people who are pursuing their Masters in Paris, so it was interesting to think that this is where decisions are made regarding their education and those of students all over the country. The building used to be the Ecole polytechnique, a school of science and engineering that is now at another site. I was standing in front of this memorial to students who died in the First World War when a security guard told me that I could take a picture. So I did. How often are we encouraged to take pictures?Inside the building I was delighted to see this work by the artist Ben. I discovered Ben a couple of years ago when I bought a series of postage stamps with his playful expressions on them. His art is words and his words are art. This piece was a very American phrase in French.The line to enter the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Site Richelieu was longer than the nonexistent wait at the Ministère, but it fed my love of beautiful libraries.Inside I also browsed the Musée des monnaies, médailles et antiques and the temporary exhibit of Greek vases.
Smaller but quite pretty too was the sunlit library in the Ecole des Mines, a school of earth sciences, engineering, math, and economics.The library contained this ubiquitous rug. One time as my colleague and I were climbing the stairs to our office, she pointed out the rug and said that it’s the tapis you’ll find in every building constructed during a certain time. From then on I noticed it everywhere. I realized that it was the same rug in the building where I live, and the same one at the Ecole des mines.In another area of the building, I walked through room after room of glass cases displaying rocks. Their collection is a feast for a geologist.
In the Journées du Patrimoine program, I read that you could see the Arche enceinte de Philippe Auguste, which is at other times closed to the public. I didn’t know what that was, but it sounded intriguing. The only meaning of enceinte that I knew of was “pregnant.” Philippe’s pregnant arch?
The address of the site had no door, but a locked gate that seemed to lead to a driveway. A young woman stood in the entrance. I tentatively approached, and she asked if I was there for the Journées du Patrimoine. When I answered in the affirmative, she said that a group had just been let in and that it would be twenty minutes before a new group could enter.
No problem. I walked to the nearby Seine River to take a breather. Lo and behold, a little further along the banks, I saw a man drop to one knee to propose to his girlfriend. It warmed my heart.
Back at the mysterious gate to the pregnant arch, a crowd had gathered.The volunteer let us in, and our group of a couple of dozen people descended a dimly lit staircase underground. We seemed to be under a parking garage. We passed through a heavy metal door, and there it was. The arch.A volunteer explained the history of the enceinte to us. In the late 12th to early 13th century, King Philippe Auguste had a wall constructed around Paris to protect the city from potential English invaders. The arch we saw is a remnant of that wall. Tucked away, it was restored by volunteers.
Apparently, enceinte can also mean “outer wall.”
No doubt about it, there is a lot of heritage in this city. The great part about Journées du Patrimoine is that not only does it open private spaces to the public, but it also introduces us to places that are always accessible but not necessarily on our radar.