Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.
Over 300 sites, most of them off-limits the rest of the year, were open last weekend for the city's annual architectural open house.
For much of French history, when the people started lining up outside the gates of Parisian mansions, it was time for residents to flee.
But it was curiosity rather than class struggle that drove the French into the streets last weekend, for the 29th annual "Journées du patrimoine," or Heritage Days. Every year, on the third weekend of September, French cities open the doors of various monuments, churches, museums, banks, courts, government buildings, private residences and other sites usually off-limits to the public.
True to Socialist form, the French President Francois Hollande and his partner Valerie Trierweiler personally greeted visitors to the Elysée Palace (above), the French version of the White House. French newspaper Le Monde recommended the famous historic site of the Parisian police at Quai des Orfèvres (open for the first time this year; 10,000 people showed up) and the Hotel de la Marine, the 18th century home of the French Naval Department on Place de la Concorde. Le Figaro pointed readers toward the prestigious high school Lycée Henri IV, whose alumni include philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault, and Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the planner who built the city’s boulevards. Also open were the French national TV studios, the Bank of France, one of the world’s oldest jewelers (1613), a handful of embassies, including those of Italy, Poland, and Finland, and many of the Parisian hôtels that feature so prominently in French literature from Molière to Zola. (Full list here.)
The festival began in 1984, the creation of then-French Minister of Culture Jack Lang. (He was also the brains behind the country’s price-fixing law that keeps independent bookstores in business.) Other countries followed suit, and in 2000, the name was changed to Journées Européennes du patrimoine. The Netherlands and Norway held their celebrations a couple weeks ago; Austria and Portugal will do so at the end of the month. In the 50 countries that now participate [PDF], approximately 12 million people visit 16,000 sites [PDF].
Nowhere is the event celebrated like France, where history is a national obsession. Nearly 30,000 people visited the French Senate, and another 16,000 the National Assembly. And for those who didn’t want to wait in line, there were more than 300 other sites to check out, from the sewers to the Tour Saint Jacques.
Below, photos from the Patrimoine this year and years past:
Top image: Flickr user Thomas Faivre-Duboz.