The 17th and 18th September mark the 39th edition of the Journées du Patrimoine (European Heritage Days) and it’s one of the best deals in France. It happens every year a few weeks after “rentre,” when the French return from vacation to go back to school/work. The French government touts it as a “Postcard of natural landscapes, a breeding ground for culture, art and history, traditions and memory.”
Why for free? The French feel their heritage contributes to economic and tourist development, conservation of savoir faire of artists and artisans.
During Journées du Patrimoine, you get access to embassies, government ministries, town halls, historic libraries, religious institutions, schools, workshops, and offices not normally accessible to the general public. The draw for me is the museums, department stores, gardens, and churches that offer special access, concerts, demonstrations or guided tours, according to “Secrets of Paris” website.
Last year, my neighbor visited a nuclear power plant and nuke waste site on the visitor lists. Additionally, there are light shows, clowns, acrobats, magicians, musicians (the typical Parisian street art taken in the context of cultural heritage). You can learn about clockmaking, visit brasseries to see the inner workings behind the scenes. The list is wide-open, really: concerts, stone carving, medical history, theaters, radio towers, a seashell cave.
See the website here for a quick list.
So many choices, and none of them bad
Some years, I tromp around Paris visiting museum after museum until I am completely saturated in culture. Other times, I stay home in the Haute-Marne where I offer my time with the local historic society to give tours of our town before heading out to seize the day on a VTT (mountain bike) tour of our river valley. It’s super cool for sporty types because along the signposted stops, locals demonstrate how things were in the old days. They show how to hand-weave a rope, wash clothing using ash or to pound out an axe using ancient metallurgy techniques.
This year, the Journées du Patrimoine plan is to double-up with culture and dining. We’ll do lunch at a Micheline star restaurant called Le Balcon (for their 30 euro prix fixe lunch menu) in the village of Combeaufontaine before visiting Chateau de Ray, in the Haute-Saône. Then we’ll spend a few euros on coffee at Chez Yvette, a typical French café out in the countryside. No matter what your mood, there should be something on the list that will suit your tastes.
Here is a sample of options to give you a feel for what’s out there for you to discover:
• Château de Condé. Many privately owned chateaux are on the visitor list. One of the last French private castles still inhabited will be open to the public. It is called Condé and is located between Meaux and Reims. A nice touch is that all of the furniture and decorations are still intact. They are organizing a treasure hunt for the kids. Free admission, preferential rate on chateaudeconde.fr.
Château de Condé, 4 rue du Château Route du Champagne – 02330 Condé-en-Brie. Friday 16 and Saturday 17 September, 2.30-5.30 p.m., and Sunday 18 September, 1-7 p.m.
• Paris. In Paris, expect to be blown away. Just about every museum you ever wanted to visit is free during Journées du Patrimoine. The real draw is to visit the locations that are typically not open to the public. For example, the Palais d’Elysées (the French president’s residence) is on the list, but expect to stand in line. It is a wonderful time to be in Paris, the weather is cooler and the heavy tourists crowds from summer have departed. Parisians are back in the city and the place has a vibe that just feels different.
• Valenciennes. Three hours from the Netherlands but still in France, the Beaux-Arts in the Valenciennes has Gallo-Roman archeology and 17th century Flemish painting (Rubens, Van Dyck). You’ll need to make an appointment, but it’s worth it since the Fine Arts Museum of Valenciennes has architecturally stunning colonnades and houses a prestigious collection. The museum is on the books for renovations, so here is your chance to see it while you can.
Free, subject to availability, boulevard Watteau, 59300 Valenciennes. Saturday 17 and Sunday 18 September, 10:30-11 a.m., 2:30-3 p.m., 3:30-4 p.m., 4:30-5 p.m.
• Bourse de Commerce. Audio-visual projections, “the people of the Stock Exchange,” reveal behind the scenes of the construction of the Bourse de Commerce building and five centuries of history of the building in the Halles district of Paris.
Free upon registration, 17 & 18 September, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. 2 rue de Viarmes 75001 Paris, Register here –[email protected]
• Senlis. Torchlight tour of the royal palace in Senlis an hour north of Paris. The oldest residence of the kings of Capetian France (Hugues Capet was elected king of the Franks in the courtyard of the castle circa 987). Tour the remains of the castle and the Saint-Maurice priory founded in the 13th century by Saint Louis, as well as its former cellar located under the current museum of the Veneer. Registration required at [email protected], duration 1hour.
Royal Castle Park, Plaza del Parvis Notre Dame – 60300 Senlis, Friday 16 September, 21:00-22:00
• Foundation Cartier. New to the list this year is Cartier Jewelry, open for tours at Hôtel Pinsot which houses the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art. Visit the workshop and the studio to discover the daily-lives of the jeweler, the gem cutter, the seamer, the polisher and the stringer. Visitors will see how to set stones; learn about glyptic, the art of sculpting fine and hard stones, fossilized materials.
15 thru 18 September, free.
• Langres. The town of Langres is offering access to Denis Diderot’s mansion, the Hôtel du Breuil-de-Saint-Germain, which is privately owned. Diderot was a philosopher credited with writing the French encyclopedia and who participated in the intellectual revolution of the 18th century in the Age of Enlightenment.
Free admission, House of Lights Denis Diderot, 2 rue Chambrulard, 52200 Langres, Sunday September 18, 10 a.m.-12 p.m., 4 p.m.-5.30 p.m.
It’s all here
The French government has a website that details events and openings. It is a mosaic of sites with practically unlimited options.In some cases, visitors have the option to reserve online, like the visit in Nancy to tour the buildings with stained glass. In some cases there is a limit on entries and in other cases associations have added nominal charges, so read the details!
Click around the site and get familiar with the details.
Alice Verberne is a contributing writer for Dispatches Europe. She has worked in print journalism and magazine production in the United States and Europe throughout her career. She currently resides in one of the Petites Cités de Charactère de France (a small city of character) where she enjoys chatting with visitors and adventuring with locals.