It started like any other weekend in Paris. A glimpse of sky through lace curtains and a rumpled descent from my attic abode to the boulangerie below to check for the rare banana tart they like to trot out just when I’ve given up hope of ever seeing one again.
But I hadn’t even made it as far as the cobblestones when something out of the ordinary came into my stuporous line of vision: a dapper gentleman and his entourage of lookie-lous politely requesting the access code to my building. From under his cape he produced a black-and-white printout photo of my sleepy little block of flats. (I’m not making this up; he was wearing a cape.)
Somewhere between bemused, confused and suspicious, I pressed him for more information.
‘Because it’s famous. You’re very lucky to be living here, mademoiselle!’
‘I’d be happy to show you the courtyard, but why would I give you my door code to see it?’
‘C’est la Journée du Patrimoine, bien sûr.’
I never did find out why my building was of particular interest to this odd little Frenchman, but he did turn me on to the Journées Européenes du Patrimoine, when for one weekend a year the city’s major heritage-listed sites fling open even their heaviest, creakiest doors to reveal chambers, dungeons, backstage corridors and other areas usually off-limits to the public. In its thirtieth year this September 14–15, the proud tradition drew 12 million visitors to hundreds monuments in and around Paris.
My daily run from Montparnasse to the Louvre was dotted with crowds and security guards at even the most seemingly unremarkable street corners — though I’m starting to suspect that there is no such thing as an unremarkable street corner in Paris. But how to choose which queue to join? The most popular seems to be the one outside the palais présidentiel de l’Élysée, where a three-hour wait in the wind and drizzle might earn you a handshake from Monsieur Hollande himself. Somehow the prospect just didn’t appeal.
Instead I called in at the Odéon, one of the five national theatres of France, a neoclassical marvel opened in 1782 and tucked away behind the Jardin du Luxembourg in the 6th arrondissement. As with many of the smaller venues airing their dirty laundry over the weekend, turns out the Odéon’s guided tours of 30 people apiece were completely booked out as far back as July. (N’inquiétez vous; larger sites around town from the Lido cabaret to the Hôtel de Ville are more-the-merrier and don’t require reservations.) Luckily, some theatrical batting of eyelashes got me into one of the plush velvet seats directly under the abstract plafond painted by André Masson in 1965. The charming guide pointed out the private box from which Marie Antoinette failed to comprehend the revolutionary undertones of Beaumarchais’s Le Mariage de Figaro at its 1784 premiere. It couldn’t have helped that hers was one of the theatre’s most restricted views of the stage — likely she was too busy admiring her own bling to notice.
From there I rushed to the Comédie Française in the 1st arrondissement – where again I was disappointed to find their visites guidées booked out weeks in advance. ‘Maybe next year!’ the concierge said chirpily. Since I was already in the neighbourhood, I joined the queue snaking around the gardens into the adjoining Palais Royale.
The labyrinthine 17th-century complex once home to cardinals and kings is now home to a whole lot of French bureaucrats from three major organisations: le Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication, le Conseil Constitutionnel and le Conseil d’État. The French certainly know how to do bureaucracy in style (presumably there was a memo about keeping their desks tidy for the weekend’s mass viewing), with little excuse for Monday-itis under baroque chandeliers and the perennial blue sky of a frescoed ceiling.
In addition to an exhibit of medallions given to chevaliers de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (don’t get too excited; Shakira has one), the Ministry of Culture seemed to have borrowed some Proust manuscripts for the weekend and stationed a librarian from the Bibliothèque Nationale at the display case to answer any burning questions.
We filed through 38 areas usually closed off to tourists, including a lavish chapel, a salle à manger where the president of the Conseil Constitutionnel can listen in on actors rehearsing at the neighbouring Comédie Française while he sups, and the recently restored Salle d’assemblée générale with its immense, gold-lined murals by Toulouse-born impressionist Henri Martin, gilded angels spreading their wings over tableaux denoting areas within the purview of the general assembly, including Beaux Arts, Finances and Code Pénal. With issues as important as mariage pour tous on the agenda, it’s encouraging to know the legislation-changing discussions take place in such inspiring surrounds.
While everyone was oohing and ahhing over the trompe l’oeuil of the Grand Escalier d’Honneur, I was assuring this very obliging attendant that the camera loved him and his mo.
My favourite room, though, was the office of Jean-Louis Debré, president of the Conseil Constitutionnel, whose collection of heroic female dolls (or mariannes) from the French Revolution to the present has to be one of the most adorable things I’ve ever seen presided over by security guards. ‘Mais il n’y a pas de Brigitte Bardot,’ one of the watchmen told me regretfully.
All patrimonied out for the day, I headed back to my 20msq studio in an apartment block whose claim to fame I still haven’t worked out. (Apparently Marguerite Duras lived next door briefly?)
But at least I didn’t have to queue to get in.