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Wake Up And Smell The Culture

September 24, 2014

By Florian


If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s lazy people. For me, there is nothing sadder than people who have nothing better to do with their lives than wallow in an extreme state of idleness. I suppose it’s understandable if you live in a tiny countryside village, where there is absolutely nothing to do anyway, but when you live in Paris it is just plain unforgivable! But the world is what it is, and there are many people that prefer staying in bed all weekend long instead of making the most of all Paris has to offer. Last weekend (September 20th/21st, 2014), certain buildings, monuments and sites not normally accessible to the public opened their doors for the European Heritage Days. So for all you lazy people out there that spent the weekend in front of your TVs, here are a few of Paris’ hidden jewels that I was lucky enough to visit, without waiting in line!


The Biennale des Antiquaires (Biennial Antiques Fair) is the leading fair bringing together the most prestigious antiques galleries, art dealers, and jewelers from around the world. The event is held every two years under the magnificent glass ceiling of the Grand Palais. Even though the fair isn’t part of the European Heritage Days, it was there I head to whet my appetite for the weekend’s events. World-renowned jewelers such as Cartier, Chanel, Van Cleef, Graaf and Bulgari display their most beautiful creations, some of which are worth over 1 million euros (1.3 million US$). You can also see furniture, paintings, sculptures and other decorative objects from the world’s greatest artists and designers. It is more than worth the 30€ entrance fee to see this most stunning collection of elegant, invaluable creations. 


Well, here’s an interesting, mysterious place to visit. The historical home of Freemasonry in France, the Grande Loge de France, is situated in the 17th Arrondissement. As part of the European Heritage Days, the lodge opens its doors to reveal some of the many secrets of this ancient fraternal organization. It’s your one chance to infiltrate this secret society whose symbols never fail to pique the curiosity of the non-initiated. The visit is split into three parts as you wander through the two most striking of the site’s numerous lodges listening to the three guides who explain the Freemason’s history, rituals and symbolism. An absolutely fascinating place to visit, but I can’t say any more - it is a secret society after all! 


At the Tribunal de Commerce (Commercial Court), the place where all business litigations in Paris are settled, you are welcomed on the premises by the bust’s of French Minister of Commerce and Industry in the 17th Century, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, and 16th Century Jurist Michel de l’Hospital. It was here that some of the biggest, most infamous affairs have been settled, including the recent fraud scandal involving French Minister Bernard Tapie. This beautiful building dating back to 1865 stands out due to its unique off-center dome. In the interest of artistic taste and ensuring the new boulevards converge towards the city’s iconic monuments, Baron Haussmann insisted that the dome of the Tribunal du Commerce de Paris should be aligned with the Boulevard Sébastopol. Sadly no car driver today benefits from Haussman’s demand, as the boulevard is now a one-way street going away from the construction!


The Sorbonne may be open to visitors at certain times of the year (although prior reservation is required), but anyone is welcome to join the tour on the weekend of the European Heritage Days and I wasn’t about to miss the chance to discover this historical university. Established in 1253 by Robert de Sorbon, the Sorbonne College was dedicated to the study of theology. Left to reach a dire state of degradation by the 17th Century, it was under Louix XIII that Secretary of State Cardinal Richelieu decided to renovate and enlarge the building. Subjects taught were then broaden to include language and science during the reign of Napoleon I. This was a fantastic opportunity to visit the opulent amphitheaters, the ancient chapel and Richelieu’s tomb.


But hold on, what is that striking building just by the Pont des Arts? Well, duh! It’s the Institut de France! And what goes on there exactly? To put it simply, it’s a meeting place for academics. Known as the College of Four Nations before the French Revolution, the Institut de France groups together five academies: the Académie française (French Academy, concerning the French language), the Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres (Academy of Humanities), the Académie des sciences (Academy of Sciences), the Académie des beaux-arts (Academy of Fine Arts) and the Académie des sciences morales et politiques (Academy of Moral and Political Sciences). Founded by Cardinal Richelieu’s successor, Cardinal Mazarin whose tomb lies beneath the dome, the Institut de France also houses the oldest public library in France, the Bibliothèque Mazarine.


The École des Beaux-Arts, the distinguished National School of Fine Arts built just a stone’s throw away from the Institut de France, is well worth the visit. The first wonder upon which I stumbled was the Chapelle des Petits-Augustins, an exquisite old chapel that seems to have been transformed throughout the ages into a storeroom for sculptures and paintings. Continuing the tour, I walked through into a charming little courtyard and continue on to the Palais des Etudes’ glass covered courtyard. This impressive architectural feat dates back to 1830 and opens on to a small amphitheater, the amphithéâtre d’Honneur.


Just across the river, not far from the Palais Royal, you can find the Richelieu site of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (National Library of France). I took the time to visit the sumptuous, large oval library filled with an extremely impressive amount of books. I also discovered that, within the pedestal of the statue of Voltaire that stands in the library is hidden the embalmed heart of the French philosopher, historian and writer. 


The musée des Arts et Métiers (Museum of Arts and Crafts) is unique as part of its collection is on display in the former church the Prieuré de Saint Martin des Champs. The library, normally open only to businesses, is located in the church’s old refectory and conserves old books related to construction. This library opened my eyes, and those of the wider public, not only to its unique architecture, but also to the craft of restoring ancient books. 


Many people stroll along the Rue Etienne Marcel without ever noticing the Tour Jean Sans Peur (Tower of Jean the Fearless) situated at number 20. Let me give you a very short history lesson – back at the end of the 14th Century, the King Charles VI was incapable of reigning, due to fits of madness. Much to the disappointment of the King’s brother the Duc d’Orleans, his uncle, Philippe de Bourgogne known as Philippe the Bold, became regent. When Philippe the Bold died, his son Jean the Fearless succeeded him to the throne, but the Duc d’Orleans believed he should be the next King. The Duke’s assassination in November 1407 commanded by Jean the Fearless lead to a Civil War between the Armagnacs and the Bourguignons right in the middle of the Hundred Years War. The Tour Jean Sans Peur was the Parisian home to the Duke of Bourgogne, and it is here that can be found the oldest latrines in Paris

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