UNESCO IN FRANCE
UNESCO IN FRANCE
France: trailblazer in the preservation of patrimony
BY ALEXANDER LOBRANO
Years before the concept had been clearly defined in other countries, France was passionately committed to historic preservation. The national roster of historic monuments was created in 1837, and the dramatic restoration of Notre Dame by architect Eugene Emmanuel Violet-le-Duc from 1844-1864 awoke the entire country to the importance of protecting and preserving its vast cultural heritage, or patrimoine. France has played a leading role in UNESCO (the cultural arm of the United Nations) since its birth and has taken a proactive international approach to historic preservation.
France currently has some 30 different UNESCO World Heritage sites. The first French sites registered on the list in 1979 include Chartres Cathedral, Mont Saint-Michel and its bay, the Palace and Park of Versailles, the Prehistoric Sites and Decorated Caves of the Vézère Valley and Vézelay, Church and Hill.
One of the loveliest UNESCO sites in France is the Loire Valley (part of which was listed in 2000), stretching west from Sully-sur-Loire along the Loire River to Chalons. The eddying willow-green Loire River courses through lush, unspoiled countryside dotted with spectacular châteaux. Begin a leisurely drive in Sancerre, the famous old wine town, and follow the river to pretty Gien, famous for its ceramics, before continuing to Orléans, where Joan of Arc saved France from the English in 1429. Orléans’ Musée des Beaux Arts has a fine collection, including works by Tintoretto, Corregio and Velasquez. The first major château on this drive is Chambord, one of the most magnificent surving examples of French Renaissance architecture. The largest castle in the Loire Valley, it was built as a hunting lodge for François I, whose main residences were the Château de Blois and the Château d’Amboise. The original design was by Italian architect Domenico da Cortona, but it was considerably altered during construction, possibly at the suggestion of Leonardo da Vinci, who was a guest of the King at the nearby Château du Close Luce. Today, the château’s famous double-helix staircase is commonly attributed to the Italian genius.
Nearby Blois is a charming town and a great overnight stop that’s not far from Chenonceau, which is perhaps the most romantic of all the Loire châteaux. Built between 1513 and 1521 by Catherine Briconnet and her husband Thomas Bobier on the foundations of an old water mill, it’s a supremely elegant building. The château’s signature covered gallery was added by Catherine de Medici between 1570 and 1576. Nearby, the splendid Château d’Ussé inspired writer Charles Perrault to write Sleeping Beauty, and the magnificent gardens at the Château de Villandry are some of the finest in France.
Further west, after you cross into Western Loire, just south of Saumur lies the Royal Abbey of Fontevraud, the largest monastery in Europe, surrounded by beautiful gardens. Three English monarchs are buried here, and you can still see the recumbent effigies of Henry II, his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their son, Richard the Lionhearted, slowly being restored to their former glory. Consider ending your tour in Nantes, the regional capital.
Some French Heritage Sites remain secrets of those in the know. The Royal Saltworks of Arc-et-Senans (listed in 1982), near Besançon in Franche-Comté, for example, is a surprisingly modern-seeming and very beautiful stone complex that was built in 1775 by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux. A visionary work of early industrial architecture, it’s comprised of a former saltworks and the village that housed the people who once worked there. Other French Heritage Sites are urban, including the enchanting town of Saint-Emilion in the wine country outside of Bordeaux and Lyon’s city center.
The initial World Heritage designation awarded to Le Vieux Lyon, the left bank Lyon neighborhood that comprises the largest surviving neighborhood of Renaissance architecture, was subsequently expanded to include almost the entire city center. Famed for its superb restaurants and increasingly known as one of the best destinations for shopping in France, this pedestrian-friendly capital of the Rhône-Alps region constitutes a living open-air library of European architecture ranging from its Roman arena to 18th- and 19th-century silkworkers’ houses in the Croix Rousse district and Jean Nouvel’s stunning all-black renovation of the city’s opera house.
To really sink your teeth into Lyon, dine at one of the city’s bouchons, a cozy local take on the bistro known for their hearty cooking. Two favorites are Chez Abel and Chez Hugon. After your meal, take a stroll down the Rue Auguste Comte, which has emerged as one of the best antique and home-furnishings shopping streets in France.
Le Havre, on the English Channel in Normandy, is the latest French city to be listed as a World Heritage site, and it will fascinate anyone with an interest in contemporary architecture and urban planning. The city’s selection also represents an important evolution in UNESCO’s criteria. Almost completely destroyed by bombing during World War II, Le Havre was rebuilt from 1945 to 1964 according to the plans of a team headed by architect August Perret. The area designated includes most of the heart of the city and constitutes a unique statement of the leading ideas of contemporary architecture and urbanism in France during the post-war years. A half-century after this huge building project, a new appreciation of a certain vintage of formerly scorned modernism is emerging, and Perret’s unique plan—he divided the 300-acre city center into rectangular lots sized according to the height of the building to be constructed on them—and such buildings as the church of Saint Joseph and the Porte Océane complex are newly appreciated for the modernity they represented.
An easy train ride or drive from Paris, this Norman city makes a great base from which to visit Honfleur and other charming port towns along the coast. Stay at the charming Vent d’Oeust Hotel, and don’t miss the striking Musée André Malraux, which has the second largest collection of Impressionist paintings in France, or a meal at La Villa du Havre, where chef Jean-Luc Tartarin has emerged as one of the most exciting and innovative chefs in France.
The beautiful and emblematic belfries of northern France also joined Le Havre on the list of French UNESCO Heritage sites last July, another decision reflecting a broadening and deepening of UNESCO criterion, since 23 different belfries were listed simultaneously in recognition of their exceptional beauty and historical significance. This new group joined the 32 belfries that had already been designated by UNESCO in 1999. “The belfry is the quintessential symbol of Flanders, one of the richest and most densely populated parts of Europe during the Middle Ages,” explains Francois-Xavier Muylaert, president of Beffrois et Patrimoine, the Arras-based association that was the driving force behind the candidacy. Among the belfries that Muylaert finds especially interesting are those in Arras, Boulogne-sur-Mer and Bethune (all in the département of Pas-de-Calais) and Douai, Lille and Saint-Pol-sur-Mer (in the département of Nord).
Not surprisingly, some of the most alluring UNESCO Heritage Sites in France are considerably ancient. Just outside of Nîmes, in the Languedoc-Roussillon region, the spectacular Pont du Gard was built by the Romans between 45 and 60AD to allow the aqueduct supplying water to the city to cross the Gard River. Beyond the precision of its technical specifications, still impressive even by today’s standards, the Roman architects and hydraulic engineers who designed this bridge created an artistic masterpiece which is composed of three different levels of variously sized arches rising 164 feet. Complement your visit to the Pont du Gard by visiting other remarkable Roman monuments, including the spectacular ampitheater and the famous Maison Carrée, an elegant temple in the heart of Nîmes. Don’t miss Uzes, one of the prettiest towns in France, just a few miles from the bridge.
Other French sites have been classed because of their extraordinary natural beauty, notably the Mont Perdu in the Pyrenées (listed in 1997) and the magnificent Calanche of Piana in the Gulf of Girolata (listed in 1983), on the coast of Corsica. To visit this nature reserve is to experience the Mediterranean as it existed when The Odyssey was written, as an empty and unspoiled sea, with warm azure waters and breezes scented by the maquis, a thick cover of wild herbs.
Currently being discussed, the latest French UNESCO dossier may become controversial but could considerably expand the organization’s working definition of global patrimony if accepted. A large number of famous French chefs, including Alain Ducasse, Michel Bras, Pierre Troisgros and Alain Passard are supporting an initiative by L'Institut Européen d'Histoire et des Cultures de l'Alimentation (IEHCA) and l'Université de Tours to have the French government prepare an official dossier requesting a World Heritage label for French cuisine. “The purpose of our initiative is not to put French cooking under some sort of a bell jar, or to inter it in its glorious past, but rather to defend the essential idea that cooking is a vital element of French identity, and to promote its creativity and diversity,” the committee explains. If this culinary dossier is approved, “Bon Appetit!” will become a pleasantry with serious historical significance.
For a complete listing of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in France, visit www.unesco.org
UNESCO in Paris
The headquarters building of UNESCO, jointly designed by three architects from different countries—American Marcel Breuer, Italian Piero Nervi and Frenchman Bernard Zehrfuss, has one of the most interesting and little-known collections of modern art in the French capital. Works by Picasso, Bazaine, Miro, Tapiès, Le Corbusier and many other artists are on display.
Place de Fontenay, 15th
The Belfries of Northern France
Using the map on the website of Beffrois et Patrimoine, you can organize your own tour of the region’s most beautiful and unusual belfries.
Loire Valley Regional Tourist Board
Western Loire Regional Tourist Board
Rhône-Alps Regional Tourist Board
Lyon Tourist Board
Normandy Regional Tourist Board
Le Havre Tourist Board
Languedoc-Roussillon Regional Tourist Board
25, rue Guynemer, Lyon
tel. 04 78 37 46 18
12, rue Pizay, Lyon
tel. 04 78 28 10 94
Musée André Malraux
Bd. Clemenceau, Le Havre
tel. 02 35 19 62 62
La Villa du Havre
www.villaduhavre.com (in French)