If you’re traveling anywhere in France this weekend, you are in luck! This year’s European Heritage days, Journées européenes du patrimoine in French, are from 15-16 September 2012 in France. The Heritage weekend is a chance to go behind-the-scenes and explore sites not usually open to the public for free or at a reduced rate. In previous years, Anthony and I have explored government buildings, museums, historic houses and even factories normally off-limits to the general public! If you come with a smile (and a bit of patience–in some places, the weekend has become a victim to its own success), the possibilities are both vast and enticing! Sites normally open to the public, like the Mont Saint Michel, can also participate provided they offer something special to visitors during the heritage weekend. In the case of the Mont Saint Michel, anyone visiting this weekend will get the chance to see Notre-Dame-sous-Terre! Allow me to wet your appetite a little further–Notre-Dame-sous-Terre is the oldest remaining part of the Mont Saint Michel and dates to the beginning of the 10th century! Normally, you need to sign up for a special in-depth tour to see it; this weekend thanks to the heritage days, it is open to everyone!
While the program is European in scope, participating countries choose their own weekend in September to let locals and tourists alike enjoy their history. If you’re planning to visit Europe this month, it’s worth checking out the Council of Europe’s main site which allows you to search by country. Participating countries have the option of choosing a theme upon which to build their annual weekend program. France’s theme this year “Patrimoines cachés” (Hidden Heritage) seeks to encourage visitors to look beyond traditional sites and discover history from a different angle–go below ground like at the Mont Saint Michel or by discovering the sewer system in Paris (on my to-do list at some point), climb up and discover the steeples and towers of France’s churches and castles or venture into some of the countries most precious archives as they let the public in! Unfortunately for most tourists or those who don’t speak French, the complete French program is only available in French on the official website here. That said, if you are traveling in France this weekend, make the most of your local tourist office–they will be able to tell you what is available and going on in your area. Be aware that certain sites (the Elysée Palace in Paris comes to mind) are extremely popular and will involve a certain amount of standing in line and patience. Certain sites offering guided tours require a reservation; check out the website or talk to your tourist office before setting out. While most sites are free this weekend, reduced rate admission fees still apply in cases. The official website lets you search by a variety of criteria including price (choose “Gratuit” ie free if you’re watching your budget), region and whether or not the building/site is normally closed to the public (“Ouverture exceptionnelle”). Don’t let a nominal fee keep you from a new experience either. We’re considering visiting the Site des Forges de Paimpont (free for children under 13, 3-5€ depending on the type of visit for adults) and learning about the ironworks as well as watching demonstrations by apprentice smiths. Enjoy your weekend–explore your heritage!