This past weekend was the Journées du Patrimoine, an annual event throughout France when museums, craftsmen, and companies throw open their doors to the general public in a grand celebration of France’s cultural heritage. Visitors can often obtain free access to otherwise restricted sites, take part in ancient traditions like stonecutting, piano restoration, or viticulture, attend concerts, and generally soak in the history of this great country.
I had wanted to go to the Elysée Palace (the equivalent of the White House), which only opens its doors to the public on this auspicious weekend, but alas, the line to enter stretched literally a mile down the street to Place de la Concorde and even started wrapping around onto the Champs Elysées. I had the bright idea to wake up early on Sunday morning to beat the crowds before the doors opened at 8:00, but you can imagine my dismay when I found the line once more stretching to Concorde at 7:30 in the morning.
On a Sunday.
Apparently, the French are serious about seeing their president’s digs– serious enough to arrive at 6:00 am as one man in line confessed to me. Word on the street was that the expected wait would be three hours.
Even if I didn’t have to meet my host family later, I was not about to sacrifice three hours of my time just to see the president’s house. As I would later come to learn, it was just as well that I didn’t, since I have already been to the American ambassador’s residence, which is apparently just the same, according to my local French contacts.
It’s funny how we can come to know a place as familiar, until it catches us off guard. I had passed through the Place de la Concorde countless times this summer to and from my way to work, but I had never been there at this hour of the morn, and as I stood there in the pre-dawn chill, shaking my head at the unsuspecting crowds lining up along Avenue Gabriel, I could not help but be struck by the beauty of it all.
Where a roaring flood of traffic usually clogs the intersections, there were empty streets at this quiet hour on a sleepy Sunday morning. And where the midday sun glares down upon the obelisk as brightly as an ancient, Egyptian noon, this particular sunrise just barely kissed its gold-leaf cap, inflaming the pyramid like a beacon to herald the approaching day, while in the background, the Eiffel Tower stood her watch like some giant sentry peering over the darkened rooftops of Paris to be the first to greet the September morning.
At the end of the Champs Elysées, the Arc de Triomphe yawned sleepily while halfway up the fabled avenue, the Grand Palais’ glass roof and stone statues glowed to life.
It occurred to me that the Jardins des Tuileries would be absolutely gorgeous in the morning light, and I was not disappointed. Devoid of the usual tourists plodding its dusty paths, the front lawn of the Louvre– one of my favorite spots in this city– was wrapped in a supernatural tranquility. The crowd of lawn chairs waited in silence, like the flocks of sleeping pigeons, blending in with the natural greenery, as still as the surrounding hedges with no one to keep them company but myself and a few passing joggers.
I have often come to just sit in the gardens and soak up the atmosphere, and I like to imagine that they must be something of what heaven must be like. As you sit in this oasis of natural beauty in the heart of a bustling city, with a brilliant vault of blue sky above and the arms of the Louvre reaching out to shelter and embrace you, you cannot help but feel that you have been transported to paradise. This morning, as I approached the fountains at the heart of the Tuileries, they held a particularly serendipitous encounter with Patrick, a local photographer in his sixties who lives just across the street and has been taking photos since he was seventeen years old. He comes every morning to jog and capture the sunrise in photos, and my already overwhelmed soul was surprisingly moved by this unexpected communion with a fellow artist.
As the sun slowly climbed into the sky, the famed glass pyramid drank in its light, only to scatter it back to the earlybird art-lovers beginning to queue in the courtyard. It was as if, suffused with a divine light, the pyramid shone from within, the cold rigidity and dark lifelessness of its steel and glass skeleton suddenly transfigured and awakened to a new transcendence as it became a second sun reflecting the light of the one suspended above.
Finally, the battery on my camera was giving out, but dawn had arrived over Paris. I had come to see an Elysian palace, but what had originally been a disappointment turned into a serendipitous stroll through an even more heavenly one: not a palace of stone built by men to house another man, but one constructed in cooperation with the Master Architect– a foretaste of the celestial court and an eternal dawn.