For one weekend every year the citizens of forty-nine countries throughout Europe are given access to more culture than you can shake a stick at. In Paris the doors of about 35 historic buildings normally closed to the public are thrown open with a flourish. It all began in France in 1983 when the Ministry of Culture sponsored La Journée Portes Ouvertes. The Day of Open Doors. It caught on. It is now part of European Heritage Days – in France called the Journées du Patrimoine.
The Ministry of Culture and Communication was created under the Fifth Republic with the task of “…making Man’s and above all France’s greatest works accessible to as many French people as possible to ensure as wide as possible an audience for our cultural heritage and to encourage the creation of works of art and of intellect that will enrich it.”
Appropriately their home offices were where I began my privileged peek at the Palais Royal.
History of the Palais Royal Paris
Several centuries ago Cardinal de Richelieu hired the French architect Jacques Lemercier to design him a residence for the ritzy 1st arrondissement – opposite the north wing of the Louvre. Richelieu was the king’s chief minister and wanted to be a tad closer to the royal residence. Naturally Richelieu and everyone else called his new home Palais Cardinal. But he got to enjoy his splendid home for only 13 years. Since Richelieu had bequeathed the building to the crown, when he died in 1642, Louis 13th became the title holder. Louis was quite comfortable living in the Louvre so the building became a residence for many other royals, which led to the change of name.
Louis Phillipe II was in control of the Palais Royal from 1780. He did a bit of renovating and in 1784 this elegant piece of architecture was transformed into a shopping and entertainment complex. I can’t help picturing a Baroque Westfield. But apparently the transformation became one of the most successful retail outlets in Paris. Clientèle spanned the classes, from the common man to those with a title. There were boutiques, the odd hair salon for powdering all those piled up wigs, bookshops & cafés where one could find riveting and sophisticated conversation. And if one looked carefully, one could also find a spot of unabashed debauchery. And just to add to the hotbed of immorality there was also a theatre at the Palais Royal shopping mall. It became the home of the Comédie-Française, which is still there today.
Visiting the Palais Royal Paris
Visitors were ushered through the roped off rooms filled with grandeur and antiques, as you’d expect. This assortment of rooms, salons, antechambers even courtrooms, is now the home of the French Ministry of Culture and Communications, Council of States and the Constitutional Council. It was a little overwhelming and hard to keep track of where we were. Photographs were allowed and I went a little bit crazy. I love detail and while most were backing up to get the wide shot of the whole room I was moving in for the close up of the cornice carvings or the circled capital “N” on the gold door locks of the Napoleon 3rd room.
Chandeliers dangled like bunches of royal, golden grapes from the ceiling of every room. The French talent for good taste was apparent, the eclectic mix of styles and patterns shouldn’t work but they do. I fell for the golden curves of a deep pink and royal red upholstered Louis 15th chair, placed perfectly on an enormous carpet square of similar colours. I noticed how the light from the glazed doors (French of course) fell on the curtains where they were tied back by fringed braid. It blended into the threads of the peach coloured floral brocade. Then I stood next to the bollards and admired the office of the President of the Constitutional Council and wondered what it must be like to go to work every day in such majesty and sit amid history. A visit to a place like this as an impressionable child could set career paths in motion and create the politicians of the future.
If you find yourself in Paris on the 3rd week of September, you may be welcome at the residence of the French President – the Palais de l’Elysée or many other buildings, monuments and historic sites that are normally closed to the public…
A writer and producer in Australia, Gai Reid says ”The next best thing to being in France, is writing about it to share my joy with others who feel the same connection.”