A good dose of heritage in Paris

The St. Genevieve Library houses around two million books and documents, and is frequented by Parisians and Sorbonne students.

THE UNIVERSITY of Paris, also known as the Sorbonne, is considered France’s leading public research institution. (photo credit: MEIR BLEICH)
THE UNIVERSITY of Paris, also known as the Sorbonne, is considered France’s leading public research institution.
(photo credit: MEIR BLEICH)
Since 1984, European Heritage Days have been taking place on the third weekend of September, during which Europeans learn about history of places and art. Last year, during our stay in Paris, we were exposed to a great amount of patrimoine (heritage).
During heritage days, the general public is allowed to enter free of charge national institutions that are normally not accessible during the rest of the year, such as the Élysée Palace or the Hôtel Matignon, the official residence of the prime minister of France.
The first site we visited was the Sorbonne, France’s best-known public research university. Next, we rushed to see the magnificent Luxembourg Palace, the residence of the French Senate, and the French Police Headquarters in Île de la Cité to view the office of the fictional French police detective Maigret, created by writer Georges Simenon. At the end of the day, we honored the heroes of the French nation by visiting the mausoleum at the Panthéon.
It’s not news that Paris holds limitless treasures of artistic and architectural beauty found in its palaces, churches, museums, gardens and even cemeteries, which are all popular tourist attractions. There are, however, also a number of hidden heritage sites in Paris that are not as well-known and less crowded that shouldn’t be missed.
From the window of our hotel room in Paris’s Latin Quarter, situated on the left bank of the Seine, we could see classrooms of the Sorbonne. Every morning we passed by the gate that leads to the inner courtyard across from the Place de la Sorbonne, the square that connects the impressive building to the Boulevard Saint-Michel. Each time we walked by, we’d ask the guard if we could take a peek inside, and he would politely express his regret that no, he could not let us in – the site was closed to visitors. We were extremely delighted that the Sorbonne would be open to the public during the Heritage Days and we ran to join the hundreds of French citizens and tourists waiting in the long line on Rue des Écoles.
The Sorbonne, which specializes in the humanities, was founded in the 13th century by Robert de Sorbon. The Faculty of Theology opened in the Middle Ages in the heart of Paris with 16 students, and in 1885 was recognized as France’s leading academic institution.
Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642), who headed the university and then became the chief minister during the reign of King Louis XIII, decided that the chapel of the Sorbonne should be restored so that it could be used as a burial place for the king. At the same time, additional buildings were also restored and new structures were erected. Today, the Sorbonne consists of 11 academic institutions in Paris, including UPMC (l’université Pierre et Marie Curie), the leading French scientific and medical university.
During our guided tour, we learned that the Sorbonne is spread out over an entire block, with a large courtyard in the center and a chapel with a towering dome along the side. Receptions would held in the Grand Hall, which housed statues of Homer and Archimedes, as well as marble pillars and plaques. Next, we ascended the impressive staircase to the floor above where we entered the main hall and the extraordinary old-fashioned Grand Amphitheater that was built in 1895. Towering above the podium is Le Bois Sacré (The Sacred Wood) by Puvis de Chavannes, which evokes the living symbols of Literature, Science and the Arts gathered around the Sorbonne.
On the other side of the Boulevard Saint-Michel, in the sixth arrondissement, is the Luxembourg Garden, the largest garden in Paris, known for its rectangles of parterres that are bordered with flowers and hedges. The Luxembourg Palace, which was built by Marie de’ Medici, the widow of King Henry IV of France, is now the meeting place of the French Senate, the upper house of Parliament, and the National Assembly is the lower house.
Construction of the palace began in 1612 under the direction of Marie de’ Medici, who acted as regent for her son, King Louis XIII, until he came of age. However, de’ Medici didn’t really have much time to enjoy the palace, since she was exiled by the young king. Later, Cardinal Richelieu mediated between mother and son.
De’ Medici had architects design the palace in imitation of the Palazzo Pitti, in her native Florence, as well as the Medici Fountain next to the palace. After the French Revolution in 1789, the palace was used for a short time to house a prison, and then in 1799 became the home of the Senate. During the Nazi occupation, the palace served as the headquarters of the German Luftwaffe and its commander, Hermann Goering. The Luxembourg Palace is smaller than the Palace of Versailles, but just as impressive and there are works of art at every turn.
After our visit to the palace, we returned to the fifth arrondissement to view the Panthéon, which was originally built as a church dedicated to St. Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris. It now functions as a secular mausoleum containing the remains of distinguished French citizens. The French Panthéon was built to resemble the classic structure of the original Pantheon in Rome, with marble pillars lining the front and a huge dome that overlooks the city below. The impressive building is open to the public all year long, along with a number of important institutions in surrounding buildings, such as the Henri IV School, which used to be a monastery, and the St. Genevieve Library, which you can enter for 10-minute visits between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m.
The St. Genevieve Library houses around two million books and documents, and is frequented by Parisians and Sorbonne students. The sun shines into the reading room through the large, arched windows, and the names of 810 illustrious scholars were inscribed on the building’s façade in 1848. Classic stairs lead up to the reading room, which has detailed ironwork and masonry that express the architect Henri Labrouste’s love of Roman architecture. The high ceiling and supporting network of iron arches is reminiscent of old railway stations, but the endless tables, light blue reading lamps, and walls full with books clearly mark the building as a library. 
Translated by Hannah Hochner.