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Heritage is world-renowned

As doors open across France for the Journées du Patrimoine, we look at the sites on the Unesco World Heritage List

17 October 2011

FROM the depths of the painted caves in the Dordogne, the stark wooden piles of the Lac de Chalain Neolithic huts to the soaring pinnacles of Chartres Cathedral and the “poetry in concrete” that is modern-day Le Havre, France has almost unrivalled wonders in its heritage.

Yet the 37 sites on the Unesco World Heritage List are dwarfed by a range of heritage sites and properties that almost defies description. How do you rank the battlefield graveyards, mediaeval cathedrals and the thousands of chateaux alongside the pigeonniers, simple lavoirs and roadside chapels that are an integral part of rural life?

There is massive interest in France and each year sees spectacular growth in visitors for the Journées Européennes du Patrimoine. Last year they pulled in 11 million people.

This year doors open on September 17 and 18 when sites across the country will open up; many especially for the weekend. Now Michelin has launched its first green Guide to France’s world heritage sites and joined up with the Association of French World Heritage Sites which wants to introduce them to a greater public.

Association president Yves Dauge, senator for Indre-et-Loire, said the Green Guide was “the first step” towards getting the public involved in France’s immense heritage, bearing in mind that “knowledge and conservation are intimately linked”.

He added: “This guide links professionals and the public. Without this link heritage has no chance of surviving or being transmitted from one generation to the next.”

The guide has a chapter on each site, from the oldest to the most modern. The painted caves in the Vézère valley in the Dordogne is the oldest man-made location on the French Unesco list and covers 147 sites from the Palaeolithic era, including 25 decorated caves. The most famous – the best-preserved and with the best artwork – is Lascaux, but it has been closed since 1963 as the 17,000-year old paintings were being damaged by visitors’ breath.

You can still see original cave art in the Font-de-Gaume which has around 200 drawings and paintings but out in the valley itself you can see a landscape that has been home to humans for 400,000 years. One of the best ways to see it is to do it as Cro-Magnon man did when he was painting Lascaux, by canoe. Some hire companies include GPS-based audio-guides to the main sites.

Lascaux is known as the Sistine Chapel of Prehistory for the beauty of the paintings but the Abbey Church of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe in Vienne has its own version. Postwar culture minister André Malraux called the church the “Romanesque Sistine Chapel” for its 11th and 12th century murals, still remarkably bright and well-preserved. The frescoes tell Bible stories from Genesis and Exodus to the Apocalypse.

One of France’s first waterfront properties is being studied at the early Neolithic site at Lac de Chalain, Jura. Archaeologists are uncovering the remains of huts which were built on piles in the lake to protect the residents from attack. These stilt houses are found across the Alpine areas and have been recognised as a group by Unesco, but those in France are providing rich pickings. There is plenty to see, too, for visitors as a replica house has been built near the site.

Chartres Cathedral was one of the first sites recognised by Unesco when the world heritage list was being drawn up. Its soaring structure marks the high point of Gothic art with its enormous nave, the finely detailed sculptures and some of France’s finest stained glass.

Industrial architecture is also honoured with several fine examples, including the Royal Saltworks of Arc-et-Senans, near Besançon. Started in 1775 under Louis XVI, it was a prototype ideal city and featured what Unesco calls a “rational and hierarchical organisation of work”. The nearby Salins-les-Bains saltworks were active for 1,200 years before the saline waters were sent 21km in wooden pipes to Arc-et-Senans to become “white gold”.

That label of industrial architecture would also apply to the Canal du Midi, which runs for 360km from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. Started in 1667 by Pierre-Paul Riquet it is as much a work of art as a route to the start of the French industrial revolution.

No such industrial link for the park and palace of Fontainebleau which was Napoleon’s favourite residence. From its origins as a 12th century hunting lodge the palace, gardens and park have been transformed and embellished by every monarch who stayed there, from François I to Henri IV, Louis XIII, Louis XV and Louis XVI.

France’s natural spaces are also recognised with the Causses and Cevènnes joining the Unesco list last month. The landscape and villages around Mont Perdu in the Pyrenees earned recognition, along with the jewel of the Pyrenees, the Cirque de Gavarnie, as what Unesco calls “an outstanding cultural landscape”.

Natural is not a word that can be used for Le Havre, the youngest of the cityscapes on the Unesco list. Rebuilt after the town was destroyed in the Second World War, Auguste Perret’s designs have been praised for the innovative use of concrete and the integration of the features.

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