Seeing the sights

Last year a friend and I visited a monastery that was designed by the architect Le Corbusier, which is only open to the public at specified times on particular named days. My friend had flown into Lyon with the specific aim of visiting this building, and so we were well informed about the available visit times, although it had not been possible to pre-book.

To my mind the desire to visit a Le Corbusier monastery some kilometres outside Lyon on a Sunday afternoon is evidence of a somewhat esoteric set of interests. I was, therefore, quite relaxed as we set out in time to make the second and final sitting of the allotted day.

Le Corbusier

It was only as we made the approach and noted, with mounting alarm, the throng of cars parked bumper-to-bumper along the side of the road that my calm began to dissipate. Stress levels mounted yet further as we approached the queue of enthusiastic pedestrians at the entrance, which was long and unmoving. I was in full blown panic mode when admission to the final named viewing of the day was cut off at a point in the queue about five people ahead of us.

The back of some of the many visitors to the monastery that day.
The back of some of the many visitors to the monastery that day.

Then it dawned on me that I had made a novice’s error: we were, of course in France, but I was acting as if I were in the UK. In England, many quite stunning architectural gems remain unvisited except by a geeky minority of the general public. In fact, it is only when a monument is acquired by the National Trust (and a gift shop selling rainbow rubbers, bendy pencils and all manner of pointless tat is opened) that most of us begin to notice its existence. Presumably British Sunday afternoons are far too full of tours of Brent Cross, trips to the pub, making the best of soggy barbeques and tussles with the lawnmower to allow for any sort of architectural rapture. (I’m not complaining: it makes for short queues to cultural treasures.)

Not so in France, where even the tiniest and most mundane hamlet proudly vaunts its patrimoine. Perhaps because shops are still (just about) compulsorily fermé on Sunday afternoons, and Sunday lawnmowing is interdit, even the least significant piece of French cultural heritage can attract crowds of excited punters who would otherwise be festering in a post-prandial slump with their ageing relatives at home.

Take the commune where we were living until very recently, for example. It is a very pleasant place and has its fair share of pretty parts – there are even some buildings that date back a few hundred years – but there is nothing to cause anyone to make a detour to visit it. Yet, when the older of its two churches, now fallen out of use, opens its doors to the public each year, it is virtually impossible to catch a glimpse of its (beautiful but fairly standard) interior, so dense is the heaving mass of visitors wedged inside.

The village also boasts an ancient spring. Whilst I find it mildly interesting to learn that, in time gone by, this was the villagers’ only source of drinking water, there is really not much to behold other than a sort of cold muddy trickle emanating from the bottom of an ordinary square stone.

Evidently, though, my eye is not as discerning as that of the average member of the French public. The spring is considered to be of such intrinsic value that it merits its own panel containing a lengthy exposition on its history and microbiological features (nothing remarkable in the length of the exposition: French expositions are, by their very definition, long-winded). Each time I pass this panel I resolve to read it, but, two dreary phrases in, I am usually bored enough to stump off on my way. Not so the French. It is not in the least unusual to find a cluster of them grouped around the dripping stone, oooohing, aaaaaaahing and (because it is France) oh-la-la-ing, evidently riveted either by the spring itself or by the luxuriant word-smithery of the accompanying explanation.

Furthermore, even if you could interest a group of worthy all-bran-eating British adults in a desultory hillside stream, similarly captivating their offspring would be virtually impossible. Not so Gallic sprogs. A detailed interest in even the most modest piece of local patrimoine is bred into French infants from the cradle, so that by the age of six they are quite avidly accompanying their parents on Sunday-afternoon tours of Le Corbusier monasteries outside Lyon, and thereby taking up valuable places denied to people who had taken planes to be there…


This is my first post for a little while. The more eagle-eyed of you may have observed that the picture on my home page has changed in the interim. The two are linked: I have been too busy moving house to have had time to write my blog. I hope to be back to normal function very soon…


For posts about French life on other blogs, visit the #AllAboutFrance linkup on LouMessugo’s blog.