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One weekend a year, France has the Jours de Patrimoine, or Heritage Days. I think other European countries do this, too, whether on the same weekend in September or not, I can't say. Basically, it's a good idea: buildings and other properties having historical value, but which may be in government or private hands, are opened up for supervised public visits. Often, a guided tour is the only way to see these places, but the general feeling is that this keeps the French people in touch with their history and culture. All very lofty.
The reality can be different. Besides the odd private residence or property, all the museums are open for free, and they're jammed. People who wouldn't normally engage in this sort of activity seem to feel pressured to do it, and to haul their kids along. The prospect of saving five euros' admission to some place is irresistable, and lines snake out of attractions that are pretty much open all the time.
E and J were planning to do something on Sunday, but hadn't quite worked out what. I had no plans at all for Saturday, but it was a really gorgeous day, so I did my bit for my living environment and took a bag of DVDs I'd borrowed from Judi at the English Corner Shop back down there. We talked a while, and I began to feel the tug of patrimoine. There must be something I hadn't seen within walking distance, and so I left the store.
First stop was St. Roch church. As many hundreds of times as I've passed it, I'd never gone in, mostly because it's not particularlly distinguished architecturally and dates from the 19th century, a counterfeit of a much older style of church. As I figured, there's nothing much inside (except some bits of the saint, which get paraded around on his saint's day here in August, but they're not on public display). The organ was getting a workout, mostly because they're trying to raise funds for it, and to that end, some homemade jams and jellies were for sale at a small table inside the sanctuary, all proceeds going to restoring the organ.
Unsatisfied by this, I wandered on. The Chamber of Commerce building is old, and used to be the local stock exchange a few centuries ago, but that was locked up. I turned up the hill, past one of the oldest buildings in town, a former palace for some minor nobleman now in private hands (and divvied up into rentable apartments), but it, too, was closed. Coming onto the Rue de la Loge, I noticed a huge line snaking out of the entrance to the crypt of Notre Dame des Tables, the church which had stood in what is now Square Jean Jaurès. I haven't taken the tour of this subterranean bit of Montpellier history, but I sure wasn't going to do it now.
Up at the top of the hill is the Préfecture, the building where the French government offices are. If you need your drivers license, or naturalization papers, or political asylum, or many other things, here's where you go to hand in your papers, which will subsequently be lost, causing you untold grief. You enter in the rear, where cubic stone and glass houses most of the offices, but the public face of the building is a mid-19th century pile, which, along with its contemporary the central post office, graces the end of what is now Avenue Foch, which was cut through the center of town back then to divide the two parishes and provide an opportunity to build a bunch of Haussmannesque structures to line it. Astonishingly, people were standing in line to get to go into this part of the Préfecture, whereas most people I know would pay good money to avoid having to go there at all. Ah, well, no accounting for taste.
I ducked around the side and into the older part of that bit of the hill and wandered around some, seeing nothing much. Finally, I wound up at the Cathedral. I remembered being utterly unimpressed with this the one time I'd been in it, on a patrimoine past, but decided to give it a second chance. But no, it's chock full of lugubrious late 19th Century Catholic crap, except for the organ, which is gigantic. If those pipes up front aren't just for show, that sumbitch can thunder when it wants to.
Back out on the street again, there was really only one thing left to do: hit the medical school. The early medical faculty is literally joined to the Cathedral, although the buildings which are open to the public are far later than the school's founding around 1000 AD or even the earliest bits of the Cathedral (most of which dates from the 1850s), which I believe are 13th Century. But this time I had a goal: I was carrying my iPhone, and wanted to sneak some pictures here.
Just to the left of the entrance, there's a door which is closed except on this weekend, which leads to the faculty board rooms. This is where the faculty of the medical school still meets -- I've seen them there during the winter when the rooms are lit up. Mostly, though, it's a repository for old books and paintings, and that latter is what interested me. See, part of the perks of high office once upon a time was getting your portrait painted. This happened a lot with city governments, which is how we have the only authenticated picture of Bach (Kappelmeister of the Thomaskirche was a Leipzig city office), and it also happened with important municipal organizations, which is where Rembrandt's Night Watch comes from, but also its many, many cousins on display at Amsterdam's City Museum. There are three rooms of these portraits at the medical school, and there was one in particular I was looking for.
Montpellier's ancient university and medical school has attracted its share of weirdos over the years, and, like it or not, they, too, are part of the patrimoine. I pass a plaque commemorating where Rabelais lived when he was here, for instance, almost every day. But the guy nobody wants to talk about is Nostradamus. And I had heard that Nostradamus' portrait was one of the ones on the wall, in the oldest section, where the paintings are all black. So I went in, pointed my phone at the wall, and figured I'd find out Nostradamus' real name when I got home and then correlate that with the picture to show you folks his portrait. I also went into the later room and snapped the era when men wore wigs and hats with red pompoms on them. And the really, really important ones got sculpted busts.
You'll also notice up here in the center a guy named Magnol, a member of a family of great distinction here in town who did a lof of important botanical work, including discovering a plant he named after himself, the magnolia. That's sort of a tradition: there's another Montpellier botanist family named Begon.
The place was jammed, and it was all the poor administrators could do to keep the crowds under control. In one of the thesis defense rooms, someone had put together a slide show about the anatomy museum, a treat I've managed to miss (and which I think is being renovated at the moment), and there was a huge line for that. In the courtyard a youngish man with a bad rug was conducting a bunch of older folks in some songs, and the audience was joining in. What this had to do with medicine escapes me, but I eventually found my way upstairs, where there's a huge library of old medical books and a small museum displaying some of the choicer manuscripts, many of which deal with alchemy and other tangentially medical subjects, as well as a selection of prints, many of which are anatomical in nature. This, I believe, is open all the time.
On my way back downstairs, I managed to shoot this, one of a pair of sculptures, showing a severe medical condition being induced.
I have no idea why this place should have twin sculptures of guys being eaten by lions, but maybe back in the late Middle Ages, lions roamed the streets of Montpellier where today binge-drinking American students prowl for a different kind of prey. And I left without glancing at my favorite part of the huge entry hall. On the walls are two very large marble plaques, on which are inscribed the names of some of the earliest known doctors to graduate from Montpellier University, along with the dates of their being granted the title. What's remarkable about this is that the names are not only French, but also Jewish and, a few of them, Arab. Then, early in the 1400s, this stops. The Jews have been expelled and the Arabs have retreated to Northern Africa. It would be over 600 years until this changed.
I left the crowds and went back into the streets and up the hill, eventually wandering over to the other big church, Ste. Anne, which is now an arts space. It has a bunch of large abstract paintings of no great distinction sharing space with some circus-y installation kind of things. One quick circuit and I was out.
Back at my desk in the slum, I logged on to Wikipedia to get the skinny on Nostradamus, whose picture I had certainly captured in Blur-O-Vision with the phone. But…no. Turns out that, far from heading the medical college, ol' Nostro had been tossed out as a student for the crime of selling drugs. Rather, instead of engaging in pure research, he'd maintained a pharmacy business on the side, and that was against the rules. The other interesting fact was that his family had been Jewish and had taken the name of the day they'd converted -- Our Lady, or Nostre Dame, in old French.
Ah, well. Tomorrow was another day, and lord knows France is full of patrimoine.