The national heritage is a misunderstood and much maligned source of wealth in France. Each year, 86 million tourists visit our shores – making it the most popular tourist destination in the world, and make their way in droves to our archaeological sites, architectural treasures and unspoilt picturesque villages. France is truly an open-air museum.
And yet, it’s considered perfectly normal to take a potshot at this rich legacy inherited from the past, and while the public at large flock to the country’s châteaux during the European Heritage Days, their owners are often wrongly seen as relics of the Ancien Régime – a privileged elite living in comfort in the aristocratic piles of yesteryear. Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only because those who valiantly maintain the old houses handed down by their family often make hard sacrifices and often feel more like the custodians of heritage than property owners… but also because living in a château offers a rare way of taking a step up and plunging into history, in an exceptional setting in the heart of nature, all in an architectural jewel which has withstood the ravages of time.
To buy a château, and then to restore it, maintain it, breathe life into it and – why not –open it to the public if it is a listed historic monument, is to play an active role in upholding France’s cultural magnificence, safeguarding its historic heritage and keeping the economy alive in the country’s regions. More than ever, cultural heritage tourism is a key lever in local business, creating jobs, injecting energy into the heart of a village and instilling pride in all those living around these monuments of rare beauty and elegance.
Having myself taken on the challenge of restoring the old royal and military college in Thiron-Gardais, in the Perche d’Eure-et-Loir region, I know not only how much effort and sacrifice heritage lovers bring to the task, but also how much joy there is to be felt in restoring old abandoned stones, the satisfaction of living in a historic setting and the boundless happiness of escaping the uglier sides of existence. This may well once have been the privilege of the nobility, but is now open to all.
By Stéphane Bern
Latest book: Secrets d’Histoire 7, Albin Michel Editions.