Friday, 25 September 2009

splendid regards

Journées de Patrimoine/Open House/Dias del Patrimonio/European Heritage Days

Last weekend 19 20 September. Indian summer sunshine. European Curiousity Days, European Nosy Days. An international pouring over of pdf print out guides; picking out of buildings; working out of routes; sprucing up of courtyards and hallways; queueing and squeezing; peering and listening.

We wanted to keep it simple and stay in the neighbourhood. A staircase leads from our street rue de l'Ermitage down to the rue des Cascades and at the bottom when you turn right there is a small stone building with a pitched roof made of the same pale sandstone. Four years previously this building was open and we had a memorable visit. Inside is a small channel of water, gently stepping down under one's feet. A tunnel big enough to crawl along disppears up the hillside. It is lined with candles, their light reflected by small stream. It is a magical world beneath the hill we live on. Always there underneath our route to the boulangerie, to the metro, to the supermarket or the bus stop. We are high up up here, approaching the summit of the hill of Menilmontant (the highest hill in Paris) and the geology - layers of chalk and clay, has created two 'nappes' of water - natural underground reservoirs. Since the 12th century this water has been captured and channelled, initially for drinking, to supply a nearby hospital, and then to supply the fountains of Paris. This building is one of several. Known as 'regards', they are simply places where the water could be inspected. Today there is still a small trickle, as the geology remains the same and the water still comes naturally from the ground. But most of the channels and aqueducts have been assimilated into the sewer system. The buildings are classed as historic monuments and are cared for by a loving association - 'Les Sources du Nord'.

This year we wanted to see the 'Regard de la Lanterne', the grandest of all the regards, at the Place des Fetes on the top of the hill. We had to queue for a while, during which time we were entertained and educated by a very entertaining and informative Monsieur. The Regard de la Lanterne is where three channels of water from the nappe feed into a small basin which in turn feeds the aqueduct of Belleville - the principal channel in the system. Again, the function of this building was nothing more than to allow for inspection of the waters and channels. As our guide drily emphasised, if such a system was built today, then nothing more than a 50mm pipe would carry the water, with a small box for inspection, all hidden away. But this system was built in another era when things were done differently. There was more grandeur and more ceremony. There was a desire to celebrate technology. People wore big hats and cloaks and the buildings they built had to accomodate them properly.
So intead of a pipe and a box, there is a cylindrical stone building with a dome. Inside one steps onto a double staircase that curves around the pool of water under the lantern of the dome. It is splendid and beautiful.

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