Musings About Heritage, Wars and Buildings

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“Features belonging to the culture of a particular society, such as traditions, languages, or buildings, that were created in the past and still have historical importance”

Cambridge Dictionary

Raoul NOrdling

Traditions and languages are rather hard to picture, but buildings are easier and I indulge a lot in that activity I must admit. We’re a bit spoilt for choice in Paris, what with a great number of listed buildings from the 17th century onwards. Most mediaeval buildings were destroyed in the 19th century when Paris was overhauled by Haussmann, but a lot of the 17th and 18th century ones are still there. As above in the district of Notre Dame.

The City survived WWI (despite some bombings which reached the Capital and traces of which can still be seen here and there and namely at the back of La Madeleine). And it survived WWII too but that was a close shave. Von Choltitz was meant to press the red button and Hitler was raving mad: “Brennt Paris?” he barked. Is Paris burning? No it wasn’t, thanks to Franco-Swedish diplomat Raoul Nordling (Orson Welles in the film), the Man who saved Paris.  “Tack Mr. Nordling!”

Actually, in the above picture, I had to tamper quite a lot with road signals and posts and all the knick knacks that modern urban architects have imagined to destroy the perspective of our streets. I hope you forgive me for that. I did away with them but I guarantee you would still recognise the building if you went there.



Not all Cities were that lucky. Amiens, 1 1/2 hour from Paris up North, had already suffered a lot from WWI. WWII was even worse and the whole place was almost razed to the ground. The Cathedral escaped miraculously. Our Heritage, or at least part of it was preserved and one can still admire what is one of the tallest Gothic buildings in the world. We went there last weekend to visit relatives because my Mother’s family is from there.

I hadn’t set foot in Amiens for 5 years. I was very happy to be able to visit the City again. And strangely enough, it’s one of these places which is sort of going back in time, and the more you go there, the more old buildings crop up, refurbished, cleaned up, rebuilt. Europe is sort of living backwards, rebuilding the Heritage it so patiently and systematically destroyed over the past 100 years.

Not all places were that lucky. Brest, in Brittany, where my family is from, was entirely destroyed (as in the above picture). Strangely enough, it wasn’t destroyed by Hitler’s forces but by the US Air Force. As is often the case in Europe. That was for our own good. We bit the bullet. Almost nothing is left from the old City which was entirely rebuilt in the 1950s therefore eradicating our Heritage.


In Amiens we can still admire the Cathedral and its astonishing statuary.


The main entrance to the Cathedral.


Expressive and beautiful statuary, which survived the Revolution.


Light and sound shows enable you to imagine what the Cathedral looked like when it retained its colours.


Hard to take pictures at night without a tripod. Here’s the best I could do. Now you can imagine what it looked like in the Middle Ages.


The Spire. Much nicer than Viollet Le duc’s 19th century weird additions to Notre Dame in Paris.


More statuary.


Gargoyles everywhere. Really beautiful work, a lot nicer than the fake 19th century gargoyles at Paris Notre Dame.


One of the tallest Gothic buildings in Europe. Heritage is a good thing when it’s not used by extremists who want to prevent others from benefiting from it.

Yann Gourvennec
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  1. Magnificent post, Yann — I love your beautiful photos as much as your musings about architecture, history, and our effort to preserve those traces as we all march forward. I’ve not yet been to Amiens, but as a lover of Gothic architecture I’ve placed it near the top of my list. Your description made me think of Rouen, which my husband and I visited two years ago. Inside the beautiful cathedral (which is still under restoration) I saw an exhibit about the Allies’ bombing of the city during World War II. The destruction of both heritage and human life were almost unbearable, but the posters took the rather matter-of-fact tone that it was a necessary sacrifice to stop the evil tide from advancing. Imagine my surprise just four weeks later to be at the the World War II museum in New Orleans and to be randomly assigned the “dog tag” of a certain Paul Tibbets, the man who led that very bombing mission on Rouen — and who later piloted the Enola Gay on its fateful flight over Japan. The interviews he gave after the war echoed the exhibits inside the cathedral: Sometimes terrible sacrifices are necessary to stop even greater destruction. Let us hope we will not once again find ourselves collectively facing such decisions.

    • Thanks for your kind comments Heide. The Rouen Cathedral has indeed suffered during WWII a lot. So have many others like the one in Reims which miraculously escaped WWI. As you said, these sacrifices were necessary. My Father nearly died in the Brest bombings at the beginning of WWII. Imagine that, I may have never been born. My Mother and all her family was in Amiens during the bombings as well. My uncle was nearly killed by a shell fragment. My maternal great grand Father fought the 1914 war and survived. Both my Breton Great Grand Mother’s brothers were killed during WWI somewhere in Belgium. Let’s hope all the current jingoism craze is over soon for fear of witnessing more destruction.

      • Oh, Yann … what terrible losses your family suffered — and what terrifying close calls, too. But certainly I’m just one of many, many people who are glad your parents survived so you could be born! I join you in hoping the tensions that seem to be escalating will simmer down and that cooler heads prevail.

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