On the Trail of the Olympic Torch in France

On the Trail of the Olympic Torch in France

While the Olympic torch relay famously heralds the start of the Games, it will also shine a light on French cultural heritage.

When the Olympic flame arrives in Marseille on Wednesday, May 8, it will mark the beginning of the largest event ever held in France. Featuring 15,000 athletes competing in more than 1,000 contests across 54 Olympic and Paralympic sports, the Paris 2024 Games will be a spectacle like no other.

More than just heralding the good news, the torch relay will also highlight the very best of French cultural heritage. Spanning the entire country, this epic journey will take in more than 400 towns and cities, stopping off at 65 ‘celebration sites’ and passing by countless iconic spots along the way.

Among the highlights will be several of the historic sites, buildings and gardens managed by the Centre des Monuments Nationaux. Part of the Ministry of Culture, the organisation cares for 110 of the country’s leading monuments and, coincidentally, is celebrating its 110th anniversary this year. Shining a light on the beauty and diversity of these special locations, the torch relay will be the perfect opportunity to discover more about them.

“The Olympic flame will pass by almost 20 of our emblematic monuments in the lead-up to the Games and then several more for the Paralympics,” says Marie Lavandier, president of the Centre des Monuments Nationaux. “Since 1914, the organisation has stood strong as the flame of heritage. I am therefore proud and happy that, 110 years later, it also carries the Olympic flame at the heart of its network.”

In line with ancient custom, the torch will be lit at Olympia, in Greece, using the rays of the sun. After crossing the Mediterranean aboard the three-masted sailing ship, Belem, the flame will embark on an odyssey spanning many hundreds of miles, lasting more than two months and featuring no fewer than 10,000 torch-bearers.

Of the many special sites along the way, here we are highlighting five of the most important managed by the Centre des Monuments Nationaux. Each has been awarded the prestigious label of Cultural Olympiad, meaning they are part of the official programme, and all will be hosting dedicated events to celebrate the torch passing by.


Château d’If, Marseille

Wednesday, May 8

As the Olympic flame arrives on the French coastline amid much fanfare, it will mark the start of a truly extraordinary journey. And for the people of Marseille, all eyes will be on their home town as the torch sails into the old port aboard a magnificent ship. As well as being welcomed by a flotilla of boats, there will be a major festival to commemorate the occasion.

One place that should not be missed here, just off the coast, is the atmospheric island of Château d’If. Originally a fortress used to defend one of France’s most important ports, it went on to become a prison – later made famous in the Alexandre Dumas novel, The Count of Monte Cristo. Today, the site attracts 100,000 visitors every year who come to discover the history, the views and the natural wonder. To celebrate the arrival of the Olympic torch in Marseille, Château d’If will stage a spectacle of dance capturing the spirit of the island. There will also be a digital art display by the artist Miguel Chevalier featuring a stunning projection on to the Château d’If lighthouse.

Château d’If, Île d’lf, 13007, Marseille.

Must-see: Keep an eye out for the graffiti lining the walls of this imposing fortress. While much of it originates from prisoners incarcerated here, some was added by the guards.

The atmospheric Château d’If island © We are Contents – Centre des monuments nationaux

Carcassonne, Aude

Thursday, May 16

One of the best-preserved medieval ensembles in the world, there can be few places more evocative of the era than the walled city of Carcassonne. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, dating mainly from the 13th century, the maze of streets, alleys and towers transports visitors straight back to the Middle Ages. At the heart of 3km of ramparts is the impressive 12th- century castle, Château Comtal. Originally built by the Trencavel family, the structure has been updated down the centuries but still has the feel of a medieval fairy tale. To commemorate the visit of the Olympic torch, a series of dance spectacles will take place at the castle and its ramparts. This will include a nighttime show, with the actions of the artists producing monumental shadows on the castle walls. The more adventurous can cross the ramparts on a zip line.

Château et Remparts de la Cité de Carcassonne, I rue Viollet-le-Duc, 11000, Carcassonne

Must-see: Look out for the statue of Dame Carcas, after whom Carcassonne is named – according to legend, she saved the city from a siege. While the original statue is inside the castle, a replica can be seen by the drawbridge.

The city of Carcassonne is one of the best-preserved ensembles of medieval architecture © Geoffroy Mathieu / Centre des monuments nationaux

Abbaye de Mont Saint-Michel, Normandy

Friday, May 31

Of all the iconic sites along the route, there can be few as magical as Mont Saint-Michel. This spectacular citadel, which appears almost to be floating in the sky, is one of the most visited attractions in France. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it dates back to the eighth century, when a chapel was built atop the island. Gradually, this developed into a major Benedictine abbey, which went on to become an important pilgrimage site.

The Olympic flame will pass by the footbridge, village and abbey, culminating at the feet of the archangel on the belvedere. To mark the occasion, a whole day of dance will take place combining athletics, circus acts and more.

Abbaye du Mont Saint-Michel, 50170, Le Mont-Saint-Michel

Must-see: The bay of Mont Saint-Michel is a wonder in its own right – and is itself UNESCO-listed. With the largest tidal range in continental Europe, the tides can withdraw as far as 25km.

The Abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel appears to almost touch the clouds © Christian Gluckman / Centre des monuments nationaux

The Panthéon, Paris

Sunday, July 14

As the final resting place for some of the country’s most illustrious names, it is only fitting that the Panthéon should play its part in the Olympics. As such, this magnificent monument will host a special exhibition, running from Tuesday, June 11 to Sunday, September 29, dedicated to the history of the Paralympics.

Originally built as a church in the late 1700s, the Panthéon has been a secular mausoleum since 1885. Among the famous figures honoured there are Rousseau, Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Marie Curie, Simone Veil and Josephine Baker. Furthermore, the building is a marvel of Neoclassical architecture.

Following the arrival of the Olympic torch in Paris on Bastille Day, the Panthéon will host a major spectacle of dance, honouring the Olympic values of excellence, friendship and respect, from Tuesday, July 16 to Thursday, July 18. A concert by the Paris Chamber Orchestra, paying homage to the athletes of the Paralympic Games, will take place on Saturday, September 7.

Panthéon, Place du Panthéon, 75005, Paris

Must-see: Don’t miss Foucault’s monumental pendulum. Although the contraption is a replica, it’s an exact copy of the one he created here in the 1800s to demonstrate the rotation of the Earth.

The Panthéon in Paris is as notable for its impressive architecture as it is for the names it honours © Jean-Christophe Ballot / Centre des monuments nationaux

Basilique Cathédrale Saint-Denis, Saint-Denis

Thursday, July 25 and Friday, July 26

One of the main focal points for the Paris Olympics, the Saint-Denis area is home to many sites of interest, including the Stade de France, the new aquatic centre and the athletes’ village.

The must-see monument here is undoubtedly the Basilique Cathédrale Saint-Denis, the final resting place of the kings and queens of France (visit the tombs of tomb of Henri II and Catherine de’Medici), which dates back almost 1,000 years. A true jewel of medieval architecture, the basilica was one of the first to be built in the Gothic style. A cathedral since 1966, it is celebrated for its exceptional dimensions, vivid stained-glass windows and 70 sculpted tombs, the most important collection of funerary sculptures in Europe. Notably, part of the structure also served as a model for Notre-Dame.

To mark the Olympic torch passing by, the cathedral will host an exhibition paying homage to the Olympics of ancient Greece. Running from Friday, April 5 to Sunday, September 8, the display will combine photography and costume. On Saturday, June 29, there will also be a circus show, including a display in the nave, and a performance of electro, hip-hop and urban dance.

Basilique Cathédrale Saint-Denis, I Rue de la Légion d’Honneur, 93200, Saint-Denis

Must-see: While the lofty dimensions certainly inspire, be sure to look down too in the cathedral crypt, there is an archaeological space that contains the presumed former tomb of St Denis.

From France Today Magazine

The Basilique Cathédrale Saint-Denis is the final resting place for the kings and queens of France © Pascal Lemaître / Centre des monuments nationaux

Lead photo credit : The lighthouse of Château d'If will be the canvas for a monumental digital artwork © Miguel Chevalier

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A freelance writer and editor, Caroline Harrap has been based between Paris and the UK for several years, and now lives near Montmartre. As well as contributing to France Today, she has also written for French Entrée, The Guardian and Local Food Britain, among others.

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  • Marie-France de Sibert
    2024-05-09 04:57:02
    Marie-France de Sibert
    Alas, due to very old age, I cannot come to Paris (from California) ! So, will be glued to my computer for fresh news ...