Yesterday ended with a threatening gray sky, and it was still there this morning when we woke up. Having no idea what we wanted to do today, we hashed around a couple of ideas over coffee and finally decided to take the long Metro ride up to the north of the city and pay our respects to the Kings and Queens of France, peacefully interred in the Basilique Cathédrale de Saint-Denis.
MLW finished Ina Caro’s book “Paris to the Past” while we were in Portugal. The book is an interesting account of how she created a long list of sites of historical significance, all within a reasonable day trip from Paris via the rail system. Some merely Metro, others requiring the RER or (as in the case of our Chantilly excursion) one of the Grand Lignes. I really like her style – it’s what I like to do when writing these blogs. A lot of history, a little bit of personal spin. And so today’s trip was one of hers.
I have a great app on my phone that allows me to plot the best Metro route. A couple of options were offered for Saint-Denis, but the one involving the least number of stairs in the bowels of the subway meant walking in the same direction that led to our hospital adventure last Saturday. But first a diversion to the news kiosk for the paper.
Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker wrote a not very interesting book about living in Paris some years back. Neither of us liked it, but I took away one thought – a simple “Bonjour” greases the skids in just about every interaction. He relates the story of a bus driver who mumbled “Mal elevé” every time he got on the bus. A self-explanatory insult, “poorly raised.” When he dug in with local friends, they told him to just say “good morning.” And lo, his interactions improved instantly.
I did not know this on previous trips, and my interactions with the news sellers was always a bit cold and a bit perfunctory. So this time I’ve been starting every visit with “Bonjour” and amazingly, I am now best retail friends with both of the kiosk guys. These little things are never taught in language class and never covered on Trip Advisor – you either pick them up in a book written by someone who lived here long enough to scratch the surface, or you learn them the hard way.
Of course we had a bit of problem finding the Saint Françis-Xavier station because it was only marked by two giant red Metro signs. While clear, they are not the easiest thing to see in a confused and busy square. And in general, there is an absence of other signs pointing in their direction. But we finally found it, went down and got on the train.
Most of our time here, on this and every other trip, has been spent in “monumental Paris,” the refined, tourist-centered parts of town. Our furthest journeys into the areas away from here have been the long rides to Canal Saint-Martin and Père Lachaise. Driving to the airport also requires passing through the grimy banlieues but you’re in a car so it’s hardly an authentic experience. Exiting the station at Saint-Denis was a whole new experience for us – working class, every day, lots of real Parisians. Not scary, just different. It’s a rundown district and it shows. But the church was easy to find and we were there in a couple of minutes of walking in the rain – our first genuine wet weather in these three weeks.
Built on the ruins of a Gallo-Roman cemetery, and the tomb of the patron saint of Paris, Saint-Denis, work began on it in the 5th century. Saint-Denis had an interesting martyrdom – beaten, thrown to the lions, crucified and then beheaded, he wouldn’t give up. He picked up his head, carried it to this spot and finally died.
The core of the basilica was built here in 775, to house the relics of Saint-Denis and other martyrs. In the 8th century it became one of the most powerful Benedictine monasteries in medieval Europe. Beginning around 1100, the extremely intelligent and forward-thinking Abbot Suger began to transform it into a masterpiece of Gothic architecture that it is today. Fighting hard against the religious asceticism then in fashion, he sought to build an edifice that would awe the parishioners, royal and common alike. His greatest accomplishment was the “rose window,” the first truly stained-glass window to decorate a church. Prior to this, colored windows had been merely pieces of painted glass. Suger imported artisans who had the skill to introduce various oxides in glass while still molten to create the various colors, and then to build windows out that material. Dedicated in 1144 by King Henry VII and his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Suger’s work forever changed the nature of cathedrals. The attending Bishops went back to their Sees and rebuilt the lot.
Due to Suger’s incredible work, the church became the necropolis for the Kings and Queens of France. Eternally resting there today are 42 kings, 32 queens, 63 royal children and 10 great men of France. King Dagobert (to 637) was the first, and with only 3 exceptions, all the other kings remains are represented. Their eternal sleep though was not without interruption- during the Revolution mobs broke into the crypts, removed all the remains and threw them into a lime pit. Following the restoration of the monarchy in the 19th century, those bones that could be found were gathered and re-buried.
Quite an amazing church, magnificent but not gaudy, crowned all the way around by magnificent stained-glass windows. Rows of chairs fill the nave as the church is still used today by Parisians for regular services. On the right side of the nave are small chapels, filled with dozens of life-sized carvings of the kings and queens whose tombs they cover. There are so many that eventually they all blend into one giant short-term memory. Small placards describe who is entombed where.
At the back, under the apse is the crypt, home to many more tombs, most not represented by a supine figure but rather an elaborate altar on a wall, or just a simple plaque. This is the most ancient level of the church, held up by short, elaborately carved pillars.
The tombs on the left side are both more modern (and fancier) and more ancient (less fancy.) Here is where you find the resting place of the 7th-12th century kings, alongside a monumental tomb from the 16th century for Henry II and Catherine de Medici. Louis XII and Anne de Bretagne (15th century) are for some reason shown dead, naked and flayed in the tomb but alive and praying on top.
Leaving, we stopped to admire the glasswork one last time and to take a long view front to back of this magnificent monument to the royalty of France.
We came out to a mix of rain and sun and found our way back to the Metro, passing a temporary carousal which provided an interesting contrast to the front of the church. A truly interesting way to spend the morning.