Oct 5, 2014

Sunday in Paris

It was not for lack of trying, but today was the first day I got to church since I arrived in Paris three days ago. On Friday, I decided to revisit Saint-Pierre-de-Montmartre. When I was in Paris four years ago, I had a delightful visit to this small, beautiful, and ancient church. It was a ten minute walk from my hostel, so once I had settled in and showered I was on my way. After dodging the crowds around Sacré-Cœur, I was very disappointed to find my destination is closed for restorations. I decided to head down to the heart of the city and visit Notre Dame. It is a tourist staple for a reason. However, I had spent too much time in Montmartre, and by the time I got down to the great cathedral, the doors were locked. I got a few nice twilight photos, so after enjoying the ambience and the crowds, I decided to head back to my hostel and try again the next day.

Saturday I was up early, and after taking "petit dejeuner" at the ‎hostel, I was ready to head out. When I got down there, I noticed a small underground archaeological museum which featured layers of buildings and foundation walls dating back to the first century. And when I say it was underground, I mean exactly that. These structures had remained in place as the ground level rose around them and we're only discovered during excavations for an underground parking lot. It was €7 well-spent. After over an hour, I emerged into the sunlit square and headed towards the entrance. That's when I realised that the large group of people standing about was actually the line waiting for admission, and that this line extended to the very edge of the square and possibly beyond! On my trip four years ago, I hadn't encountered anything like this, no doubt because I was there in early January. Shortly after I decided against lining up, I received a call from my friend Sharif, and spent the rest of the day with him and his smart and funny girlfriend.

Fortunately for me, Sharif wrote down some basic directions to his parish. I say fortunately because, although I remembered the name of the Metro stop, I would have gone to a similarly named location well south of the actual location. Thankfully, I made it to Liturgy - early even - and then headed back to the hostel to collect my jacket. From there I headed north to the Cathedral of Saint-Denis. Denis is known as the first bishop of Paris, and is the martyr whom the hill and region of Montmartre ‎commemorate. According to tradition, he was put to death by the Romans in the third century and was interred on the current location of the basilica which bears his name around the year 260. The first structure on the site was a small chapel built in the fourth century. In 775 a new, much larger basilica was built on the orders of Charlemagne, who was present at the consecration of the new church.‎ This remained a centre of pilgrimage until the 12th century when the abbot of the monastic community of  Saint-Denis launched the next great stage of building. This new church was radical in its construction and layout, being the first church in what was labelled ‎"the French style" in the following centuries and which we now call gothic. This is the structure that still stands today, although one of the towers was disassembled after being damaged by lightning in the 19th century. They carefully stored the stones in view of rebuilding it eventually. That project will probably get under way later this century.  The other notable feature is that the basilica has the remains of almost all the French ‎royalty going back to Charles Martel (d. 741). Buying a ticket to the necropolis also provides access to the crypt, where it is believed Saint Denis was buried. His relics have been transferred from the burial site and are now in a reliquary in the apse behind the altar.

The real highlight of my visit to Saint-Denis was not the beauty of the stained glass or the awe inspiring architecture, although these are certainly worth seeing. It turns out that today was the last in a series of free organ recitals played on the great organ constructed by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll ‎in the 19th century. Of the 45 minute concert, the two pieces which pierced my heart were the Fantaisie et fugue Op. 18 n°6‎ by Alexandre Pierre-François Boëly and the first movement of Mendelssohn's Sonate n°3 en La Majeur Con Moto Maestoso. Hearing those pieces in that venue was an experience I won't soon forget! I lingered in a side chapel for a few minutes afterwards, and when I finally left the sanctuary I saw the organist standing outside speaking with a few people. I took the opportunity to thank Thomas Ospital for a great performance. As I walked away, it occurred to me that maybe I should have asked him to autograph my programme. Now that I've scanned it, though, it will go into the recycling. I simply can't carry physical souvenirs of every great experience for the next seven months.

And now it is time for me to turn in. My train to Lausanne leaves Paris at 11:57, and I want to be on it! It's about time I started walking.


  1. great start Peter !
    if you got the taste of underground churches, try Basilica San Clemente in Rome - goes 3 levels underground, and has the tomb of St Cyril there too.