An eyeful beyond the Eiffel
From tombs with a view to chocolate crocodiles, Kim Bielenberg searches for the hidden Paris
Published 19/06/2010 | 05:00
For most Irish visitors there is only one reason to stop a while in the down-at-heel Paris suburb of St-Denis: the Stade de France looms on the horizon like a vast enemy spaceship.
Irish sporting fans, both of rugby and football, have come here in their thousands, and have usually left bitterly disappointed.
It was the scene of our greatest sporting injustice when Thierry Henry handled the ball into the Irish net and killed off our dreams of qualifying for this summer's World Cup.
But St-Denis is not just a place for followers of round and oval balls. On my most recent sporting pilgrimage (to watch Ireland being slaughtered in rugby), I stumbled on one of the most magnificent cathedrals of the Western world.
The Basilica at St-Denis (00331 4809 8354; Metro: Basilique de St-Denis) is the birthplace of Gothic architecture and burial place of French kings and queens, yet it is one of those many landmarks in Paris that most visitors miss.
The square lined with restaurants and cafés outside the cathedral has the unhurried atmosphere of a French country town. From the outside, the single-towered church, frequently the target for revolutionaries, looks unremarkable, but stepping through the door I was overwhelmed by the splendour. A rippling corridor of arches leads through the nave to a high altar bathed in light from stained glass windows. Everything is designed to point to heaven.
At one time this royal necropolis would have been as important to the French as the pyramids were to the Egyptians. All but three French monarchs from the past millennium found their resting place here and most are represented by lifelike, and somewhat eerie, effigies. Among them is the stone visage of a busty Marie Antoinette, whose remains were brought here long after she lost her head.
The Basilica of St-Denis gets its name from the Christian martyr Dionysius, the Bishop of Paris who found himself in the bad books of the Roman rulers. They took him to Montmartre and sliced his head off.
But good old Denis was not to be deterred by this spot of misfortune. Legend has it that he picked up his head and walked six kilometres to the north, before eventually succumbing. It is the kind of perseverance that an embattled Irish rugby fan such as myself can identify with. No wonder they built a church in his name.
Across the square from the cathedral, which is only a few minutes' walk from the Stade de France, we stopped in Khedive, a simple bistro with a definite rustic flavour (0335 4925 8034; 3 Place Victor Hugo, 93200 St-Denis), Happily, there was no itsy-bitsy nouvelle cuisine. We were delighted with hearty veal stew, which fortified us for an afternoon strolling through some of the city's hidden corners.
Only a quick metro ride away from the basilica is the flea market at St-Ouen (Metro: Porte de Clignancourt, Saturdays, Sundays, and Mondays, 9.30am-6pm). If St-Denis has attracted Catholics for centuries, the flea market ("Les Puces'') has long been a place of pilgrimage for shoppers whose tastes run beyond designer clothes and the sort of clobber you would find in Dundrum Town centre.
When I met up with Nicholas Moufflet, the affable president of the market, in an elaborately decorated gypsy jazz bar, I was half expecting a Parisian version of Dublin's 1970s scruffy Dandelion market.
True, there were tattered clothes, scratched vinyl records and decidedly oddball collections of personal possessions, laid out for sale on the pavement. But there were also treasure troves of quirky knick-knacks -- everything from Napoleonic love seats to a stuffed giraffe.
Nicholas himself specialises in selling original art nouveau adverts by artists such as Toulouse Lautrec, who is almost as celebrated for his posters advertising institutions such as the Moulin Rouge as his paintings.
I wandered past shops devoted to cartoon strips, early 20th- century toy-train sets, and ancient erotic drawings showing dancers in varying states of undress. At home this would be classed as porn, but because we are in France it is 'erotica'.
This vast area of markets grew up when rag-and-bone men and scavenging scrap dealers were pushed to the edge of the city. Gradually, over the decades, it has become more refined. Some of the best antiques and paintings change hands for tens of thousands of euro. There is still a raffish charm in the row upon row of stalls; the stallholders talk amiably, but some of them never seem to sell anything.
While you are unlikely to purchase the stuffed antelope or clockwork dead baby doll I spotted (unless you want some interesting conversations in customs), an entire weekend could be spent happily wandering through Parisian markets. There are reckoned to be more than 60 open-air markets in the city. Most are devoted to food.
General de Gaulle famously remarked: "How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?" To sample the bulk of these eclectic and sniffy varieties, go no further than the food market at the bottom of the Rue Mouffetard (Metro: Rue Monge).
The goats may no longer wander up and down the street, but the atmosphere has changed little over the decades. Butchers sharpen knives; stallholders chatter next to piles of oysters and fresh prawns. This is a picnicker's paradise.
As a student working in Paris for summers in the 1980s, I lived on baguettes, cheese, pâté and cherries from the Mouffetard market, and many of the stallholders I visited are still there.
Perhaps the greatest French talent is to take a simple product -- such as bread, cheese or chocolate -- make it well and then endlessly talk about its qualities.
This secret of French success was brought home to me on a chocolate and pastry tour of the chi-chi St-Germain area with an engaging guide, Muguet Becharat (0033 609 048 910, Parissweetparis.com). Muguet talked about confections in chocolate and pastry as if they were paintings by Leonardo Da Vinci in the Louvre. With only a faint hint of irony she describes one renowned French confectioner Pierre Hermé as "the Pope of pastry''.
Down narrow lanes Muguet took us on a merry tour of shops where chocolate has been turned into elaborate sculpture -- a crocodile here, a teddy bear there (it's an eat-as-you-go tour and not recommended for hyperactive children).
We paused close to the ancient church at St-Sulpice (www.paroisse-saint-sulpice-paris.org), which suffered the effects of Da Vinci Code mania in the middle of the last decade. Here, a character in the Dan Brown novel came looking for a keystone under the floor that was supposed to reveal the location of the Holy Grail.
After the novel came out, tourists could sometimes be seen knocking on the floor near the obelisk searching for hollow spaces (informing them that the novel was fiction was apparently pointless).
There is a touch of Newgrange about St-Sulpice. In the 18th century the parish priest had a brass meridian line built into the floor. Using the play of light in the church, he could determine the time of the equinoxes. As a result he knew when Easter would fall (I was tempted to ask why he didn't just buy a diary).
That is the essential lure of Paris. Whether you are wandering through a market or on a chocolate tour, around every corner lies something curious -- a spectacular square, a museum and even a beach on the Seine at this time of year.
You could return a hundred times and still find new awe-inspiring treasures.
In short, Paris is nirvana for the flâneur -- variously translated as a stroller, lounger, saunterer or loafer. You can loaf around aimlessly from one arrondissement to another and still feel a sense of purpose.