Saint-Denis: Putting the grim into pilgrimage

Yesterday marked six months of living in Paris, and we would have celebrated were my head not stuck in a bowl full of dishes. On Sunday we walked to Saint-Denis, which is a bit like the Detroit of Paris, a former landmark of great salutation that lost its way somehow. The rich moved out, the sewage works moved in. Nobody would surely go there were it not for the cathedral itself, the first Gothic structure, developed by Abbot Suger in the 12th century – it was said to be the apple of Phillipe Auguste’s eye. Phillipe Auguste is popular to this day for the incredible feats of modernisation he bestowed on Lutetia (Paris as it was then), including introducing primitive sanitation and clearing shit out of the streets, though he did rob the Jews to pay for it and banish them from France in the process.

Denis himself had his big saintly head lopped off on the hill at Montmartre (hence the name) in 250AD; unyielding to death and in an act of post-execution recalcitrance, he decided to pick up his tête and walk ten kilometres with it under his arm, preaching as he went. Where he finally dropped was where the Cathedral was eventually built. Apparently.

Saint-Denis can be reached by canal, and as we walked we got to see many aspects of the city on the way. First we arrived at a fete solely with the aim of dispensing paper. For half a mile there were revolutionaries under gazebos and theatres touting for future events. They still believe firmly in the power of the pamphlet in France; the rumours about paper bureaucracy are all true, and I have to say, the recycling here isn’t up to much either.

Once at the périphérique, the magical illusion of Paris suddenly evaporates and all around are high rises and hypermarkets, abandoned tramlines and redevelopment stopped in its tracks. Furtive, avoirdupois men up to no good lurk under railway arches, while a little shitbag on a bike tries to run us over. Men play cricket with mangled metalwork substituting stumps under an underpass near the Stade de France. It’s all a little bit scary actually should you not be dead hard like I am, but definitely worth getting out of the comfort zone of central Paris, which is a magical la-la land in many ways, and to me it still feels almost entirely like an illusion some evenings.

The Basilique cathédrale Saint-Denis is as majestic and commodious as you’d expect, and definitely worth the trip. Once you arrive you gaze upon its splendour and wonder how it got there, but not like you might with the Taj Mahal, more in the way you’d regard a modern English football stadium like the Molineux or Ewood Park, a totemic monument of ostentatiousness reminding the people who live there of former glories, set amongst the pedestrian terrace houses and the irritating hum of ordinariness. It stands there and it rubs it in your face every day.

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