As I sit on the center of the stone steps inside the entryway of the Basilica Saint-Denis, I align myself with the central stained glass window above the Choir in the back of the church. Looking. Watching. Waiting. Looking at the slope of the Gothic arches as they rise towards the sky. Watching as the rays of light play through the stained glass windows, brightening, then darkening, then brightening again as the clouds glide past the sun outside. As I watch the colors ebb and flow over the stone of the columns in a wash of translucent colored light, I can only imagine it as a spirit touching everything it passes.
As the light flows through the basilica, the personality of the church changes. It becomes light and bright and glorious, then returns to somber, thoughtful, introspective. It does this in a matter of seconds, or a matter of days. Day in and day out, moment to moment, even when no one is watching.
As I sit on the steps, I imagine that my history is here. There is a feeling that I had a history here in this place, although I do not know what it was, or is. I only know that ever since I came to know this basilica in this lifetime, I have not been able to leave it behind. It’s not something I ever dwell on, but it doesn’t leave my memory. Unlike some of the other cathedrals and basilicas and churches and ruins that I have seen, this is the one that I keep coming back to.
I am a pilgrim. Of what sort I do not know. I am not Catholic, or Episcopalian, or even Lutheran anymore. It is an odd thing, I will admit, that there is something of a connection of my soul to this building. I only know that I am drawn here. And it is not worth questioning because I don’t have the answer.
My time here is spent watching as people kneel and pray to their God, or maybe to their Goddess Mary. Watching as all of their hearts and souls pour out of them on the breath of their prayers. Their heads are bowed as their prayers float towards le ciel, the sky, the ceiling. Tourists wandering in the aisles watch as if they were in a theater, or a museum, instead of on Holy Ground.
As I walk down the aisle in the center of this vast room, my head is turned upward, towards heaven, observing the seemingly infinite space between me and the ceiling. My eyes follow along the space called the Gallery, the thin walkway running along the entire inside perimeter of the basilica. It is midway up the wall, marked by small arched openings. This is the place where God’s watchers may reside, if he has any. It would be easy for them to watch over the mortals below from that vantage point.
The entire universe exists inside this sanctuary. Heaven. Earth. Hell. It is all here. Light. Dark. Stone. Glass. Tombs of the holy, the good, the evil, the misguided, the unaware, the royalty of France. St. Denis. Dagobert. Louis XII with Anne de Bretagne, caught in stone as she was in death. My favorite tombs, the ones of Henri II and Catherine de Medici are here as well. Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI sleep here, but I imagine that Marie does not rest. I imagine her twittering in her box, still wondering how it all went so horribly wrong. The hearts of Francois I, Francois II and Henri III remain here, encased in marble as they were once encased in flesh.
It has been ten years since the last time I sat in Saint-Denis Basilica. Almost to the day. My first visit is within three hours of landing at the airport and I will visit this basilica every morning during my stay in France.
Edited: May 16, 2010
Open: The basilica is open during regular church hours and you can visit the Nave (the long narrow area where all the chairs are) for free. But to see the tombs you should go between the hours of 10AM – 5PM.
Entry Fee: 7€ to see the Choir, Crypt, Ambulatory, Radial Chapels and Tombs.
Directions to Saint-Denis Basilica
Metro: Take the Number 13 Saint-Denis/Châtillon Montrouge towards the direction of Saint-Denis. Exit at ‘Basilica Saint-Denis’. If you come out of the Metro at the shopping center, steer yourself to the left and follow the foot traffic to the open square (just a block or so). Continue to the end of the square to Rue de la Republique where straight ahead you will see the Office du Tourisme and to the left will be the Hotel de Ville and the Basilica.
RER: Line D will take you to Gare de Saint-Denis where you can exit the station and continue walking straight ahead towards Rue de la Republique. Continue down the length of the street until you see the Basilica.
Car: You can reach Saint-Denis by using A1 and A86, exiting at Saint-Denis.
From Paris: Boulevard Périphérique Parisien (the Peripheral Freeway that runs around the city of Paris), exit Porte de la Chapelle.
(I have done this, but always as a passenger so I can’t give you any better directions than that.)
Other Things To Do In Saint-Denis
Saint-Denis is a short train ride out of Paris on Line 13 of The Metro. You can tour the Basilica in a morning or an afternoon, without much hassle. But if you decide to spend more time in town, here are a few more things to see and do.
Café Culturel: Jardin Pierre de Montreuil
You can sit in this little modern cafe and have a cafe au lait and do little sketches of the cathedral across the park. There is one Internet connected computer upstairs.
Musée d’Art et d’Histoire: 22 bis rue Gabriel Péri
Set in a reconstructed convent that was originally built in 1625 and houses an archaeology section, reconstructed Carmelite cells, a modern art collection and a political art collection from the 19th century.
Marché: rue du le Republique
The Saint-Denis public market is not the one pictured in the Paris guidebooks. Totally working class, you can buy all sorts of cheap stuff like luggage, clothing, furniture, and food items here. There is also a large halles here, where the local restaurants and cooks by their groceries. The thing I like about this market is the mix of people. Worth doing a walk through if you hit a market day when you visit the Basilica.