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For anyone who has traveled to Paris I would imagine (and hope!) that a visit to the cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris was on the itinerary.  The cathedral boasts numerous carved gargoyles and statues of saints.  When facing the cathedral from the square, in the door to the left, you may have noticed that one of the saints is actually holding his head in his hands.  This is the beheaded Saint Denis.

Saint Denis was the Bishop of Paris in the third century.  Having angered the pagan priests in the area for his success in converting locals to Catholicism, Denis was brought to what is now the Montmartre section of Paris and beheaded. As legend has it he then proceeded to pick up his head and walk to the location where the Basilique de Saint Denis now stands, therefore indicating his intended burial place.

When I began to read about this first of my twenty eight journeys I was shocked that I had never heard of this church before.  France and all of Europe obviously have more than their fair share of beautiful churches, basilicas, and cathedrals but the Basilique de Saint Denis plays an extremely important role in French history and the fact that you cannot even find it in many Paris guide books is astonishing.  You see, the Basilique de Saint Denis is where all the French monarchs from the 10th century up to the last monarch Louis XVII, are buried.  Well, I should say were buried.  But we will get to that.

Many of these journeys by train are actually right in Paris.  Saint Denis is a suburb of Paris.  Not a very nice suburb of Paris.  It is on the line 13 metro.  Convenient for me as I am also on the line 13 metro.  After reading up on the basilica I woke up one Saturday morning and decided to take the journey north to Saint Denis.

As I rode the line 13 further north the metro changed from being fashionable Parisians and tourists to primarily the North Africans that reside in the northern parts of Paris and its suburbs.  Everyone left me alone but I got the distinct impression that they were not accustomed to people like me going so far north in the city.

Upon exiting the metro I was pleasantly surprised to see that the way to the basilica was not only well marked but very close.  Literally around the corner.  In excited anticipation I turned the corner and took the whole basilica into view and the excitement of my first journey sank like a stone.

First, half the basilica is covered in scaffolding that has been there for what looks like at least the forty years I have been alive.  Secondly, it looked as though it had not been washed since about the 12th century when it was built.  Thirdly, it was lopsided to the point of looking silly.  Towers appeared to be missing and the front door was blocked by an extremely gaudy children’s carousel.  How could this be the burial place of the French monarchs dating back to the 10th century?

Well, it was and I was there so inside I went and I am oh so glad I did.  Saint Denis is built in the gothic style and therefore has a long nave like those we are accustomed to seeing in Catholic cathedrals around Europe and is filled with amazing stained glass.  In fact, there is an original stained glass window in Saint Denis, the oldest known stained glass window in the world.  All around you are the burial chambers of everyone from Charlemagne’s father, Pépin le Bref (Pepin the Short) to Marie Antoinette.  Saint Denis is known to be one of the first examples of Gothic architecture.

The basilica is also an archaeological site that you can go and visit..  The site was originally a Gallo-Roman cemetery.  In 475 a church was built but was replaced by a bigger church in the 7th century.  In the 12th century it was added upon and made into a much grander structure under the watchful eye of Abbot Suger.

As mentioned earlier this is the burial place of the French monarchs dating back to the 10th century.  Well, rather was.  Sadly, during the French revolution the graves of the French monarchs were broken into and the bones were removed and dumped into a nearby pit and quickly covered in quicklime.  Unfortunately it seems that little if any of the French monarchs remains actually are still within the basilica.  It is said that the basilica was then used by the revolutionaries to store grain.

I spent several hours at Saint Denis, reading inscriptions on tombs, taking in the beauty of the stained glass and watching the light change as the sun moved and shone through the windows.

I did during my time there learn why the church looks so lopsided from the outside.  After Napoleon made himself emperor he decided to restore the basilica.  Unfortunately during the restoration one of the twin steeples was accidentally removed.

If I had just happened upon Saint Denis I would have kept walking.  By no means did it resemble the magnificent cathedrals I have become accustomed to seeing living in Paris.  I am glad that I went in though and experienced this magnificent basilica.  A real life lesson, I suppose, in beauty is found on the inside.

Next stop – The Early Gothic City of Laon