Thursday 2 August 2012

A Summer in Saint Denis

Situated just to the north of Paris, Saint Denis is the kind of place that might like to be label itself as edgy-chic. The reality though is that the town’s edges are pretty sharp and there is precious little that is chic about Saint Denis at all.

Take a walk around the town's peripheries and you could be forgiven for thinking that the entire place is just one giant squat. There is though an undeniable energy about Saint Denis, and this unpolished aspect leads to some very unexpected encounters.

Take the 6B for example, a recently established centre for artistic creation. It can boast a prime location between the canal and the river Seine, but is based in an abandoned 1960s office block. The centre hosts events year-round, but is also the HQ of a summer-long festival called the Fabrique à Rêves. Ostensibly this festival is being held in the building's 'garden', but the location would be better described as a wasteland or building site.

Nevertheless, the grounds have been charmingly engineered into a venue that includes stages for concerts, a giant sandpit (for beach volleyball or football) vegetable plots and refreshment stands. The terrace of the main bar leads directly down to a canalside path which could be picturesque - if it wasn’t for the fact that it is directly opposite the wooden shanty town of a travelling community.

The festival, which runs until September 9th, also regularly leaves the centre to create happenings (including a psychogeographical drift) at other locations around the town, and there are also some curious installations on display. The most surprising of these is surely Djamel Kokene's 'Petit pan de mur jaune', a half-demolished house situated near the town's main train station that has been painted entirely in yellow.

Further down from the 6B where the canal joins the river Seine, the sounds of African and Carribean music rumble through the air. Vans – far from the polished ‘gourmet trucks’ that today cruise around Paris – offer grilled chicken and beer, and improvised dancefloors regularly pop up alongside the river.

Walking back towards the town centre, you might find activities taking place at the La Briche artists studios which sit alongside garages, warehouses and a very busy African cash and carry store.
The centre of Saint Denis - if truth be told - is not an immediately inspiring place. Although it is still host to one of the largest and most cosmopolitan markets in the Paris region on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays, there is little remaining to suggest that this was a thriving and wealthy community in the middle ages (despite the worthy efforts made by the town to promote this aspect of its history).

One place where the town's history is interestingly on display though is the fascinating Fabrique de la Ville, an ancient townhouse stipped down to a bare skeleton. Above the building is a curious red-spotted plastic covering, and alongside is scalfolding and platforms that enable you to trace and observe the history of the building through the ages (open Tuesday to Friday afternoons, and some Saturdays).

The house is situated almost directly opposite one of the the jewels of French architecture, the magnificent cathedral, often considered to be the world's first gothic building. This church, so incongruous in today's Saint Denis, is at once the reason for the town's importance and its subsequent decline.

Saint Denis traces its connections to royalty back to the 5th century when the Roi Dagobert had a shrine built for Saint Denis, then subsequently chose the location to also be his own final resting place. Almost all French kings and queens were also then buried at the site, but the town was to pay heavily for these links during the French revolution. The royal tombs were ransacked and the town was even forced to change its name to Franciade for a period.

The royal tombs now have pride of place again inside the cathedral (although you'll need to pay an entrance fee to see them), but the individual bones - thrown in a communal mass grave during the revolution - were completely mixed up, and are now found in an ossuary in the crypt of the church. 

Post-revolution, the history of Saint Denis is largely a working-class one, and this is interestingly displayed in the town’s museum, which is situated near the cathedral in an old Carmelite nunnery. Like many local museums it is a curious mix. It contains an excellent collection of material on the Paris Commune, but these often anti-clerical messages are somewhat bizarrely displayed alongside the painted religious messages left on the walls from the building’s past. On Sundays it only costs €1 to visit the museum, and you'll find yourself exploring the building almost completely alone

It is not really worth looking for anywhere to eat or drink in Saint Denis, so why not attempt the walk back to Paris along the canal Saint Denis? The 6km path - which leads to the La Villette park - takes you past the looming Stade de France, under various motorway flyovers and through a variety of industrial estates, but like Saint Denis as a whole, it is not without a certain charm!   

To begin the visit, take the RER to the main Gare de Saint Denis, then head towards the Seine via the pedestrian tunnel that runs beneath the tracks. Djamel Kokene's 'Petit pan de mur jaune' is just on your right, and the 6B centre is just beyond, also on the right-hand side.


Sue Morris said...

Really enjoyed this entry. I visited the area to tour Basilique Saint-Denis last summer as I was fascinated by the gisants and the historical importance of this amazing building. I definitely found the town to have a curious energy and one I didn't quite know what to make of. Thank you for detailing its history.

Lutetia said...

I love how you always pick up details about the city. This yellow house / wall is awesome! I wish I've had the idea to do it.

Adam said...

Lutetia: There is an interesting story behind the yellow house. I believe that the title of the creation comes from a Proustian reference to a detail in a Vermeer painting, but the artist did give an insight into his own personal inspiration here.

As he explains, this house is the last remaining trace of an old district which is now being redeveloped, and he's watched it slowly crumbing to ruin. It came to represent a kind of stain of colour for him, and he was determined to mark this by painting the whole structure in yellow.

PeterParis said...

Well, I guess that the mayor of Saint Denis would give another description of the place! I have been guided around Saint Denis by a friend and I found after all a certain dynamism, a lot of things are on their way, new office and living areas, the Plaine completely restrucutred... Shouldn't you go back and try another angle a day when you are in good mood? :-)

Adam said...

Peter: My mood was fine that day! I enjoy exploring Saint Denis, but I can't pretend that it's an attractive place. Nevertheless, there is definitely more energy about the place than you would find in richer suburbs of Paris, but I'm sure it would be a far more interesting place still if it was situated in the suburbs of London. I'm sure it's time will come again soon though.

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