The visit organised in Saint Denis on a Friday evening promised ‘contact avec les âmes millénaires qui peuplent ce royaume’ (contact with thousand-year old souls who people this kingdom). This could describe only one location – the Saint Denis basilica – the ancient resting place of the French royal family, and it was no surprise when we were led in that direction.
I had previously visited the basilica – which I was informed we should today call a cathedral (it was upgraded in 1966 when the Diocese of Saint-Denis was created) – but this visit promised access to areas normally firmly closed to the public. It didn’t disappoint. The first stop was up the rather rickety scaffolding to inspect the façade which is currently being restored. Facing a beautiful early-spring sunset, we were able to get face to face with saints, kings and gargoyles.
Our expert guide pointed out that this restoration is in fact based on work done by François Debret in the first half of the 19th century (earlier incarnations are partly unknown), which at the time hadn’t lasted long before being altered and embellished by serial vandal Viollet-le-Duc.
From here we were taken up a winding stone staircase, first to a hair-raisingly narrow platform alongside the monumental organ. Perhaps it was as well that the shadowy light of the setting sun and dozens of candles cushioned the visual drop to the ground 15 metres below. Back to the staircase, we continued up to the rooftop, in the place of the basilica’s now-absent north spire which was removed first after a lightning strike then a hurricane made it unstable. It will perhaps soon return. With the sun now out of sight, we had an exceptional view across Saint Denis towards Paris, the Stade de France sailing on a sea of twinkling orange lights.
From the top of the church we dropped down into the transept and the royal necropolis which contains the funerary monuments and sculptures of forty-three kings, thirty-two queens, sixty-three princes and princesses, and various officers of the crown. It was a rare opportunity to walking amongst these in silence, the eerie effect heightened by the medieval murk and chill in the air!
Perhaps the most unexpected and interesting part of the visit though was the opportunity to discover the original crypt, a burial ground dating back over one thousand five hundred years. Legend has it that Saint Denis was buried in this location after being beheaded at Montmartre, then carefully tucking his head under his arm and walking to this spot where he finally collapsed. The sheer number of other tombs in this crypt indicate that this was at least what people at the time believed, as it was considered important in the early middle ages to be buried ad sanctos - alongside a saint.
A small church was built over this burial ground in the time of Dagobert, but the crypt was buried and largely forgotten about after the relics of Saint Denis were removed and placed in the main transept by Archbishop Suger, the man responsible for the monumental church built in the 11th century.
Over time and through religious wars and revolutions, some of the tombs were dug out, broken up and removed to the cathedral gardens. Today's work involves bringing these back to their original location, piecing them together like jigsaw puzzles, then eventually making this crypt visible again to visitors. It is unlikely that many people will be able to get as close as we did to this unique burial ground though.
Finally, to end the tour we were taken into the sacristy, a rarely seen room added in the early 19th century by Napoleon. The wood panels and some unseen source of heating brought us closer to the modern era, although the paintings telling the stories of the church's history and some baubles of a bygone age meant that we hadn't yet returned to the present.
The present day can be found outside the church, in a city that no longer has an air of royalty, but in which there are many other fascinating things to discover.
Visits in the Seine Saint Denis
Consult the list of the forthcoming visites mystères. Each time a guide will take you on a tour of a little-known place, to experience something new or to meet someone interesting:
The next visit (with a seemingly more impenetrable theme) is on March 27:
Finally, the Saint Denis basilica is open year round, with visits organised around many different themes. As our guide told us, "Everyone who comes here for a visit tells me afterwards that they regret never having come before!". Find out more here: