Everything Is Okay In Saint-Denis

photo: resto le boeuf est au 20
Football fans plan strategy less than
400 metres from stadium.

If It Was Good On Wednesday,
It Was Better On Friday

Saint-Denis:- Wednesday, 1. July 1998:- This morning it occurred to me that by this time next week, the 'eyes of the world' may be focused on Saint-Denis. This is where the Stade de France is, and this is where the World Cup is having its final matches.

Saint-Denis is not normally uppermost in anybody's daily thoughts. Before the World Cup started, back in the recent strike season, teachers and students from Saint-Denis were demonstrating in Paris on a regular basis. Saint-Denis has a university with 26,000 students, called 'Paris Eight,' for want of a better name.

Before the strikes, Paris' football club - Paris-Saint-Germain, or PSG - was being coy about bidding for the brand new Stade de France as its home turf. The second-division 'Red Star' of north Paris' fame wanted to take it, but thought it was a couple of numbers too big. Then PSG won its bluff and got a sweet-heart deal from the Parc des Princes at the Porte de Saint-Cloud, and left the Stade de France with no home club.

Compared to the real history of Saint-Denis, this home-team gossip about the Stade de France is mere chit-chat. It all started with Denis - pronounced 'Denny' - quite a long time ago; as a true 8th century legend concerning an event that may have happened about 250 AD.

As everybody knows, there is some confusion about the origin of the name of Montmartre. Some historical types insist that it is derived from 'Mount Mercury' which would have been Roman. The Saint-Pierre church I wrote about last week, contains what are supposed to be four original Roman columns, left over from a temple they had up there.

The 'local legend' has it otherwise: it comes from the time Denis - or Dionysus, plus Rusticus and Eleutherius, all got 'offed' here, thus becoming 'martyrs.' And this gives us Montmartre.

According to popular legend, Denis didn't take this rough treatment lying down. He picked up his head and marched eight kilometres until he fell down. Where a pious woman found and buried him, is Saint-Denis today.

An abbey was erected on top of the grave of 'Monsieur Saint-Denis' later. However, true historical types will say the Roman town of Catolacus was already here, and Denis was actually beheaded locally on account of being a church guy. Later, in the time of Constantine there were pilgrimages to the site.

The first large church was built around 450, pillaged in 570, and rebuilt by Dagobert the First and the martyred bodies where put in it on 24. February, 636.

Benedictines showed up to keep it tidy and Pipin the Short rebuilt the church in 750. This must be about the time the 'Montmartre' legend started, possibly out of envy - for the village or town of Saint-Denis was possibly larger than Paris at the time.

Now we zip up to modern times, up to the year of 1122, when Sugar was elected Abbot of Saint-Denis. At 10, he had become an 'abbey-brat' but had the good luck to be in the same class as the future Louis VII.

While Louis was off on Crusades II, Sugar ran France so well that when Louis returned from his lackluster adventures, he named him 'Father of the Nation.' I think this was sort of an honoraryphoto: rue republique title. Sugar died in 1157, while Louis VII continued to have many adventures, not the least of which was his first wife marrying Henry Plantagenet.

The rue de la République; part of downtown Saint-Denis.

Sugar was the push behind the building of Saint-Denis' Basilica, which is not legend at all and stands across the place from the Hôtel de Ville today.

Before this was built, churches had fat walls with no windows; this one has the first thin walls with big windows and a high ceiling. In the history of church building it was a first - and it made Saint-Denis very famous in church-building circles throughout Europe and modern architects from all over came around to have a look.

If you have ever visited one of these buildings, you might have wondered where the money came from - this was in the 'dark' or middle age after all! - to pay for the construction, which usually continued for several generations.

The answer is pretty simple. The abbey ran a market. In those days towns were small and far apart, roads were bad or non-existent, and there were no shopping centres as we know of them.

In order to raise cash, the Saint-Denis abbey started the Lendit Fair in 1109, modelled on the earlier Saint-Denis fair started by Dagobert in 627. At first these were modest annual events, but they grew in popularity and drew merchants from all over France and from abroad - and this one continued and flourished for 600 years. There were as many as 1200 stalls, all of which paid rent to the abbey.

Another attraction was the fact that for 12 centuries, from Dagobert to Louis XVIII, most of France's kings were buried in Saint-Denis. If no fair was currently on, you could visit the royal necropolis instead.

Unfortunately, romantic revolutionaries in 1793 did not foresee the downstream commercial advantages of this collection, and the bones were strewn around local holes in the ground out of temporary pique. Alexandrephoto: basilica st denis Lenoir did have the foresight to save the tombs themselves however. Some of the effigies, dating from 1285, are accurate representations, but a lot of others are not.

Digging under the nave has revealed tombs older than Sugar's church; so a few missing bones from later periods shouldn't be too much of a disappointment.

For an older church, this one is in good shape.

None of this is immediately apparent when I emerge from the métro at Saint-Denis Basilique, in what seems to be a mall, or modern shopping centre. A couple of steps further along reveals aspects of a normal town, the place Jean-Jaures and the tourist office. In front of this, the Hôtel de Ville is to the left and the Basilica is straight ahead in the place Victor Hugo.

At the visitor reception office I stock up on a kilo of brochures about Saint-Denis. I am told it is a 20-minute walk from here to the stadium.

After taking a look at the lively streetlife of the rue de la République in the opposite direction, I stop in at the Hôtel de Ville, where I am offered a tour of the deepest crypts of the Basilica - which I decline because you never know how long a '20-minute' walk may turn out to be.

Although official Saint-Denis seems to be unwired for Internet reception or broadcast, the impression I get is the city hall is on the ball.

To Parisians, Saint-Denis is sort of a 'black-hole.' The autoroute A1 cuts through Saint-Denis' southern area known as the Plaine, and the road is in sort of a below-ground channel; so if you are driving to or from the airport at Roissy, or to the rest of northern Europe, the only impression you get of Saint-Denis is of a dirty concrete wall.

If you come by Eurostar from London or Brussels to Gare du Nord, you will also pass through this industrial-rail corridor.

The Stade de France is in a sort of 'Bermuda-triangle,' between where this autoroute slices off to the east, the Canal Saint-Denis, and another autoroute, the A86. This confluence also divides the main part of Saint-Denis in the north from the part closest to Paris, the 'Plaine.'

Newspaper and TV reports have mentioned that the residents of Saint-Denis are somewhat indifferent to the world event taking place in their commune - which is generally described as 'sensitive.' This is double-talk for 'slum.'

The fact is, the area known as the 'Plaine' is almost entirely occupied by light industry. There are a couple of isolated 'islands' of habitation within this. Obviously, these cannot be high-rent luxo housing.

For example, there is a lone, but unshabby, apartment building 'trapped' between the stadium, the two autoroutes and the canal. Its residents can see practically nothing except the stadium; yet they will watch the games on TV, with the audio portion coming in their windows from across the way. An important fact to remember, is that residents of Saint-Denis did not get any preferential access to tickets.

It is with this media background in mind that I start at the centre of Saint-Denis. It is lively. The people in the visitors' office are responsive and those in the city hall are helpful. The Basilica is great. The bar across from it is a comfy, ordinary bar.

Saint-Denis gives out a variety of maps, which have marked a pedestrian route from the métro Saint-Denis Basilique to the stadium. Although it is not the exact way I take, this 'official' route has 20 info plaques along the way, all cast in brown steel, engraved with quite long texts. If all are read, it will take a lot longer than 20 minutes.

Off this route, I am watching for the back to the museum in the old Carmelite Convent. By a steel railing I see workmen building what appears to be some Spanish arches out of brick in a garden. I mean, the brickwork looks like a Spanish style.

I go around the corner, to the 'tour' street, the rue Gabriel Péri, to find it lined with cafés, restaurants and auto repair places. Half a block up is the entry to the museum.

This convent was founded in 1625, and Louis XV's daughter Louise lived in it from 1770 to 1787. It retains its original architecture, with an arcaded cloister. The Carmelites have moved on, but their order has donated many exhibits to this part of the museum.

As a museum today, it also contains items from the Hôtel Dieu hospital, demolished in 1907, plus a large numberphoto: carmelite convent of objects recovered from the Basilica. There are also displays about life in the 'Middle Ages' with a 16th century model of the town of Saint-Denis.

On top on this, there are a group of impressionist paintings, many done by Albert André, a pal of Renoir's. Another room has 17th century paintings from the Carmelite convent.

The Carmelite cloister of Saint-Denis' extensive museum.

This is certainly a museum for those easily bored, because there is also a collection of paintings about - the 1871 'Commune de Paris.' This is the definitive 72-day history of this event, in paint.

The museum's future plans call for more impressionist works, Daumier's lithographs and items from the collection of Paul Eluard. When I ask, I can get no details about the new Spanish brickwork in the garden; they may be a whim of the contractor's.

Saint-Denis most recent history is industrial. This may now be largely dominated by distribution and services, but in the past it was mainly manufacturing. The Christofle firm currently has an exhibition; part of which is in the museum and the other part is in what remains of Christofle's silver ateliers, which form part of the history of the Saint-Denis 'Plaine.'

After the museum I come across 'Le Boeuf Est Au 20' and I verify that '20' stands for 20. rue Gabriel Péri. The patron and waitress are passing the afternoon with a client on the terrace and the subject is the World Cup. I am told how the Scots cut a good figure here - the whole street was a party scene - on the Cup's first day.

In fact, they say, after every game it is a party scene here. Not just in this restaurant, but in all the bars and cafés around - because it is close to the stadium.

The resto is not large or fancy inside, but does have a lot of photos of local teams and some cartoons. They say 'Red Star' is being realistic and seeking some lesser stadium as a home ground.

The World Cup is a big event in Saint-Denis, they say, despite the attempts of other media to portray local residents' anger about not getting tickets to games. The client grumbles about 'L'Equipe's' scantphoto: stade de france coverage of lesser sports like pétanque or mud-wrestling. "The daily sports newspaper," he snorts, "All sports!"

This is it, the end of my walk today - the Stade de France.

After this I find my way, via the métro's underground tunnels, over to the stadium area. There is no game today so there is next to nothing happening. A big, empty, deserted stadium; that's all.

Elsewhere in Saint-Denis, today is another story. The 'Banlieues du Monde' concert starts in the Nelson Mandela stadium at 19:30; starting from 10:00 this morning there is a football demo at the Petit Stade; the Festival de Saint-Denis gets off at 20:30 with Rossini at the Basilica and José Van Damm in the Légion d'Honneur auditorium; 'Magic Mirror starts at 20:00; 'Triton' at 21:00; 'Villa-Jeux' in the afternoon; the 'Village Brésil' is open from 13:00 to 24:00; the theatre piece 'Du Monde Entier' is at the Salle Wilson at 18:30; the Basilica lights up at 23:00; 'CyberBase' is open all day and so is 'Bulles et Ballons.'

On game days, two large screens are added to the other animations - one at the Nelson Mandela stadium and the other at the 'Village Brésil.'

Before trudging back over a bridge and across a lot of concrete to got to the métro station, I should mention that Saint-Denis is also a department. The air and space museum at Le Bourget is in Saint-Denis for example, as are the 'Puces' - or flea market - at Saint-Ouen, or Porte de Clignancourt if you come from the Paris side.

Besides the Basilica at Saint-Denis, there are six other famous churches. In addition to the museums mentioned here, there are ten others. There is a long list of other sites, attractions, and events, so I will sum it up with the following address: Office de Tourisme de Saint-Denis, 1. rue de la République, 93200 Saint-Denis. Info. Tel.: 01 55 87 08 70 or Fax.: 01 48 20 24 11.

This has been extra long just in case the World Cup fails to put Saint-Denis on the map. After the big football fiesta is finished, Saint-Denis will still be here.

Saint-Denis - Musée d'Art et d'Historie
22 bis. rue Gabriel Péri, 93200 Saint-Denis. Open from 10:00 to 17:30; on Sundays, from 14:00 to 18:30 - closed Tuesdays. Métro: Saint-Denis-Porte de Paris - line 13. Info. Tel.: 01 42 43 05 10

Ateliers Christofle
112. rue Amboise Croziat, Saint-Denis. Info. Tel.: 01 48 20 84 09. During the World Cup, these ateliers are open daily from 11:00 to 19:00. Afterwards, until 23. November, hours are 10:00 to 17:30 and from 14:00 to 18:30 on Sundays. For both periods, closed on Tuesdays.

To reach the Christofle ateliers from the museum, the recommended route is by way of the square de Geyter, where there is a small bridge crossing the canal. After crossing, turn left and the ateliers are on the right side of the D24 road.

The Festival de Saint-Denis continues until Sunday, 12. July. This is an annual event.

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