I’ve been to Paris so many times that I don’t think I could hazard a guess at the amount, unless I was to sit down with the Eurostar Frequent Traveller app and physically tick off the trips. To readers in the North of England, or in America that statement will, I know, sound annoyingly flash, but London-Paris, when the Eurostar is working, is only a 2.5hr journey, and St Pancras Station is ten minutes from my London flat. It’s often cheaper than a return ticket to Manchester.
But the thing that I am embarrassed about is that I never do any sightseeing, bar cursory trips to Les Arts Decoratifs in between meetings and endless walks. I love the walking (my post on the Tuileries to St Germain here, and from the Palais Royal to Place St Michel here) but because I usually only have time for the walking OR going inside to look at something, I always choose the walking.
Last month I was whisked to Paris for forty-eight hours by my friends at Diptyque for the launch of their new fragrance Eau de Sens. After visiting the Diptyque mothership on Boulevard St Germain, I had a few hours before my train departed. So, of course, I decided to do the walking. Always the walking.
I headed north with a plan of walking to my hotel, about forty-five minutes away in the 1e. Heading over the Pont de l’Archevêché onto the Île de la Cité, past the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation, towards Notre Dame, I intended initially to just keep on going, but then I saw a small line of people waiting to go into Notre Dame,
and realised that, whilst I may have driven or walked across the the Île de la Cité numerous times, the last – and only – time I have been inside was when I was maybe eight years old. In fact that’s pretty much the last time I went inside any Parisian place of interest bar museums or galleries.
Even with only twenty minutes or so to spare, it was a good decision.
Exiting, I headed west across the island, heading for the Pont au Change to cross north to the Rive Gauche.
And then I saw a sign – one of those brown Parisian ones that marks a site of historic importance. It marked the entrance to Sainte-Chapelle. I’m afraid to say that whilst I knew the name, I had no idea what it actually meant. So I took a spur of the moment decision, handed over some euros and went to explore.
Sainte-Chapelle is a very small church – it really is a chapel, sitting in the courtyard of what was once the royal palace, surrounded by buildings belonging to what became part of a later administrative complex known as La Conciergerie, and which is now part of the Palais de Justice complex. The first thing I noticed were these splendid gargoyles. (Always look up! is one of my mottoes.)
You turn a corner, and enter Sainte-Chapelle on the ground floor. It’s very dark inside, with a beautiful vaulted ceiling, painted midnight blue and gold and, of course, stained glass diffusing the light.
The painting was designed to emulate Limoges porcelain.
It’s exquisitely beautiful, but I did momentarily think – oh – is that it? Then I noticed the two stone staircases in the far corners leading up the first floor:
Nothing quite prepares you for this as you round the corner having climbed up the stairs
It’s a visual thwack to the head – I took several deep breaths as I tried to process what I was seeing.
The Sainte-Chapelle was built between 1242 and 1248 to house Louis IX’s collection of relics of Christ, although much of the chapel as it appears today is a re-creation, (although nearly two-thirds of the windows are authentic), with the worst destruction happening during the French Revolution in the late eighteenth century.
The lower chapel, where we entered the building, served as parish church for all the inhabitants of the royal palace, and this ravishing upper floor was for the king’s especial use.
There are fifteen huge mid-13th-century windows, whilst a large rose window (added to the upper chapel c.1490) dominates the western wall. The chapel’s design starts to make sense when you think of it as King Louis’ huge architectural reliquary casket – the highly decorated box that would house the relics of a saint or martyr.
Although it’s easy to be mesmerised by the stained glass with the light pouring through it, do look out for the small details too. The beautiful floors…
These slightly bawdy looking cherubs
The glorious carvings
Slightly punch drunk from the stained glass overload, I descended into the courtyard to admire Sainte-Chapelle from the courtyard of the Palais de Justice to its right.
And then I got distracted again – this time by the Conciergerie, with another of those alluring brown historical Paris signs. More Euros were handed over, and I was inside.
This the Grande Salle, one of the largest rooms in the 13th century in Europe, and this lower story was known as La Salle des Gens d’Armes (The Hall of the Soldiers). It was used as a dining room for the 2,000 odd staff members who worked in the palace, and was also used for royal banquets and judicial proceedings until Charles V abandoned the palace in 1358, moving across the river to the Louvre. In 1391, part of the building was converted for use as a prison.
Fishing bits of history from the depths of my brain, I knew that the Conciergerie was a former prison and had played a pivotal role during the French Revolution, housing several notable figures including Marie-Antoinette and hundreds of prisoners, who weret taken from here to be executed on the guillotine. I have an over-active imagination and I found the atmosphere lowering in the extreme. Too many people were held here in abject misery, and the Revolutionary Tribunal sat in the Great Hall between 2 April 1793 and 31 May 1795, sending nearly 2,600 prisoners to the guillotine.
The Conciergerie was decommissioned in 1914 and opened to the public as a national historical monument, although only a relatively small part of the building is open to public access; much of it is still used for the Paris law courts.
Upstairs are monuments to those who were executed in The Terror, lists of names, from woodsellers to countesses, dressmakers to journalists. Having recently visited the Genocide Museum in Rwanda, it was yet another reminder of man’s inhumanity to man.
Down a corridor, past the cells where the wealthy were kept, is a recreation of the cell of Marie Antoinette.
I was thankful to escape outside to the sunshine and to continue my walk across the city.
Conciergerie. 2 Boulevard du Palais, 75001 Paris, France. monuments-nationaux.fr
Open everyday : 9.30 am to 6 pm. Closed on January 1, May 1 and December 25
Prices: Adult rate : 8,50 € Reduced rate : 6,50 €. Carte Paris Museum Pass accepted.
Sainte-Chapelle. 8 Boulevard du Palais, 75001 Paris, France. monuments-nationaux.fr
Open every day, 1 March to 31 October : 9:30 am to 6 pm. 1 November to 28 February : 9 am to 5 pm. Open in the evening on Wednesdays 15 May to 15 September
Prices: Adult rate : 8,50 € Reduced rate : 6,50 € Carte Paris Museum Pass accepted.
Notre Dame 6. Parvis Notre-Dame – Pl. Jean-Paul II, 75004 Paris, France monuments-nationaux.fr
Open every day. 1 April to 30 September : 10 am to 6:30 pm. open until late in July and August, Fridays, Saturdays, 10 am to 11 pm.
1 October to 31 March : 10 am to 5:30 pm (4:30 pm 2nd October 2012). Closed on January 1, May 1 and December 25
Paris Museum Pass: With the Paris Museum Pass, you gain free entry, without queuing and as many times as you wish, to 60 museums and monuments in and around Paris.