Paris Autumn Walks : The Basilica of Saint Denis

If I made a map of my favorite walks in Paris, the routes would invariably lead to an old church, a cemetery, a café or a market. They would circumvent the glamorous Paris of the tourist brochures and explore the places where the ancient and the modern city coexist, where the mysteries linger, and where one can satisfy one’s hunger, literal and figurative. Paris is often associated with spring, romance and blossoming, but my Paris is autumn, fallen leaves and the light streaming through the stained glass windows.

The Basilica of Saint Denis, Basilique royale de Saint-Denis, is one of those large French Gothic churches that to a non-expert eye are hard to tell apart. Even the fact that it has only one tower instead of the usual two can get lost as one contemplates its imposing size. Yet, the space inside the basilica is so elegant with its slender windows, graceful columns and candlelight filled enfilades that I’d take a stroll here over visiting Notre-Dame. It’s worth a metro ride to Saint-Denis, a northern suburb of Paris that manages to be both bland and seedy. My Paris explorations often end up here.

Despite the extensive ruin during the Revolution (1789-1799), the church still retains much of its original 1144 structure. Yet, the site is older still, dating to Roman times. The basilica is named after Saint Denis, a 3rd century bishop and a martyr, who according to legend walked all the way here from Montmartre, carrying his severed head.

From the 7th century and until the 19th, the basilica served as the royal necropolis. The tombs of the kings and queens still remain, from the first burial of the Merovingian king Dagobert I to the mummified heart of the dauphin Louis XVII. The king of the Franks found eternal repose here in 639, the remains of Marie-Antoinette’s son in 2004, more than 209 years after the young dauphin died.

While French kings were crowned in Reims, queens received their honors in St. Denis, and the coronation regalia still line the chapel walls. Light the candle, contemplate the bejeweled ripples of sunshine on the stone walls, consider the evanescence of glory, riches and fame. Only the stones and light seem eternal.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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54 Comments

  • Austenfan: St. Denis is one of the few big gothic French churches that I have not yet visited. And it’s one of the oldest apparently. Walking is one of the best ways to explore any city, I think, the pace suits contemplation and exploration. Simenon commented on that in one of his memoirs. I seem to remember that he explored Paris on foot as well.
    Love your photos of the windows!
    Notre Dame is stunning but too crowded, and this church seems more airy and light, somehow. October 22, 2018 at 9:38am Reply

    • Victoria: Notre-Dame is far too crowded, and while it’s beautiful and must be visited, it’s hard for me to fall into the same contemplative mood as in St. Denis. Plus, I’d rather sit on a metro to go to the St. Denis suburb than standing in that long time to get into Notre-Dame.

      The stained glass windows in St. Denis are stunning, and if you time your visit well, you can wade through the pool of jewel-colored lights. October 22, 2018 at 10:28am Reply

      • Austenfan: I love the play of light through stained glass windows. Bourges is great for that too! October 22, 2018 at 10:30am Reply

        • Victoria: Oh, yes, one of my highlights from that trip. October 22, 2018 at 10:46am Reply

        • Austenfan: And I hear you on the contemplation! October 22, 2018 at 11:31am Reply

          • Victoria: An important part on any exploration! October 23, 2018 at 4:19am Reply

  • kekasmais: My first night in Paris a few months ago, I decided to wander the neighborhood around my bed and breakfast and somehow wound up at Fontaine St. Saint-Sulpice after getting hopelessly lost. If you ask me, half the joy of Paris is losing your compass. Sitting by the fountain and the église across from it in the late August dusk is one of my starkest, happiest memories.

    Beautiful article to consider for my next time there. Thank you for stirring up the memories, too. They’re a much welcomed distraction from real life. XD October 22, 2018 at 9:48am Reply

    • Victoria: So true! Paris is a perfect place to discover on foot, to get lost, to wander around and find a corner of Paris that’s perfect for you. St. Saint-Sulpice is also one of my favorites. October 22, 2018 at 10:26am Reply

  • Filomena: I just got back from a trip to Rome, Venice Southern Italy and Sicily. Although I had been there before, I did not go to the Vatican or St. Peter’s. However, I did go into small obscure but absolutely beautiful churches such as St. Minerva. October 22, 2018 at 10:35am Reply

    • Victoria: I think that it was the best decision. Those kind of discoveries are what makes traveling special. October 22, 2018 at 10:45am Reply

    • Alicia: Flomena, are you talking of the only Gothic Church in Rome, Santa Maria sopra Minerva?
      There are to be found the graves of St Catherine of Siena, patroness of Italy, and the great painter, Fra Angelico. This Dominican church was built in honor of the Virgin Mary, over the pagan temple to the goddess Minerva (thus its name). October 22, 2018 at 11:13am Reply

      • Filomena: Yes Victoria, the church I was talking about was Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. It is breathtakingly beautiful! October 23, 2018 at 6:53am Reply

        • Victoria: I haven’t been there in a very long time. October 25, 2018 at 2:34am Reply

  • Debi Sen Gupta: Love going to offbeat places with less tourists . Lets one appreciate the flavour of the country. The bone chapel in Milan is so close to the Duomo but hardly anyone goes there. October 22, 2018 at 10:41am Reply

    • Victoria: I like that chapel very much, and you’re right, it’s delightfully underrated and ignored by many visitors. October 22, 2018 at 10:44am Reply

      • Debi Sen Gupta: Another underated place is Stibbert Museum in Florence. October 22, 2018 at 10:50am Reply

        • Victoria: I’m going to visit it the next time I’m in Florence for work. I haven’t yet been there. October 23, 2018 at 4:17am Reply

          • Debi Sen Gupta: Great. There is a lot of information online but doesn’t really bring out the feel of the place. And hardly any tourists. When I was there one family was leaving and another joined us for the guided look around which is included in the ticket. October 23, 2018 at 12:52pm Reply

  • Debi Sen Gupta: Another underated place is Stibbert Museum in Florence. October 22, 2018 at 10:51am Reply

  • Alicia: For several years I was a student at the Ecole du Louvre, with a specialization in the transition from Romanesque to Gothic. St Denis became the center of my life, Abbot Suger my obsession, and the two anonymous architects who built the choir and flooded with light the dark Carolingian church were my heros.I knew all too well that the barbarism of the French Revolution had emptied the tombs.(Louis VII was brought from his burial site elsewhere, and less than 150 bones were saved from the mass graves by the Bourbon Restoration.But the glory of Suger’s inspiration is there for all to see. It became the inspiration of all of Europe, the Gothic style. As far as late Medieval architecture goes there is no building more meaningful than that cradle of the Gothic. I filled notebooks with notes and sketches. Afterwards I sat among the empty graves, but instead of thinking of the futility of glory i looked at that choir resplendent of light; in Suger’s mind, light was the image of the glory of God.St Denis and the Gothic style: the triumph of Abbot Suger, who arrived at the ancient Abbey of St. Denis when he was 10 years old and by love of her changed the aesthetics of the Western World. October 22, 2018 at 10:59am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, definitely impressive. October 23, 2018 at 4:17am Reply

  • OnWingsofSaffron: What a wonderful colour play those magnificent windows achieve! The charming Église Notre-Dame du Sablon in downtown Bruxelles casts a similar spell on everyone visiting this lovely church. And the same is true for the Nasir al-Mulk Mosque (Pink Mosque) in Shiraz, Iran. In all cases, I think people are touched by the magic of great architecture, light, lightness, colour and serenity. Thanks for the great tip: it‘s on my to-do list when next in Paris. October 22, 2018 at 11:07am Reply

    • Victoria: The Nasir al-Mulk Mosque is easily one of the most impressive sites in Shiraz. Such a lovely example of the Qajar predilection for color, roses and decoration. Did you see the panel inside showing a church? October 23, 2018 at 4:19am Reply

  • maggiecat: My first time in Paris was this past summer, and I am already planning how to return. I will add St. Denis to the list of places I missed the first time but must see the next. Thank you for inciting delightful memories in the midst of a dreary Monday! October 22, 2018 at 1:44pm Reply

    • Victoria: It’s easy to get to from the metro, but it’s not on the usual group routes, so you can arrive and have it all to yourself. October 23, 2018 at 4:20am Reply

  • Matty: Thank you for this report and wonderful pictcures October 22, 2018 at 1:55pm Reply

  • Anne-Marie: I also want thank you fort this lovely report and pictures. Those kind of cathedrals, s are close to my heart. I absolutely want see this in the future.I am so glad to find your, s blog 😍. I love fragrances and history and art.
    I am from Finland and so sorry that my english it no so good but hope you understand what I write. October 22, 2018 at 3:26pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Anne-Marie! 🙂 I look forward to exchanging more comments with you. October 23, 2018 at 4:22am Reply

  • Austenfan: Have you ever visited Laon? It’s another beautiful cathedral, it’s not spectacular but quietly harmonious. I don’t think it has as many stained glass windows though. October 22, 2018 at 4:36pm Reply

    • Alicia: I have, Austenfan. It is indeed a beautiful cathedral. For vitraux Chartres is extraordinary, and that radiant beauty, la Sainte ChaPelle. October 22, 2018 at 5:06pm Reply

      • Victoria: Sainte-Chapelle has easily some of the beautiful stained glass windows in Paris, but it’s so crowded with tour groups that it’s hard to enjoy it. I no longer go there, unless I’m taking someone who hasn’t yet seen it. October 23, 2018 at 4:27am Reply

        • MJ: I visited Saint Chapelle almost 20 years ago and I was spellbound by the windows.
          In Spain, the most beautiful glass stained windows are those of the Leon’s cathedral. Leon is not what tourist who come to Spain prefer to visit, but’s a nice, small city with a beautiful cathedral, and interesting modern art museum (MUSAC) and great food. October 23, 2018 at 10:54am Reply

          • Victoria: I’d love to go, for all of the reasons you’ve stated. October 25, 2018 at 2:43am Reply

      • Austenfan: I have visited Chartres and I agree on the vitraux. At least as good as those in Bourges. Prefer the latter though, the building seems more harmonious somehow, and less showy. October 23, 2018 at 5:45am Reply

        • Victoria: Same here. What it lacks in grandeur, it makes up with its elegance. October 23, 2018 at 6:00am Reply

    • Victoria: No, I haven’t. I haven’t been to Picardy. October 23, 2018 at 4:24am Reply

      • Austenfan: It´s not the most spectacular region in France, but it has some beautiful cathedrals. October 23, 2018 at 5:49am Reply

  • Anne: Lovely post. I wandered into St Denis one late morning in early fall to find myself in the midst of a memorial service for the kings and queens buried there. Unforgettable. October 22, 2018 at 4:38pm Reply

    • Victoria: I can only imagine! I once visited when the organist was practicing for a service, and it was such a moving experience. October 23, 2018 at 4:25am Reply

  • Ariadne: Your photos are exquisite! Thank you so much for sharing. October 22, 2018 at 6:21pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much. October 23, 2018 at 4:27am Reply

  • Carla: Lovely description! You always make an unusual choice, be it cathedrals or novels. I know St Denis from drives through on my way to and from Roissy airport, so tired after the trip or the visit with kids in tow, but taking in all the bustle, interest and yes, seediness to be seen as we creep through traffic. So different from where I live. I remember once there was a Beyoncé concert at Stade de France – or was it Taylor Swift? – and it was a surreal arrival in France from the US. Our trips back to my husband’s home country are short but I take in every second. I think my mind is working overtime during our visits, or at least since it’s not occupied with To Do lists and such as when I’m home I can remember so much about my time in France. Love that country, from St Denis to Île St Louis, Aquitaine to Alsace! October 23, 2018 at 8:50am Reply

    • Victoria: France is quite large. It’s also fascinating how one can go from Paris, which is teeming with visitors all year around, to a place like Poitiers, for instance, and have all of those gorgeous, ancient churches all to yourself. Or go to St. Denis and have a quiet afternoon of explorations.
      So, getting off the beaten track even in a heavily visited place is not hard. October 25, 2018 at 2:38am Reply

  • Sandra: I love walking cities, and I have visited Paris twice and would love to return.
    I can share a “perfume” walk in NYC. A nice visit would include visiting perfume shops along Madison Ave. Fredrick Malle, By Killian, Diptyque, Annick Goutal, le Labo are all along the upper east side on Madison Ave. Its a very nice experience to stroll along outside. When you need a break, stop for a coffee at Via Quadronno (or one of their simple Italian sandwiches) and from there you can stroll along Central Park to give your nose a break! Here you are not too far from The Met museum. I would go to the Met and take a free tour. Or you can visit Victoria’s modern bowl in the Islamic wing October 23, 2018 at 9:14am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much! What a wonderful scented walk you’ve shared. 🙂 October 25, 2018 at 2:38am Reply

  • jodee: I studied in Paris for a summer many years ago and discovered the city by wandering and getting lost. I learned about so many great secrets of the city this way, but the city is always evolving and changing! Every time I return there is something new or trending and some of my favorite old haunts are now overrun with tourists. I have never visited the Basilica of St. Denis. As you mention it is
    a seedy spot and I always hesitate to spend too much time in the area. I guess it goes to show that judging a book by its cover never really works. The Basilica sounds wonderful and I now will add it to my list of places to visit on my next journey! Victoria, I’d love to learn more about your favorite spots in Paris. I’m always looking to grow my understanding of this most fascinating of cities. October 23, 2018 at 2:09pm Reply

    • Victoria: Definitely visit the basilica! It’s a short walk from the metro stop.
      Several years ago I read a book called “Seven Ages of Paris,” and I still like it for the way it presents the city and its history. October 25, 2018 at 2:51am Reply

  • Aurora: This post makes me feel more than a little homesick, yes my home town is full of out of the way, unique places, thank you so much for having captured the essence of one of them so well, Victoria. October 25, 2018 at 8:21am Reply

    • Victoria: I’m so glad you liked the article. And yes, there are so many unique places in Paris. One can keep on discovering them. October 26, 2018 at 3:17am Reply

      • jodee: Ooh, thanks for the book recommendation! It gets so many great reviews I cannot wait to read it October 29, 2018 at 8:35pm Reply

  • ninon: I wish I had taken the time to visit St Denis earlier in the autumn, but I stayed in the center. Another reason to return! October 26, 2018 at 11:25pm Reply

    • Victoria: Exactly! I will share more Paris walks off the beaten path. October 27, 2018 at 2:56am Reply

  • jodee: Ooh, thanks for the book recommendation! It gets so many great reviews I cannot wait to read it! October 29, 2018 at 8:34pm Reply

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