It's a Go: Paris Meets Africa in the French suburb of St. Denis

Paris meets Africa in Saint- Denis

PARIS — Women in flowered robes and matching head coverings stroll past stalls stocked with Algerian spices, Moroccan olives and Tunisian pastries.

The glass cases at Au Royaume De L' Oriental display colored sweets made with nuts and honey. A woman fills crepes with a spicy vegetable combo while we settle in over glasses of mint tea.

Thirty minutes from central Paris on Métro Line 13, France meets Africa in the northeastern suburb of Saint-Denis.

Tourists are few, not unusual given that many Parisians associate this area with riots and car burnings that made headlines in 2005. Most of the 2005 rioting, in fact, happened elsewhere in Seine-Saint-Denis, a larger area that includes several towns, or banlieues as they're called, including Saint-Denis. By day at least, Saint-Denis itself has the feel of a French village, albeit one with a population of immigrants struggling with poverty and high unemployment.

Saint-Denis: To Go or Not to Go

Why go now?  Fox News attempted to label ethnic neighborhoods surrounding central Paris as "No-Go'' areas for non-muslims, an erroneous leap for which the mayor of Paris has threatened a lawsuit. I'm not sure if Saint-Denis was on the Fox list or not, but it's too easy for outsiders to paint the working-class northern suburbs with the same broad brush. Saint-Denis, in fact, claims a special place in French history as the burial place of most of the country's kings and queens. Its historical centerpiece is the Basilique Saint-Denis, a Gothic cathedral, museum and national architectural monument named for Saint Denis, the first bishop of Paris who was buried here in 250 AD.

Basilique Saint-Denis,

With its purple and blue stained-glass rose window and flying buttresses, the church could pass for a smaller version of Notre Dame Cathedral in central Paris. For those who go beyond Place Victor Hugo where the basilica sits across from city hall, other surprises await.
A network of pedestrian streets come alive on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays when people from all over Paris come to shop at the Marché de Saint-Denis, one of the largest indoor market halls in Europe.

"If you want to see the France most tourists don't see, it's the place to go," says Harriet Welty, an American writer and journalism teacher living in Paris. Welty, who has been blogging on the fallout from the Charlie Hebdo bombings, once sent a group of students to Saint-Denis to dig up stories on a side of French life few see. "It's much more representative of the 'real' France than what people see in the Latin Quarter." Reason enough to hop on Line 13 the next time you are in Paris. 

Metro Line 13, Saint-Denis

Walking tour

I spent a rainy morning a few years ago exploring Saint-Denis with Michel Moisan, a longtime resident and a guide with Parisien d'un Jour, an organization of volunteer "greeters" who take visitors on free walking tours through out-of-the-way Paris neighborhoods.

It was apparent from the time Moisan and I met at the subway exit that this was not the Paris of Michelin lore. We walked passed a tent camp on the steps of city hall. The demonstrators were protesting losing their apartments just days before a winter moratorium on evictions went into effect.

Greeter Michel Moison in Saint-Denis

"Saint-Denis has always had a mixed population," Moisan explained. As the rural countryside became industrialized, immigrants settled in. A socialist workers' movement took hold, earning Saint-Denis the nickname, "la ville rouge," or "red city."

"Italians came in the 1930s, and the Spanish after that," Moisan said. Today, the population is largely Muslim, with residents coming from former French colonies in North Africa, the French West Indies and parts of East and West Africa.

Marche de Saint-Denis 

Inside the Marché de Saint-Denis, Italian tripe sellers work beside Halal butchers. Outside, among stalls stocked with rugs and cheap clothing, vendors peddle corn roasted in grills fashioned from grocery carts. A historic wooden dyehouse, once part of a thriving textile industry started by King Louis XIV, houses a cafe and restaurant. At noon, we listened as church bells ring, and a merchant shouts "Insha'Allah," the Arabic phrase meaning "If Allah wills."

Royal church

Saint-Denis developed a reputation as an important trading center in the Middle Ages after the French King Dagobert rebuilt Denis's original burial site into a royal monastery. According to legend, the martyred Saint-Denis collapsed here after walking from his execution site in Montmartre, carrying his own head. More likely this was the area where he was beheaded.

Dagobert choose the abbey as his own burial site, and his successors followed. Forty-two kings and 32 queens were buried here from the sixth century on. Suger, abbot of Saint-Denis, enlarged the abbey in the 12th century, turning it into what became known as a masterpiece of early Gothic art. It became the model for the more well-known Notre Dame and other Gothic churches throughout France and England.

In 1789, during the French Revolution, the tombs were opened by workers under orders from revolutionary officials. The bodies were removed and dumped in two large pits nearby where they stayed until after Napoleon Bonaparte reopened the church in 1806. Today, elaborately sculpted statues positioned over the tombs stand in for the real royals.

The basilica (which became a cathedral in 1966) is divided into two sections. The light-filled necropolis boasts over 70 recumbent statues and tombs marking the final resting places of some of France's most colorful characters: 42 kings, 32 queens, 63 princes and princesses, and 10 important historical figures are buried here. Beneath is the crypt, where visitors can find the tombs of St. Denis and the last of the French Bourbon kings, including the ill-fated Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, beheaded during the French Revolution.

Getting there

From central Paris, take Métro line 13 toward Saint-Denis Université. Get off at Basilique de Saint-Denis. The trip takes about 30-40 minutes.

Tourist information
Contact the Seine-Saint Denis Tourist Board 

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