By Nancy Truman
We’d had our fill of Paris lineups — from the queue for taxis at the train station, to the three-hour wait to get into the Musée d’Orsay, then another wait at the Louvre — so we were dismayed to see yet another long lineup as we rounded the corner from the back gate of the Palais de Justice and witnessed the surreal scene of gendarmerie on motorcycles, toting machine guns, escorting a van with darkened windows. Criminal cases are still heard in the courts of the Palais.
The criminal courts are also the reason we had to wait nearly an hour to pass through the security checkpoint, the final frontier between us and the Sainte-Chapelle, the tiny chapel we had come to see. But all the jostling and waiting, the hassle of removing jewellery and belts and pocket change — and the 8 euro ($10) entry fee — were worth it.
From the street, the steeple marks the tiny French High Gothic chapel nestled in the confines of the Palais de Justice on Île-de-la-Cité. Sainte-Chapelle and the Conciergerie (where Marie Antoinette awaited her fate) are what remain of the oldest palace of the French kings who ruled from the 10th to 14th centuries.
Île-de-la-Cité, a natural island on the Seine, is the birthplace and geographic heart of Paris, from which all distances are measured from point zero in front of Notre Dame Cathedral on the island. And it has been the centre of church and state affairs through the centuries.
In 1242, King Louis IX ordered the chapel’s construction to house the Holy Relics he bought from the emperors of Constantinople for a sum that far exceeded the building costs. With the purchase of The Passion of Christ relics, the most famous of which is the Crown of Thorns, medieval Europe crowned Paris the New Jerusalem, an honour likely not lost on the devout Louis IX.
But it is neither relics nor history that has drawn tourists to the chapel since its restoration in the mid-19th century. From the outside, it’s hard to imagine the beauty that awaits in the upper chapel, which was once reserved for the eyes of the royal family. Devoid of pews, the main attraction is the 6,458 square feet of stained glass illustrating more than 1,100 biblical stories from Genesis to the Passion of Christ — the latter of which takes up three windows that sit behind the transept depicting the Birth, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Though not as colourful, a 15th-century western rose window, opposite the transept, that depicts the Apocalypse with Christ’s triumphant return at its centre, is equally compelling.
The three windows most important to the Christian faith are under wraps until 2013, undergoing the long process of restoration, but that did not diminish my awe of the sheer size of the windows and depth of the colours, which ran from ruby, to gold, sapphire and emerald. Searching for the stories of my childhood, I quickly spotted Noah’s Ark. (Binoculars or a camera with a telephoto lens allow for better viewing, but leave your tripod back at the hotel as you are not allowed to use it.)
All the jostling and waiting, the hassle of removing jewellery and belts and pocket change — and the 8 euro ($10) entry fee — were worth it.
Fortunately, the windows were hidden from view by giant filing cabinets during the French Revolution, sparing them the fate of the choir stalls, crucifix and spire, which were destroyed by vandals. The few remaining relics now rest in Notre-Dame Cathedral’s treasury.
While the upper chapel is breathtaking, don’t dismiss the small, lower chapel. This chapel, where the palace staff worshipped, was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and is somewhat plain, with little stained glass. However, in the apse, on the left, above the door to the former sacristy, is the oldest wall painting in Paris — a 13th-century fresco of the Annunciation, which depicts Angel Gabriel announcing to the Virgin Mary that she has been chosen as the mother of God’s son. It’s worth spending a few minutes studying this, once your eyes have adjusted to the darkness.
Our next stop was Notre Dame Cathedral, which has expanded over the centuries since its first stones were laid in 1163. Its last big addition was in the mid-1800s. In contrast to the intimacy of Saint-Chapelle, everything about Notre Dame is massive, including its rose windows (13 metres in diameter) and pipe organ. There is no entrance fee, but I recommend spending a few euros on the glossy guide book at the entrance so you don’t miss its works of art, the most impressive of which is the 14th-century frieze depicting the life of Christ.
After our tour of Notre Dame, we strolled across a foot bridge to Île-de-la-Cité’s smaller sister, Île-St-Louis, which looks more like a 17th-century French village than the heart of a big city. The bustle of Paris fell away as we made our way down rue St-Louis-en-l’Île past a boulangerie bulging with breads of all shapes, a butcher shop with the fowl laid out, their wing feathers still attached, and a patisserie window whose fruit tarts drew us in. The country apple tart had a crumbly shortbread crust and a nice tart green apple and cinnamon filling.
At Pylônes Saint Louis we found cheese graters in the shape of the Eiffel Tower among a stash of kitschy kitchen gadgets and funky rubber jewellery. Silk scarves in a multitude of colours, weights and designs pulled me into Diwali, where I bought a lovely turquoise and black paisley one for 35 euros ($47). As the shops were closing, we wandered into St-Louis-en-l’Île, a small Baroque church wedged between shops at the end of the street. Built between 1664 and 1726, its exterior belies its sumptuous gilded and marble interior. There were no lineups, in fact no other visitors, which made it possible for us to sit and reflect on a time when things moved slower and beauty was held in esteem.
This article appeared in National Post in 2010.