Where is the best place in Paris for une tasse de chocolat chaud (hot chocolate)? In my opinion, it is at the Café du Flore on the blvd Saint-Germain-des-Pres. As a flanuer taking a stroll down this bustling boulevard for this delectable boisson, however, one would be remiss to pass by L’Église Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the oldest church in Paris, without a visit.
It is easy to get caught up in the Parisian atmosphere of cafés and architecture in the 6th arrondissement without realizing that the boulevard Saint-Germain-des-Pres was once an ancient Roman road in the Faubourg Saint-Martin. While this part of Paris was still considered to be in the banlieue (outskirts) in the 6th century, the Son of Clovis I built a Benedictine Abbey on this boulevard. The plan of Paris in the Moyen Age was to be a “cloître canonical au Nord” and therefore a monastery was one of the most important elements of formation of the religious physiognomy of Paris. (Poete)
L’Église Saint-Germain-des-Prés, became the burial place for all the Merovingian kings, until the late 8th century, when they were reinterred at the Basilica Saint-Denis. In the 17th century, the abbey, in partnership with the Sorbonne, was a major intellectual center of France as it housed rare manuscripts of religious scholars.
Unfortunately, not much from this original abbey, “adorned with tall marble columns, opulent paintings, mosaic tile floors and a gilded copper-clad roof” remains as it was burned by the Normans in the 10th century. (Ladonne)
The church suffered much, as most churches in Paris, during the French Revolution. Fortunately, city leaders and parishioners (including my Victor Hugo!!) came to the rescue and began a major restoration that lasted until recent days.
But, oh my goodness, one must not rue the trifles. This magnificent Romanesque Basilica that we see today, with Gothic style arcades, arched windows, a rounded ambulatory, and flying buttresses will take your breath away; and this is Pre-renovation.
Personally, this church has been a wonderful respite for me as a house of worship. During my semester abroad, I spent many quiet afternoons in prayer and meditation here, sitting in the lugubrious chapel, darkened by centuries of soot and grime covering the faded wallpaper and stained glass. My husband and I make a point on our visits to attend a service and an organ concert. The outdoor courtyard with the original bell tower and fountain brings to mind the medieval Paris as well.
I am excited to see the newly renovated chapel; to imagine what it looked like centuries before. Read about all the new renovations in the September edition of France Today at this link:. Be sure and add L’Église Saint-Germain-des-Prés to your “must see” list next time you are in Paris; and then, walk across the street to the Café Flore for your chocolat chaud!
Copyright 2018 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)
Jennifer Ladonne. Divine Restoration: Église Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the Oldest Church in Paris. France Today. September 17, 2018. https://www.francetoday.com/culture/architecture/restoration-eglise-saint-germain-des-pres/
Marcel Poete. Une Vie de Cité : Paris, de Sa Naissance a Nos Jours. Picard Publishing : Paris. 1925