Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Denny and Me

Basilica Saint-Denis.
After lunch the downpour ceased and the sun came out. I traded my soaked shoes for a pair of sandals and pulled out my damp and battered Lonely Planet guidebook, for I had one last destination: The Basilica of Saint-Denis.

I took the subway nearly to the end of the ride, about 20 minutes and popped out on a sunny square. No tourist hordes here; Saint-Denis was off the beaten path, even if nearly all the French kings and queens are buried here.

The Last Judgment Portal at Basilica Saint-Denis.
Saint-Denis is a very early Gothic Cathedral, built in the 1130s. Like Notre Dame, there are three portals in front, but see how more rounded the Saint-Denis portals are, looking a little more Romanesque. Like Notre Dame, the center portal depicts the Last Judgment. Christ is the judge, surrounded by apostles. Overhead the good guys are on the left side of the arch and the damned on the right.

Basilica's interior.
The basilica was nearly empty: just me, a few local school groups, and a bunch of European senior citizens. It was smaller than Notre Dame, but exquisite, with sunlight pouring through the stained glass and casting bright blotches on the floor. I admired the nave, then headed over to the Royal Necropolis ("Royal Death City"). 

Sunlight through the stained-glass windows
cast colors on the floor.
The tombs were a quick quiz in French history — I'd read "La Belle France" the month before, but I was still hazy on the Charles and Philippes, not to mention all those Louies.

Charles V (in wig), Queen Jeanne (with crown)
lying with other French royalty.
I admired the tomb statues of Charles V and his wife Jeanne of Bourbon, who is shown holding her pouch of entrails close to her heart.
During the Crusades and in medieval times French royalty would dither for years over where to be buried and would often write complicated wills commanding that their heart be buried in one place, their heart in another and the rest of the body in a third. Even the Pope's objection to cutting a body up couldn't make them stop until it finally fell out of fashion.

Childebert I.
More royalty, including Pepin the Short and Louis III.
The Frankish king of Paris Childebert I, who fought the Visigoths and died in 558, was there, and Charles Martel (died 741), the founding figure of the Middle Ages who helped develop feudalism and knighthood.

King Henri and Catherine D'Medici.
I saw the tomb of Francois I, the king who met Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn at the Cloth of Gold, and Henri and Catherine d'Medici, whose sickly son was briefly married to Mary Queen of Scots.

Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

The heart of little Louis XVII.
Revolutionaries desecrated many of the tombs during the Terror, but afterwards the bones were reorganized and put in their proper places. Statues of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were brought in, and even the remains of their 10-year-old son, Louis XVII, who died in prison, were brought to the basilica, including his heart, which is still on display in a glass urn.

Saint-Denis was my last sight on this European trip and I lingered, not wanting it to end. I thought of returning to the apartment and helping Ron and Benny pack up our big backpacks again. I didn't want to fly back to San Francisco. I wanted to take the Metro to the Gare du Nord and catch the next train to Prague the next day. Ahead of us was a 20-hour day full of security lines and flight delays and officials digging through my backpack only to find that the threatening object inside was Benny's six-inch tall Big Ben figurine. The Brits apparently didn't trust the French and required an additional security check before they'd let us transfer to another plane, and the airline kept the gate number for the flight to San Francisco a state secret until 15 minutes after it opened. But our flight landed nearly on time and we were the first through customs.

"Two weeks?" the customs officer repeated. "And that's all your luggage?"

"Yup," we said proudly.

But that was all ahead of me. I had a glass of wine on the sunny square before the Basilica Saint-Denis, my bag on my lap and my head stuffed with medieval carvings and French history. It was time to go home, I thought. We were almost out of money, energy and clean socks. Next week Ron had a biotech panel, Benny had tennis camp and I needed to prepare for a writer's conference in Seattle. Au revoir, Europe.

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