Exploring New Neighborhoods – St Sulpice
Like most large cities, Paris is subdivided into functioning neighborhoods—communities containing all the resources supporting daily life. It will take us years, if ever, to become acquainted with all of Paris’ neighborhoods. Each year, we do extend our acquaintance a bit with different areas of Paris. We are, of course, still exploring our own wider neighborhood in the 5th arondissement, which includes the famed Latin Quarter, an area historically and still today thick with university level and advanced professional schools.
Next door, in the 6th arondissement, the area of St. Germain des Pres, we have still not explored vast swaths of streets and squares. We were pleased a couple of days ago to have the opportunity of exploring further the streets surrounding St. Germain, which include some of the oldest neighborhoods still standing in Paris. Most of the oldest buildings we can still find in Paris date from the 1600s. Aside from royal, governmental, or church-owned buildings, commercial/ apartment buildings from that earlier time mostly occur in tiny side streets that were not affected by Haussmann’s vast reconstruction and design of Paris in the mid 1800s.
These streets are clustered together in different areas of Paris. A bunch of them can be found in the 6th arondissement, starting from Place St. Sulpice. We were fortunate to have a Parisian acquaintance offer to show us around the neighborhood, where he had formerly lived, in the same apartment building as Jeanne Moreau, the famous French movie actress. (It’s interesting how people enjoy dropping names, even if they don’t actually know the famous individually personally – I know about famous neighbors of a bunch of friends who have lived in places where that might happen).
Fortunately, we found a bus we could take from the Luxembourg area in our neighborhood straight to Place St. Sulpice, where we had agreed to meet with our friend. The Place is pleasantly vast, with an absolutely enormous fountain in the center, from which the sound of tumultuous water was overwhelming. I was glad to imagine that a recirculating pump is lurking in the fountain’s innards!
The Place is pleasant and bright, and the façade of the church for which the place is named is unusual and interesting – an Italianate two story structure, surmounted by two towers which allegedy had been contracted out to two different architects. One tower was completed, in perfect harmony with the classical Italian style of the façade. The other tower remains in a state of incompleteness. Clearly the second architect had totally different ideas for his tower. The stone pieces are affixed, and their shapes are roughly obvious. But all finish carving is absent, and the tower is likewise not built to the prescribed height. The top five meters or so (roughly 15 feet) were never added. The legend apparently says – although our friend, a professional historian pooh poohed the story – that the second architect got depressed and threw himself off his unfinished tower to his death. This would have happened in the 1600s. One does wonder why no further work has been done on that unfinished section of the church for the last 500 years. Surely that could have been enough time to finish it. Another story I have found about the towers is that both towers were essentially completed, and then one of them was bombed during some war, and it was never fully rebuilt. Who knows? Parisian folklore is obviously alive and well!
Another interesting mystery of the church is the presence of several figures carved in stone placed on the second story balcony of the façade. I could make out that one was wearing a bishop’s hat. They are shown participating in a dramatic event, judging by the dynamic postures I could discern through the balcony’s railings. Nowhere can I find any mention of these sculpted figures. We’ll just have to call them the Mystery of l’Eglise St.-Sulpice.
The Place St. Sulpice, despite its spectacular church – just slightly smaller than Notre Dame de Paris, apparently,( though in a much different style) – and despite the huge fountain and the two massive government buildings found there — the town hall of the Sixth Arondissement on one side, and the block-long building where individuals in Paris go to pay income taxes on another side – does not have a major reason to prompt Parisian tourists to visit.
The church of St. Sulpice figured prominently in Dan Brown’s novel, the DaVinci code. And apparently everything that Brown wrote about the church is completely made up, with no historic truth whatsoever. It’s a fascinating example of a spectacularly grand site with little back story – rare in Paris.
For us, the fascination of St. Sulpice became the number and complexity of winding, narrow old streets that we accessed from it. This was not just a single medieval street leading from one Avenue to another. Nor was it a medieval street lined with houses built in the mid 1800s. The area offered a network – a web – of ancient streets with many buildings still standing from the 1600s and 1700s – a peek back into an earlier Paris that one doesn’t find so often here today.
Since one of the unique dimensions of Paris as a place to visit is the broad presence of a much older continuous culture from the past than we find in modern cities and towns in the US, Nancy and I thoroughly enjoyed just wandering from one old street to another. It was an energetic experience, not a mental one. No narrative exists for this neighborhood other than its age. We were anonymous strangers from one time period absorbing the faint traces of energy left by anonymous strangers from a long-disappeared different era. No words come forth to describe such an experience – one that I deeply enjoy and appreciate as I wander and discover different Parisian areas. Like many things that evoke wonder, it simply is. And that’s enough.