A Christmas Walk

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Our walk will begin at the Samaritaine
department store, opposite the Pont Neuf, Paris’s oldest bridge. To
many graying Parisians the store is associated with its deliberately
eccentric commercials, notably the one starring King Kong storming the
shop through its top-floor windows. Its celebrated catch-phrase On
trouve tout à la Samaritaine (‘One can find everything at the
Samaritaine’) has been changed since into On trouve Tout-Paris à la
Samaritaine, aiming to add a ‘showbiz’ touch to a store whose shoppers
until recently were notoriously provincial and outdated. But things
have changed of late.

At
present you will see inside the biggest Christmas tree ever displayed
in a department store. Besides, the 7th-floor restaurant, Le Toupary
(pun on Tout Paris) affords one of the city’s most splendid views, and
very good food at a reasonable price. (It is one of my most
enthusiastic recommendations in my forthcoming book). You can also get
the view from the terrace, but only during opening hours, and without
the snug atmosphere and background, unobtrusive music you will get at
Le Toupary….Besides, La Samaritaine is well worth a visit for its Art
Nouveau and Art Deco decorations.

When
Ernest Cognacq, a former draper’s assistant at La Rochelle, first set
up shop on rue du Pont-Neuf in 1867, he called it La Samaritaine in
memory of the old water pump situated at the Pont Neuf until the early
19th centruy. Thirty years later he commissioned Franz Jourdain to put
up a building to house a full-size department store, a structure of
steel and glass in keeping with the progressive spirit of the time. In
1926 Franz Jourdain and Henri Sauvage built the façade on the quai du
Louvre, one of the best examples of Art Deco in Paris. In 1930 a new
building was added on the corner of rue de Rivoli and rue Boucher,
boasting an interesting frieze around it and an impressive staircase
inside. All these bear witness to the golden age of department stores,
which enabled modest men of genius to build small empires with a few
decades. With the help of his dynamic wife, Louise Jay, also a draper’s
assistant, from rue Rambuteau, Cognacq used his meteoric success to
build up a fabulous art collection, now housed in the Musée Cognacq-Jay
in the Marais.

Walk along
the quai du Louvre and turn right on rue de l’Amiral de Coligny and
right into place du Louvre. On your right are the church of Saint
Germain l’Auxerrois and the Mairie of the 1st arrondissement. On 24
August 1572, at the stroke of midnight, began one of the bloodiest
pages in French history: the massacre of Saint-Bartholomew, ordered by
Charles IX but instigated by his mother, Catherine de Medici, during
which 3,000 Protestants perished. Of the three bells that had signaled
the onset of the carnage – Marie, Germain and Vincent, only Marie has
survived. It dates from 1527 and is one of the oldest bells in Paris.

Saint
Germain l’Auxerrois was the royal parish church, just opposite the
Louvre, and the royal pew can still be seen inside. When Catherine de
Medici was told by her astrologer, Ruggieri, that she would die ‘by
Saint Germain’, she moved out of the Palais des Tuileries, her newly
built residence west of the Louvre, so as to attend mass elsewhere. She
settled in the Hôtel de Soissons, on the site of the present Bourse de
Commerce, the round building on the western edge of the Forum des
Halles, adjoining the column from where Ruggieri scrutinised the stars,
which still stands. The Queen never returned to her residence at
Saint-Germain-en-laye either, but there is no escaping one’s destiny:
while in Blois in the Loire Valley, some 16 years later, she took ill,
never to recover. A young priest was called to her bedside on 15
January 1589 to give her the last sacrament. The Queen asked his name:
‘Julien de Saint Germain,’ replied the holy stranger.

The
original Saint Germain, the Bishop of Auxerre in Burgundy in the 6th
century, is said to have journeyed all the way to England to combat
heresy. At the end of the 7th century a primitive church was in all
likelihood erected on this site, where the Saint had allegedly
performed some extraordinary deed. It was probably demolished during
the Norman invasions of the 9th century, like all the other churches of
Paris. A Merovingian cemetery discovered near by in the 19th century,
supports this assumption. The present church was built in the 12th and
13th centuries and the Saint’s supposedly preserved relics were laid
within. Little is left of this church, greatly altered over the years,
particularly in the 18th century. During the Revolution it became the
Temple de la Reconnaissance and after the Revolution was used for
storing fodder.

Napoleon’s
arrival threatened to be more fatal than the Revolution: among his
spectacular projects was a regal thoroughfare from the Louvre to place
de la Bastille and on to place de la Nation. This would have opened a
new vista from the Louvre with an impregnable view of the Elephant of
the Bastille, an extravagant, colossal statue he had intended for place
de la Bastille, the model of which actually stood on the site of the
present Opera House until 1847.

Napoleon’s
project would have entailed the demolition of the church, which
fortunately he did not have the time to do, but in 1831 there was
question once more of demolishing it and only the relentless efforts of
the outraged writer Chateaubriand prevented this disastrous outcome.
Lassus and Baltard were called upon to undertake its restoration and
give it its present aspect. Inside can still be seen the 14th-century
chapel, the 15-th century wooden polychrome triptych and stained-glass
windows, the early 16th-century Flemish retable, the 17th-century organ
case (brought over from the Sainte Chapelle) and the 18th-century
wrought-iron grille around the choir. In front of it are two
15th-century polychrome statues of Saint Germain and Saint Vincent,
while a 13th-century statue of Saint Germain can be seen in the chapel.
On this occasion of the Christmas season, the church is well worth your
visit and is a good place for meditating.

Around and About Paris by Thirza Vallois is published by Iliad Books, UK.

Thirza
Vallois is the author of Around and About Paris, Vol. 1, 2, and 3.Her
video, “Three Perfect Days in Paris,” aired on all United Airlines
international flights throughout September 1998 and on scores of
television channels throughout the year. She is an agrégée of the
Sorbonne (the most prestigious of French university degrees) and made
excellent use of her academic background during her eight years of
research dedicated to Paris, which has culminated in her books. For
more information and Thirza’s appearance schedule, please visit her
website at http://www.wfi.fr/vallois/ Copyright (c) Paris New Media,
L.L.C.

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