My Best-Kept Paris Secret

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Paris has lots of secrets, many of which are literally under your nose, and thereby all the more astonishing. All it takes is pushing a heavy porte cochère and hoping that it will yield: If it does, you will be gratified with a fairytale enchantment as you step into another land, at once light years away, yet round the corner from contemporary Paris. I don’t have one best kept Paris secret; I have many, but since I am asked to give you but one, I have picked out the one that moves me most. It also fits in well with Bastille Day, which is now in the offing. Go to rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine at the Bastille (11th arr.) and head east. Take a right turn at rue Saint-Bernard and keep walking. Ahead is the picturesque church of Sainte Marguerite, with its pretty slate bell-tower framed charmingly by a cluster of trees. If you want the full amazing story, you will find it in Around and About Paris, volume II, in the chapter on the 11th arrondissement, and also volume I, in the chapter on the 3rd arrondissement. But if you just want the secret, you will need to have the door, on the left as you walk into the church, unlocked.   This will be done for you willingly, except during mass. Return the hospitality with a friendly “Merci!” and step into the little garden behind the door, once the churchyard of Sainte Marguerite. During the French Revolution, the guillotined victimes of place de la Bastille were buried here, side by side with the locals of Faubourg Saint-Antoine, as well as the victims of la fronde, the princely revolt against Louis XIV. Today only one grave remains, surmounted by a humble little white cross. Just as humble is the inscription it bears, which reads: L…XVII 1785-1795. Believe it or not, this is the tomb of the last king of France from the Ancien Régime, Louis XVII, who died tragically in one of the cells of the Temple (3rd arr.), where the Royal family had been kept prisoner. On June 10, 1795, at five in the afternoon, a mysterious funeral procession made its way from the Temple via rue du Temple, rue de Bretagne, rue du Pont-aux-Choux, then rue Saint-Sébastien, rue Popincourt, rue Basfroi, and on to rue Saint-Bernard, where a coffin was laid in the common pit with no preliminary and no religious ceremony. Some fifty years later, and again fifty years later, when rumors had it that the real Louis XVII had evaporated, dead or alive, no one knew for sure, and had been replaced by someone else’s body, the coffin was exhumed; the remains found inside were proven to be those of an 18-year-old lad .… The mystery was never solved, except that false pretenders streamed into the French capital throughout the 19th century, wishing to grab the throne. All of them were tripped by the same question, “What happened at the Temple on January 22, 1793 at nine in the morning?” None could answer that the Royal family came to submit to and kneel before their seven-year-old new king, whose father had been guillotined the day before. The supposed heart of Louis XVII is resting in the royal crypt at Saint-Denis, confirmed by DNA tests carried out in the year 2000. Not everyone agrees that the results of the test are valid and the mystery remains unresolved. To me the most mysterious, and moving, aspect of the story is that no one in the neighborhood seems to know about the existence of this royal, humble little grave. When I first investigated it, I went to the adjacent crèche and asked the staff and some of the mothers if they could guide me to it. All I got was blank faces from the adults and lots of carefree children chirping and skipping around, unaware of the tragic fate of another child, whose life was nipped in the bud at age 10, after three years of vegetation in dark solitary confinement, during the troubled days of the French Revolution. —Thirza Vallois is the author of Around and About Paris, Volumes I, II, & III published by Iliad Books, UK, and Romantic Paris, co-published by Interlink (US) and Arris Books (UK). Visit her at www.thirzavallois.com
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