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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