Flâneries in Paris: Explore La Madeleine and its Environs
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This is the fifth in a series of walking tours highlighting the sites and stories of diverse districts of Paris.
An unplanned moment can be unexpectedly uplifting. I popped into La Madeleine on a weekday afternoon and found a choir rehearsing, so I sat down to listen. Thirty or so faces looked past me down the nave, set in the concentration it must take to send such glorious sounds soaring up to the ceiling. Behind them on the altar, the stunning white marble statue, “Mary Magdalene ascending,” portrayed angels lifting Mary to Heaven, all set against the marble pillars and blue and gold fresco on the back wall of the church.
The fresco has an unusual element, one which points to the very particular history of La Madeleine as a church which also has secular roots. It illustrates the history of Christianity, but centrally placed among the apostles and saints is someone you don’t expect to find: Napoleon. He is portrayed receiving the Concordat, the agreement signed between him and the pope in 1801, reestablishing church-state relations after the revolution. It’s a reminder that La Madeleine has a place in secular history and plays a prominent role in the life of the city, for example as a favorite venue for society weddings and high-profile funerals.
Near the exit, I found more evidence of this duality. The text of Mother Teresa’s life- affirming prayer, which begins “La vie est une chance, saisis-la” (“Life is an opportunity, seize it”) was prominently displayed on a marble slab and just underneath it, at least on the day of my visit, was a little collection of flowers and photographs as a reminder of Johnny Hallyday’s funeral in December 2017. I remembered that a million Parisians lined the streets to throw flowers at the hearse as it made its way to La Madeleine, flanked by bikers on Harley-Davidsons. Chopin’s funeral was also held here, in 1849, amid some controversy. He had requested that Mozart’s requiem be sung, but female voices were required, something which had never been permitted by the church authorities who only relented when it was agreed that they would sing from behind a black velvet curtain.
Outside, La Madeleine looks much more like a classical temple than a church. Indeed, it was commissioned by Napoleon to be “a temple to the glory of la Grande Armée,” part of his bid to make Paris his imperial capital. But plans changed, partly because the Arc de Triomphe became the main monument to Napoleon’s military triumphs, and also because in 1816 the newly restored Bourbons decided that this would, after all, be a church and one dedicated to Mary Magdalene. So there is no bell tower, but there are 52 Corinthian columns and a colonnaded entrance, reminding one of a temple in ancient Rome or Athens.
I stood on the front steps, the best place from which to appreciate the stunning setting of a building which was always intended to impress. You can look straight down the Rue Royale, across the Place de la Concorde, to the Assemblée Nationale on the other side of the River Seine. The Assemblée, actually the former Palais Bourbon, was completed in 1728 and the Madeleine was designed to mirror its classical structure. It’s a triumph of planning, emphasizing the beauty and order of a city where all is well governed, a message I imagine the authorities were keen to convey after the chaos of the revolution.
The elegance of the setting, and the royal connections of the area mean that around La Madeleine is a good place to look if you seek high-end shops, perhaps those where you will do more lèche-vitrine (window shopping) than buying. I set off to investigate. First, I went a little way down the Rue Royale and turned right into the Village Royal, a little passageway originally built in 1746 to house the butcher, baker and fishmonger stalls needed for local shopping. Today it is a charming little precinct with flower boxes, old-fashioned lanterns and exclusive shops like Dior, Baby Dior, Chanel and Ladurée, where the window-displays are exquisite and the prices – quelle surprise! – nowhere to be seen.
La Place de la Madeleine is a well-known address for upmarket food shops and the first one I came across was Maille, at number 6, in business since 1747 and really the place for mustard connoisseurs. The sign also promised “cornichons, vinaigres, huiles,” but really it is all about the mustard. Inside, sophisticated black shelving lined the (yellow!) walls and hundreds of different mustards were lined up like ornaments. The staff, or rather the sommeliers, will serve you different mustards to taste so you can choose which one(s) to have pumped into a pretty little jar to take home. The choice is overwhelming. Do you prefer a Sauternes base or a Chardonnay? Is your flavor of choice perhaps truffle (black or white?), smoked pepper, cèpes or whisky? If, like me, you have no idea, you can just take the sommelier’s advice!
I veered to the right around the side of the church, past the little Marché aux Fleurs where one of the shops was named Marie Antoinette, and found a cluster of foodie havens. The Café Prunier promised an introduction to “l’art du caviar” and the window display was enticing with its piles of brightly-colored tins (Caviar Prunier Tradition, Caviar Prunier Saint James …) and gift box selections pairing each caviar with an appropriate champagne. The Maison de la Truffe oozed sophistication too, personified by a lady customer d’un certain âge coming out: fitted tweed suit, smart heels, stiff cream carrier bag with black and gold trim over one arm. Mariage Frères, founded in 1854, stocks tea from all over the world – Chine, Inde, Ceylan and Formose, so tea from Formosa, the island now known as Taiwan.
The Maison de la Truffe is a shop, but also a restaurant, one where truffles feature heavily. Starters included truffled burratina and avocado with black truffled pearls and the main dishes of ravioli, risotto and gnocchi also had flavorings of “black diamond,” as the truffle is also known. I was amused to note that another possibility was “truffled croque-monsieur,” but even for that the prices were scarily high. The best value was the Menu option of several courses – including truffled mashed potato! – for €119. One day perhaps…
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I thought I would round off my investigation into how the other half lives with a visit to the Grand Café Fauchon at 11, Place de la Madeleine. But it was not to be! The rain which had been threatening all afternoon arrived with a sudden ferocity and by the time I arrived at the café’s entrance I was the worse for it: hastily pulled-on anorak, soggy Covid mask and glasses so steamed up I could barely see the face of the waiter who arrived to greet me. I fear he was not impressed, unaware of my journalistic mission and suspecting I’d just rushed to the nearest place to shelter. I’m pretty sure I saw an empty table or two in the elegant interior, but was sent off with the extremely polite, but quite definite, dismissal: “Très malheureusement, Madame, on est complet.” (“Most unfortunately, Madame, we are full.”)
Tant pis! (Too bad!) The black, cream and gold décor, enlivened with splashes of pink, looked enticing. I dripped home by metro and checked the website to see what I’d missed: the three-page afternoon tea menu promised savory bouchées of Scottish salmon and 12 month-aged Comté, followed by macarons, a host of little signature cakes, called douceurs signées Fauchon on the menu, and all sorts of teas, coffees and infusions. I’d love to report on how much I enjoyed it all. Another time, perhaps.
Enjoying our “Flâneries in Paris” series? Read Marian’s previous article, Flâneries in Vincennes, a place full of history and natural beauty, here.
Lead photo credit : Madeleine circa 1890s, Public Domain
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