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What you should know about the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis

The town of Saint-Denis to the north of Paris is home of the Stade de France and will play a major role in the 2024 Paris Olympics - but there's far more to know about the suburb and very good reason to visit.

What you should know about the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis
An aerial view taken on July 11, 2019 shows the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, near Paris. (Photo by Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP)

The legend of St Denis

The town of Saint-Denis is of course named after a saint, Saint Denis (pronounced dur-nee in French) in fact. The story of the saint and how he came to have a suburb to the north of Paris named after him is part history, part legend.

The short version is that he came to France a long time ago – some time between the 1st and 3rd century, but The Local wasn’t around then so it’s hard to ascertain from our records the exact dates he lived and died.

He is often referred to as the first Bishop of Paris and story has it that he was executed by being beheaded during a purge of Christians.

His remains ended up in the part of Paris now named after him with some stories saying he was buried there in the grounds of an aristocrat’s manor to avoid the body and head being thrown in the Seine, whilst other stories say he was killed in Montmartre and the angels flew his remains to St Denis.

The beheading of Saint Denis, as captured in an artist’s drawing on the wall of the Pantheon in Paris. 

Another version says St Denis himself picked up his own head and carried it from Montmartre to St Denis. We’ve had trouble confirming this version of the tale with local gendarmes.

Either way Christian followers ended up building a Basilica on the site of his remains and St Denis is officially the patron Saint of France and Paris.

Inhabitants wait in front of the Basilica Cathedral of Saint-Denis during a campaign visit by the French President. (Photo by Ludovic MARIN / POOL / AFP)

The Basilica 

The Basilica is in fact a Cathedral and whilst most visitors to Paris won’t venture past the Sacre Coeur or Notre Dame (when it was open) the Basilica is well worth a short Metro trip north.

Some very important people are buried in the fantastic Basilica as its website says: 

“Forty-two kings, thirty-two queens, sixty-three princes and princesses and ten men of the kingdom rest in peace there. With over seventy recumbent effigies and monumental tombs, the royal necropolis of the basilica is today the most significant group of funerary sculptures from the 12th to the 16th century in Europe,” it says.

And if you do visit then look out for the 12th and 19th-century stained glass windows.

The abbey church became a cathedral in 1966 and is the seat of the Bishop of Saint-Denis. There are controversial plans to rebuild the 86-metre (282-foot) tall spire, which had to be dismantled in the 19th century.

The project, initiated more than 30 years ago, was to have begun in May 2020 and could cost up to €30 million – if it goes ahead.

It’s not the only cultural site in the town, there’s also the Cité de Cinema and the Museum of Art and History and much more.

There’s a lot more info about the Basilica here.

Population

According to the last census in 2018, Saint-Denis is home to around 112,000 inhabitants. The locals in Saint-Denis are called Dionysiennes (female) or Dionysien (male).

The town is the biggest of 40 communes that make up the département of Seine-Saint-Denis, which is often just known by locals by its number: 93.

It’s one of France’s mostly densely populated areas and is home to a high population of residents with immigrant backgrounds.

It’s a solid left-wing town

Given it’s a solid working-class town in a solid working-class, immigrant département it’s no surprise perhaps that locals vote for left-wing parties (and not the far-right).

Saint-Denis has a socialist mayor Mathieu Hanotin and in the first round of the presidential election in April 2022 some 61 percent of voters opted for far left Jean-Luc Melenchon whilst only 8 percent voted for far right Marine Le Pen.

In the second round centrist Emmanuel Macron won 79 percent of the vote and Le Pen 21 percent – a far bigger margin of victory for the president than the overall national score of 58.5 percent to 41.5 percent.

Olympic party

The town of Saint-Denis will play a key role for the 2024 Olympics. For a start the headquarters of the organising team is already based there at the Pulse building.

An aerial picture taken aboard an helicopter on July 20, 2010 shows a view of the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, outside Paris. AFP PHOTO BORIS HORVAT (Photo by BORIS HORVAT / AFP)

The town will also be home to one of two aquatic centres for the Olympics, the athletes’ village and of course the athletics will be at the Stade de France – the national stadium where the country’s football and rugby teams play.

This photograph shows the construction of the future olympic village at the “UniverSeine” district, in Saint-Denis, north of Paris, during an interdepartmental committee for the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games on November 15, 2021. (Photo by Thomas SAMSON / AFP)

As part of the bid, officials were keen to stress that the aquatic venue will be handed over to the public at the end of the games so local residents can make the most of it. Hundreds of other small sporting venues are planned to be built in Saint-Denis and other surrounding towns.

The arrival of the Games will also lead to improvements in public transport links as well as renovations and upgrades to much of Saint-Denis. It is hoped the construction of venues and the hosting of the Games will also help create thousands of jobs in the area and give a huge boost to the local economy.

The Saint-Denis canal

Saint Denis is also home to the Saint-Denis canal, which runs past the Stade de France stadium. It was built on Napoleon’s orders in the early 19th century.

It links the Seine River to the Canal de L’Ourq which then joins the Seine River again at the Bassin de L’Arsenal and was ordered to be built by Napoleon to allow river traffic to avoid having to pass through central Paris.

The tow path along the canal has been made into a cycle route and footpath that helps cyclists get from Saint-Denis to central Paris without having to navigate the main roads.

A river shuttle “Le Millenaire” prepares to dock at the Saint-Denis canal, on December 10, 2012, in Paris. At left a T3b tramway operates on a test run. AFP PHOTO JACQUES DEMARTHON (Photo by JACQUES DEMARTHON / AFP)

And he’s a map of where it is in relation to central Paris and how to get there:

For more information about Saint-Denis and to find oput more reasons to visit you can visit this website which is in English.

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FRANCE EXPLAINED

10 of the best French December traditions

The Christmas and New Year holidays in France are not quite as big a deal as they are in some countries, but they are still full of fun traditions - from eating 13 desserts to visiting a light festival or being stalked by a terrifying old man with a whip.

10 of the best French December traditions

The Christmas holidays are undoubtedly a major event in the French calendar – kids get two weeks off school, families go away for the holidays, towns light up and people exchange gifts.

However it isn’t quite the same unbridled orgy of capitalism as it is in the US, or of drinking as it is in the UK.

Here are some of the French traditions that you can expect to see over the next month.

Light festivals

Towns and cities across France decorate themselves in Christmas lights, but also popular at this time of year are Fetes des lumières (light festivals) which feature huge light installations, often with music too.

The biggest and most famous of these festivals is in Lyon, but there are lots of smaller ones including one in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. Take an evening to spend wandering around (possible with a hot chocolate or vin chaud in hand) and enjoy the light displays.

Everything you need to know about Lyon’s light festival

People visit Le Sentiers des Lanternes (The Lantern Trail) n Metz, eastern France. (Photo by JEAN-CHRISTOPHE VERHAEGEN / AFP

Père Fouettard

Literally translating as ‘Father whipper’ or ‘Father flogger’, Père Fouttard is part of the St Nicolas celebrations that take place in the north east of France on December 6th.

What you need to know about St Nicolas Day in France

On this day, jolly St Nicolas visits the well-behaved children and brings them sweets and gifts. Bad kids, on the other hand, get a visit from the scary old priest with his whip.

The name Père Fouttard is sometimes used in a more general way to mean ‘the bogeyman’ or the scary figure. 

Writing to Père Noël

Assuming that your children are little angels, they’re more likely to get a visit from Père Noël than Père Fouettard, and he might even bring some gifts. French children like presents as much as any other children and enthusiastically embrace the tradition of writing to Santa to request special presents and toys.

The French postal service La Poste employs a team of helpers at this time of year, so that all children’s letters to Father Christmas which are sent via La Poste get an answer. Santa has modernised though, these days you can also email him via La Poste’s website.

How and when to send Christmas gifts from France

Cribs (and the crapper)

French laws on laïcité (secularism) prohibit religious displays in public buildings, so you won’t see the Christian nativity scene at the town hall or your children’s school – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t on display in other public locations including shops and the town square.

In some small towns they even create a living crib with real cattle and donkeys.

If you’re in south west France and you see a model crib scene, keep an eye out for a slightly unexpected addition – a small figure (often a celebrity) having a poo.

The belen (crapper) is mainly a Spanish tradition, but you’ll find them in areas of France which have a Catalan influence as well. 

Vin chaud

Hot, spiced wine is not limited to France, but here it is not just a Christmas thing – it’s drunk throughout the winter in the colder months and you will frequently see it on sale in cafés and at sports grounds as the temperatures fall.

The wine (usually red, but not always) is warmed with fruit such as oranges and lemons and spices including cinnamon and star anise. During the pandemic years when many bars were closed for months at a time, more and more places started offering vin chaud to take out, and happily this tradition seems to have stuck. 

Four things to know about vin chaud in France

Photo by Thomas SAMSON / AFP

Christmas markets 

In Europe, Germany is the undisputed leader of Christmas markets, but they happen in France too especially in the north east of the country, which has historic links to Germany.

Most towns and cities in France will have some sort of market at Christmas selling gifts and food (especially oysters) but the biggest and most famous are in the historic region of Alsace, on the German border. 

14 of the best Christmas markets in France in 2022

Seafood

As an anglophone, Christmas might say turkey to you, but in France it’s all about the seafood.

The seafood banquet is served on the night of the 24th, traditionally after Midnight Mass but many French families in modern times skip the Mass and move the meal to a more sociable time. 

The banquet always involves oysters, but the rest of the shellfish is up to you – you would likely see prawns, mussels, whelks and crab or lobster. One bonus of this type of meal is that it involves virtually no cooking – you buy your shellfish ready prepared from the fish-seller then serve with bread and mayonnaise or aoili, which means that Christmas is a day off for the cook too. 

Why do the French eat so much seafood at Christmas?

In France December 24th is the main celebration day of Christmas, as it is in most of mainland Europe, and this is the day when French people visit their families and have the big seafood banquet.

On December 25th people often eat poultry, although turkey is less popular than goose, guinea fowl or capon, but a lot of families have their own traditions.

When it comes to dessert, the tradition is the Bûche de noêl, the cake in the shape of a yule log, that is usually chocolate.

But in general the food choices are more individual, although Champagne is of course popular and you’ll see a lot of foie gras on sale around Christmas and New Year.

13 desserts 

There’s one part of France that has a very special Christmas tradition though – Provence, where people traditionally eat 13 desserts after their festive meal.

Before you reach for your loose-waisted trousers, however, this isn’t quite as gluttonous as it sounds, because the ‘desserts’ are mostly things like dried fruit, nuts and marzipan sweets. In a traditional family dinner the 13 are served together after the main meal, and they represent Jesus and the 12 apostles.

Throughout Provence and southern France you’ll often see packs of fruit, nuts and sweets on display at this time of year with 13 separate elements.

Limited consumerism 

French families do swap gifts at Christmas, and of course shops are decked out with decorations and special promotions as they try to encourage people to buy as many gifts as possible, but in general gift-giving is more modest than you might expect in anglophone countries.

The focus is mainly on children while adults swap smaller gifts – a book, candles, a pair of earrings or some nice chocolates or wine. It’s the thought that goes into the gift that counts, not spending loads of money.

New Year

New Year’s Eve is celebrated in France where it’s generally known as Le Réveillon de la Saint-Sylvestre but if you’re expecting a huge booze-up as is the tradition in the UK then you might be a little disappointed as celebrations in France are a little more muted and often involve family get-togethers. 

If you’re in a city you might witness one unusual tradition – and one much hated by authorities – that of burning cars on New Year’s Eve

. . . but no days off

France is pretty generous with its public holidays so it often comes as a surprise that official days off are limited over the Christmas period.

Only December 25th and January 1st are public holidays and if they happen to fall on a weekend – as they do this year – then there are no extra days off work.

That said, many businesses do give staff extra days off and you can expect offices to be closed or have limited open hours over the period of Les fêtes des fin d’année (the end-of-year holidays or Christmas and New Year).

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