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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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TRAVEL

VIDEO: 7 of the most beautiful train journeys in France

From Alpine valleys to the Mediterranean coastline via viaducts, gorges and vineyards - France boasts plenty of stunningly beautiful train journeys. Here's our pick of some of the most spectacular.

VIDEO: 7 of the most beautiful train journeys in France

There’s no doubt that train travel is having a bit of a moment, as travellers shun planes for the greener and more relaxing alternative of the railways – French rail operator SNCF has added an extra 500,000 seats to cope with soaring demand this summer.

With its high-speed TGV network, France is particularly good at train travel. But as well as being better for both the planet and your sense of adventure, railways have one extra advantage – great views.

Here’s our pick of seven breathtaking rail journeys in France that will show you way train travel is still the best travel.

The Côte d’Azur

A – very affordable – train journey along the coast of the Côte d’Azur is one of the great French travel experiences – the train hugs the cliffs on one side, as the sea laps against the coast on the other. 

Head from Marseille to Nice – and perhaps on to Monaco, Menton and Italy – on the Marseille-Ventimiglia line – passing through the glamorous Riviera resorts of Cannes and Antibes, as well as Juan-les-Pins, and Villefranche-sur-Mer and Cap d’Ail if you opt to head towards the Italian border.

La Ligne des Hirondelles

This two-and-a-half hour, 123 km journey between Dole and Saint-Claude in eastern France on a typically comfortable TER train passes far too quickly.

It goes through the forest of Chaux, the Jura vineyards, the valley of Grandvaux, the Valley of Bienne… not to mention crossing 36 tunnels and 18 viaducts.

A joy from start to finish.

La Ligne de Cerdagne

If you haven’t heard of the train jaune, you’re in for a thoroughly pleasant surprise.

A true emblem of the south west, the yellow train travels the heights of the Pyrénées-Orientales through forests, chasms, gorges, viaducts, past old fortresses and a precariously perched monastery on a 63k m picture-postcard journey between Villefranche-de-Conflent and Latour-de-Carol, nearly 1,600m above sea level.

Two types of trains operate on this route, a modern enclosed train as well as an older historic train that sometimes runs with open carriages when mountain weather allows.

Le train de Montenvers

Not to be outdone by those upstarts in the Pyrenees, the Alps has the bright red train de Montenvers, which climbs from the Chamonix valley around Mont Blanc, before stopping at the Mer de Glaces all year round.

In winter, you can watch skiers doing their thing on the slopes. In summer, the stunning scenery will just have to do…

La Ligne des Cévennes

The 304 km journey from Clermont-Ferrand to Nîmes never looked so good, passing through astonishing landscape including the spectacular Gorges de l’Allier and the peaceful Cévennes national park.

The train route also crosses numerous equally astonishing 19th-century bridges and viaducts – including the twin curved 433m Chapeauroux Viaduct, and the 409m Chamborigaud Viaduct.

Le Mastrou

The age of steam still has the power to get rail travel lovers all emotional.

The 130-year-old Le Mastrou train travels from Tournon-Saint Jean through the stunning Ardèche landscape, crosses the Gorges du Doux for a relaxing lunch in the picturesque town of Lamastre in the mountains. 

Interloire

One for cyclists – the link between Orléans and Le Croisic, on the Atlantic coast, cuts through the painfully pretty Loire Valley and passes through Nantes and Angers, following the Loire à Vélo path. In summer, cycles can be safely stored for the journey in a dedicated wagon.

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