Big Churches in Little Europe: Saint Eustace, Paris

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Saint-Eustache, Paris

This is a church that I include even though I do not know it well. My first experience of it was meeting friends at Le Gross Minet (which translates as the fat duck, not the long minute) which is a fabulous cafe in Les Halles right in the centre of Paris - they even have picture flash-cards to show non-French people what the ingredients of their dishes are.

From the street outside, looking North towards Montmartre there is this huge ghostly Gothic church of a scale that makes no sense to the unfamiliar observer. There are many big churches in European cities but the cathedrals and abbeys are often contextualised in the street patterns or buildings. In the same city there is Notre Dame on its island but the river, the civic buildings and the streets surrounding it make it a dominant building in a very, very impressive context.

St Eustace looks like it was dropped in Paris by a Hollywood cartoonist writing a horror story involving the Knights Templar, the Holy Grail and a particularly thick sociologist (but no sex). It isn't that this church doesn't fit into my ideas of what a Gothic church in Paris should look like. It is that it absolutely fulfils those ideas and then some more. It even has real flying buttresses and numbers huge monstrous gargoyles that spout water. All of this is made more pronounced because it is, in fact, very short compared to its height (a ratio of 3:1 for those who care about these things). In all fairness, the church was the centre-piece of Paris's huge fresh food markets, Les Halles, which have been removed and the streets flattened. This parish church's intended community of the market sellers and buyers is now gone, leaving it a lonely relic from the hundreds of years of buzz that characterised that place.

So what is it like inside?

Well, it is pretty empty and dark and overblown and French really. There are cloths on many surfaces that have acres of lace but are a bit higgledy-piggledy. The candles on the altar are numerous and very, very tall but they are discoloured and not quite straight. Me? I like things nice and tidy and clean. I love the design of the over-decorated French style which can jam so many elements into a single structure that your eyes have to open wide just to take it in. But I like it to be tended and spotless.

There is a lot of love in this church (and some obscure doors to get in and out of it - why are markets and secret back-doors almost synonymous?). It has a music programme to rival any of its peers. It is always full of people who staff prefabricated offices stuck behind pillars for this and that. In fact these little offices probably require a mention. The local churches have lots of religious societies which people can belong to for the aid of the poor, Jerusalem, relief from war and so on. Their workers have to be housed somewhere and, for a few cases, that is behind a Saint-Eustache pillar.

It is not a space I would stop and try to connect with the I Am - Saint-Germain l'Auxerrois a bit further south towards the river opposite the Louvre is much better for that. Instead it is my guiding light, my point zero, the site around which my personal map of Paris is oriented.

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