I love Paris and believe excitement should be the primary emotion that the city's culture and history elicit in a visitor.
In her new book, The Only Street in Paris, Elaine Sciolino is so excited about the history of the Rue des Martyrs that she even writes a letter to Pope Francis to suggest a visit to a site called the Martyrium. Sciolino is an American journalist long based in Paris, and the Rue des Martyrs is her favorite street.
The Martyrium, which is under a defunct chapel, is an obscure site for visitors and Parisians alike, yet it holds a lot of colorful religious history. The crypt is believed to be the site of the beheading of St. Denis, who's one of the patron saints of Paris, and his companions. According to legend, Denis was martyred—hence the name of the crypt, as well as that for Montmartre, the famous bohemian neighborhood nearby—and then carried his head several miles north to what is now the suburb of Saint-Denis. When I gazed up at Notre Dame Cathedral on my first visit to Paris, I encountered the legend of Denis while reading a guide book. Among the thousands of statues on Notre Dame’s façade, at least one commemorates Denis. He lived around the 3rd century A.D.
Now fast-forward more than 1,000 years to the 1500s. St. Ignatius Loyola, a native of Spain, pledged to separate himself from the world to promote "the greater glory of Gold and the good of souls" as part of his founding of the Jesuit sect. He decided to take his vows in the chapel attached to the Martyrium. In 1534, on the feast day of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, Loyola and some of his companions walked the path that would become the rue des Martyrs on their way to Montmartre.
Sciolino is so fascinated by the Martyrium that she wrote a letter to Pope Francis suggesting that he visit the site because of its ties to the founder of the Jesuit order. Francis is the first pope who is a Jesuit.
Sciolino uncovers some great history—profound, scandalous and somewhere in between—in The Only Street in Paris. There's the street's associations with St. Denis, but there is quite a bit more, though some of it is not quite so sacred. Want to learn about where the first striptease was invented and why? Want to know who probably inspired the Les Cage aux Folles musical? Do you know what a lorette is? Want to meet a Holocaust survivor who always carries his yellow star on his person? Visit rue des Martyrs. Better yet, let Elaine Sciolino be your guide by reading this book.
Sciolino writes a lot about the merchants on the Rue des Martyrs. Normally, I would consider that a negative because it hints at free advertising, but I am withholding that criticism in this case. Some of the merchants on the street do incredible things. She writes about a showman who’s been running a transvestite cabaret for more than a half-century and a woman who repairs 18th century mercury barometers. Perhaps less spectacular but equally interesting, she writes about a book seller, Librairie Vendredi, which doesn't open until noon. The reason is that the clerks spend the morning reading. They do this so they are able to make good book recommendations to their customers. As a lover of books, I find that a sensible idea, but I cannot imagine an American book retailer doing the same.
Paris is about the celebration of life, regardless of the form it takes. At the end of The Only Street in Paris, Sciolino introduces Parisians to a bit of American culture—the potluck. It's a natural for Yankees. For all the richness, depth and variety of Parisian culture, the locals never heard of such a thing. Sciolino pitches the potluck to locals and works tirelessly to make sure the event happens. At first, some of the locals are skeptical, but they come around. And it's a success. The Only Street in Paris is worth reading if only for that story.