Up from my tiny non-descript hotel room where I have to sleep at an angle in order to fit in the bed (and I’m not that tall) and off to St Pancras. I meet Llew and Diana – Llew is a very old friend of mine, and Diana is a very old friend of his whom I have not met. We exchange greetings and eat properly at Carluccios.
We’re on the 10:26 Eurostar to Paris. I like fast trains! By French standards the Eurostar is a bit half hearted but it is a step above most other trains on the British networks.
We are seated awkwardly and, with the permission of the sole occupant of a nearby 4-seat table, we move and join Edi, a medical student from Manchester who is off to visit her grandmother somewhere south of Paris. She had big and noble plans – joining MSF for example – and was good company for us old folks.
Paris arrived in a flash.
We left the bags in Gare de Nord and messed around for an afternoon. We walked down to the Tuillerie Gardens and strolled on, doing our best to flaneur to Notre Dame to see how the reconstruction was going. I understand that it’s not going to be open in time for the 2024 Olympics in Paris, which I don’t think was a surprise to anyone familiar with the engineering challenges. It is a most impressive project.
Then back to Gare de Nord (note we walked the whole day – need to get in the practice…) to pick up our bags and heat up to Montmatre, to Sacre Coeur church.
I wanted to revisit a restaurant in Montmatre that I have visited several times. A small Italian place that has a parrot sitting by the counter.
We arrive to find that it’s under new ownership – an Egyptian chap has been in charge for a week. Llew, who use to live in Cairo, starts talking to him in Arabic and the manager is quite impressed.
One night whilst googling things to do in Paris I came upon the ‘Night Adoration’ at Sacre Coeur. The deal is this: you commit to taking part in prayer or meditation for at least an hour at some point in the night, and you can stay in the Sacre Coeur pilgrim’s hostel for 40 euros. Well… that sounded interesting. Apparently there has been continous prayer in the Cathedral since 1885. All day, every day, apart from Good Friday. So no pressure then….
Long time readers of this blog will recall that my reasons for going on my 2017 Camino was that it sounded like a nice walk across Spain. Which is, indeed, was. But it was much more than that, as I completely failed to articulate in any understandable sense. As Jen’s, my daughter, Masters thesis would put it “I had walked myself into pilgrim”. A destination and not just a noun.
And now we were going back, to retrace the Camino Frances, with me having a much better understanding of the – dare I use the word – spiritual aspects of this escapade. Why not start it with some kind of all night prayer/meditation bash at what must be one of the most spectacular churches in the world.
We arrive at 8:15pm and are checked in by a nun, who is straight out of that Audrey Hepburn film. I’m not a Catholic so don’t understand the ins and outs of the structures but it was exactly what I’d hoped for. A very simple white room with white sheets and blankets, no TV, no wifi, no anything. No distractions.
In an attempt to stay awake we went to the 10:30 mass. Sadly, there was none of the magnificent chanting and what-not. Just a sermon in French from a jolly priest. Which didn’t do too much for keeping us awake.
We’d committed to the midnight to 1 am slot. At midnight we wander into the Cathedral through a rather impressive side entrance. It is a truly beautiful place. There are, maybe, a dozen people in the cathedral and we take a seat and have a think.
As I keep saying, I am not a Catholic. Not only am I not a Catholic, but I come from the Rangers end of Glasgow, which can best be described as vigorously anti -Catholic. My father was one of five brothers. Three were pastors, and my father would have been a pastor had he not had a serious stammer. So, I am steeped in a fundamental mistrust of people from the Celtic side of the city. And then there’s all the scandals, the child abuse, the cover-ups, the weird attitude to women. I have a number of ex-Catholic friends for whom the mention of the church induces anger and nausea.
But, but, but…
I have none of that history. I don’t have that visceral response. My knowledge of Catholicism is minimal. I do not have that angry nauseus response even if I quite understand those who do.
The Catholic church is really good at the mystery of God. Sacre Couer is a magical place. When you’ve more-or-less got it to yourself at midnight it’s even more magical.
I think of the Pink Floyd lyric from ‘Time’ – ‘and far away, across the fields, the tolling of the iron bell, calls the faithful to their knees to hear the softly spoken magic spells’. I used to read that as critical, now I’m not so sure.
I shall waffle on more on this later, I feel. Suffice to say I sat there until 1:45am and loved it. An ideal start to the trip.