BETTER KNOW A LANDMARK

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Here it’s pretty hard not to love your local landmarks. One of ours is the massive Saint-Sulpice. After Nôtre Dame, it’s Paris second-largest church and it’s stuffed with mysteries and secrets… For instance, no-one quite knows when the first church was built here. Every construction has unearthed something earlier.

Author Victor Hugo loved its goofy towers, which he called “twin clarinets of stone”. Yet they’re a mismatched pair because of the French Revolution – it broke out before they were finished. Before Napoleon made himself into an Emperor, he threw himself a big gala dinner here. Then de-consecrated, it was his “Temple of Victory”.

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There are also remnants of activism. One tower has graffiti from the Revolution of 1848. when revolutionaries met in the “basement”. During the Paris Commune, too, it hosted a “victory club” – with wild woman Louise Michel haranguing folks from the pulpit.

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Last month, the church unveiled restored murals by Delacroix. The whole neighborhood turned out for their revelation. Still hidden from our prying eyes, however, is another restoration: the Students’ Chapel. Until not long ago, its novice monks had access to Marie Antoinette’s old organ.*

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* Now, it’s been given back to Versailles’ Trianon

Photo of the Student’s Chapel by Père Lacroix; other pics by Steve Sampson

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LET THEM EAT CAKES

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This week, crowns popped up all over Paris. They’re a new year’s symbol which tops a cake known as the galette des rois.

This treat is named for Epiphany’s Three Kings: les rois. But Paris starts offering galettes right after Christmas and keeps on through the end of the month. Officially the remnant of a Catholic country, the idea actually sprang from winter solstice rites.

The Romans marked those with pastries containing a fève – a bean whose shape symbolised spring and fertility.

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Modern Parisians, though, get a fancier féve: a china figure, a shiny ring – just some little surprise. If you find one in your slice, you become the “King” or “Queen”. It’s extra lucky and you wear the paper crown.

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Galettes are just puff pastry stuffed with frangipane. But since they are everywhere (schools, factory canteens, street stalls), the competition is fierce.

Every baker tries to make his galette stand out. This year, one chain store hid real diamonds in ten of their cakes.

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This pastry war marks the last moment of Christmas. But they’re cheery, tasty and there’s one for any budget. In dark days, it’s always good to lift a glass together.

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All photos by Steve Sampson and Cynthia Rose

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PUREBRED THREADS

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If you love colour, craft and elegance, you need to visit the Gobelins. There’s no place in Paris where they are valued more. Often, their exhibitions are astonishing.

Almost all the historic buildings here date from the 1600s. Back then, they were staffed by a team of artisans. Painters, weavers, experts in dye and pigments, furniture-makers, metalworkers and magicians of marquetry – all were the country’s best and many were the finest in Europe.

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Their employer was Louis XIV: a client who was determined to have first-class everything.

Louis would have loved the current Gobelins show. Its tapestries and carpets were designed by modern artists. But Louis was a guy who never liked looking back – and he had no time for anyone who did.

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Besides, much of what produced the pieces dates from his own era. For instance, the weavers work by natural light, in deference to the most delicate dyes. Nor has the labour intensity decreased. A typical piece in the show took five weavers five years.

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At the Gobelins colour and pattern mean both science and art. The same goes for aesthetics. It’s why the back of each creation looks as good as its front.

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• The “Gobelins” is formally known as the National Manufacture. It’s one of three such sites in France, all of which are open for visits

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