I felt like an intruder as I slipped through the old creaky door.
A handful of librarians looked up from their book sorting and back to what they were doing.
Apart from my whispered bonjour to a man who sat behind a desk surrounded by an iron fence, you could have heard a pin drop.
Located opposite the Panthéon and a stones throw away from the church Saint-Étienne-du-Mont is the historic public library Sainte-Geneviève.
The steps you see here of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont have become somewhat famous after Woody Allen chose this location for his film Midnight in Paris.
However, perhaps lesser known, Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève also has its claim to fame in film, being one of the locations for Martin Scorsese’s Academy Award-winning film, Hugo.
The vast collection of the Abbey of Sainte-Geneviève was in need of a home and it took seven years of construction after the architect Henri Labrouste delivered his unique design in 1839.
The public, university library now holds around 2 million documents and the magnificent cast iron ceiling of the two storey reading room, is nothing short of breath-taking.
Although you may witness a long queue snaking down the side of the exterior, it isn’t as simple as lining up with the crowds of students to gain entry. For casual visitors, certain steps must be adhered to and take it from me, don’t be late, or you will be sorely disappointed.
Entry for casual visitors, being if you are a tourist and simply want to admire the reading room instead of wanting to gain entry to study, in the first instance, you are required to email the library and request an appointment (you will find the details below).
Although the library is public, it is also the main library for students and academics of the Sorbonne University and to avoid tourists wandering around distracting studies, casual visitors are only allowed to visit between 9am to 10am before the hundreds of students descend upon the building.
This is in fact a very favourable set up. A large majority of tourists are unaware of this glorious gem and if you are lucky, like I was, I had the entire reading room to myself, apart from the handful of librarians going about their daily duties, preparing the reading room for a new day.
Due to my own stupidity, it took me three attempts to gain entry. The first time I slept in, the second I decided to show up before my allotted appointment day and was refused entry.
Two days later I was back and told to wait in the foyer, this time I was 10 minutes early, I wasn’t taking any chances.
Wandering around the quiet and dimly lit foyer, I hoped that my group wasn’t going to be large.
The man on the desk approached me, ‘you can go up now’. I looked slightly startled, did I misunderstand the French. He repeats, slightly impatient, ‘go up to the next floor, take the stairs on the right or the left’.
And that is what I did. To my delight, on my own, no guide and no group.
It was everything I hoped it would be and more.
The fantastic ceiling, light flooding in from the banks of windows, books lining the vast long walls and hundreds of green reading lamps lined up with military like precision on the rows of desks.
After taking an embarrassing amount of photos, I decided that the best vantage point would be on the second level.
I walked the perimeter of the room to find every staircase with a chain across it.
Approaching the man behind the iron fence and in my quietest, politest best French I could manage I asked for access upstairs and what I got back was a monologue about safety and a blunt non.
It wasn’t long afterwards a female librarian approached me. I was disappointed that my one hour must have already come to an end but instead of being asked to leave, she offered to take me upstairs, informing that she must stay with me.
You couldn’t wipe the grin off my face!
It must be a health and safety issue but she very patiently played around with her mobile phone as I gave my camera a workout.
Despite a couple of false starts, it was a very enjoyable way to spend one hour in Paris.
There are many secret treasures to be discovered in Paris, you just need to know where to find them.
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