This is one post in a series of articles about our visit to Paris.
It goes without saying that Notre-Dame Cathedral was at the top of our Paris sightseeing list. It’s one of Paris’ most recognizable and iconic buildings, a sprawling, Gothic feast for the eyes. We returned several times, tiptoeing through the massive interior, listening to live music in the small park around back, and, as part of the Paris Museum Pass, climbing hundreds of steps to the iconic belfry.
We were lucky enough to visit the cathedral and take a tour, and here are the highlights:
Notre-Dame sits on the Île de la Cité, which is the oldest area of the city and also its heart. Construction on the cathedral began in 1163 and continued for over two centuries! It was finally completed in 1345.
Inside, the lighting was dim, but the ceilings soared and the sun lit the rose windows and stained glass.
Obviously, the church is beautiful inside and out, and the walk through its cavernous space, humbling, but the best part about visiting Notre-Dame, the part that still gives us chills, was the visit to the belfry, that cramped, dusty space where Quasimodo once lurked.
I’m referring, of course, to the protagonist of Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Dale and I aren’t fans of modern horror flicks, but as kids we both watched the old black & white monster movies (Frankenstein was my favorite). The villains were moderately scary, and I felt a mix of horror and sympathy as I watched their tragic lives unfold. Quasimodo was a classic old-movie villain, creepy for sure, but also misunderstood and, in his own way, lovable. And Notre-Dame Cathedral was the setting for his sad story.
Before we arrived in Paris, it never occurred to us that the bell tower would be open to visitors, and we were excited at the prospect of going on the tour. There’s a catch, however; to reach the belfry, one must climb the stairs. We had to tread carefully, for the narrow, fan-shaped steps—387 of them—seemed specifically designed to twist ankles. No wonder Quasimodo had back problems, poor fellow.
We began the tour in the North Tower. About halfway up, we reached the gift shop and a walkway that took us to the South Tower; we crossed and resumed our climb from there. At several points we exited the stairwell to admire the view, squeezing past one another and taking photos through the mesh barricades.
We had astonishing views of the city:
We also had an above-ground appreciation for the many facets of the cathedral:
Notre-Dame was one of the first buildings in the world to use flying buttresses, arched columns that provide support to the walls. As Notre-Dame was built over the centuries, its high, thin walls developed stress fractures, and the buttresses kept them from bulging outward and ultimately collapsing.
The best part of the outdoor tour? The gargoyles and chimerae (singular: chimera), which lurked and posed all over the cathedral’s exterior. People believed that these sculptures guarded the buildings on which they sat, protecting those inside from evil spirits.
Gargoyles also served a critical function, acting as spouts to convey rainwater away from the side of the building and prevent erosion of the masonry.
The chimerae (also called grotesques) are ornamental sculptures of mythical and fantastical creatures. They have no structural function but were used to communicate Bible stories and moral tales to the illiterate. By the looks of them, it seems as if they were meant to terrify the parishioners, but for us, they were just plain fun.
Many of these chimerae were not part of the original medieval church and aren’t all that old. Notre-Dame suffered significant damage during the French Revolution, and much of the artwork was destroyed. When the cathedral was restored in the 19th century, Parisians wanted it returned to its glorious Gothic roots, and that’s when many of the chimerae were placed on the façade.
Finally, we reached the belfry, which we entered through a narrow door.
Inside this cramped space hung Emmanuel, which at 13 tons is the largest and most esteemed of Notre-Dame’s bells.
The cathedral has ten bells in all, each named and each emitting a different note when rung. Emmanuel emits a D-sharp when tolled.
Emmanuel was placed in the cathedral in 1681 and is always rung first, at least five seconds before the other bells. In 1944, the tolling of Emmanuel announced the liberation of Paris by French and Allied forces.
After visiting the belfry, the tour was over, and we headed back down to ground-level. The chance to explore Notre-Dame’s bell towers was a treasured experience, one of the highlights of our European trip. We felt goosebumps as we climbed the narrow stairway, and we reveled in the grotesque panache of the chimerae. And as we walked across the haggard timber of the belfry, the creaking floorboards brought to mind the history and mystery of this spectacular, iconic church. If you have a chance to visit Notre-Dame, be sure to make the time for a climb. You won’t regret it.
Random Facts about Notre-Dame Cathedral
- Notre-Dame is home to the Archdiocese of Paris and houses some of Catholicism’s most sacred relics, including Jesus’ Crown of Thorns, a fragment of the cross, and one of the holy nails that purportedly nailed Jesus to the cross.
- During the French Revolution, Notre-Dame was rededicated to the Cult of Reason. Many religious relics were damaged or destroyed, but the bells escaped being melted for scrap. The cathedral was used as a warehouse for food storage.
- Extensive archeological remains were discovered under the grounds of the cathedral during excavations from 1965-1972. The Archaeological Crypt of Notre-Dame, opened in 1980, preserves evidence of human activity in the area that stretches back over 2000 years.
- Entrance to the cathedral is free, and we visited the tower and crypt as part of the Paris Museum Pass. We were there in mid-September, well after the height of the tourist season, and yet we still waited in line for the bellower tour for over an hour. To avoid the worst of the lines, arrive early.