Notre-Dame De Paris: From Pagans to Tourists

I was very excited to visit the Notre-Dame de Paris. My sister was my travel partner for this trip and we are both Victor Hugo fans. We embraced that nerdy side of us and visited the Victor Hugo Museum, the underground sewage system that Jean Val Jean escaped through in Les Miserables, and finally, Notre-Dame. The angsty teenager in me couldn’t get enough of Hugo in Paris!

The home of Victor Hugo, ladies and gentlemen

The cathedral is the most popular tourist attraction in Paris (beating out the Eiffel Tower). The church was built in the gothic design between 1163 and 1345 (talk about construction lasting forever!). It’s one of the largest religious buildings in the world and still a functioning Catholic Church. In 1905, it was decided that France State owns the building, but the Catholic Church retains the right to use it forever.

Before Notre-Dame

The site of Notre-Dame has a long spiritual history. Archaeologists digging in the 1960’s and 70’s discovered the remains of an ancient temple beneath Notre-Dame. The temple was built in the pagan city of Lutetia honoring Jupiter before Christianity existed in France. This piece of history could have been lost forever under the streets of Paris.

Lutetia was the capital city of Parisii, a tribe in what was then Gual. Based on the three baths unearthed (baths were all over Europe) it was believed to be a larger city, but you could walk the town in an hour.

One woman in particular came out of the city of Lutetia. Between 420 and 502 Genovefa, better known as Saint Genevieve, protected the city. She was appointed as deaconess by bishop Germanus, and lived as a nun, and her faith made her the Mother Teresa of her time. When Atilla and his Huns were to attack Lutetia, Genovefa convinced the townspeople to stay with her power of foresight. Through her prayer, she saved the city; Atilla attacked the town of Cenabum instead. When Lutetia found themselves under siege by Childeric, king of the Franks, Genovefa was part of the group bringing in food. She also went to Childeric and convinced him to take better care of the prisoners of war. The king also granted her permission to build a monastery in enemy territory. When she passed, she became a patron saint of the city.

Napolean’s Reign of Terror

The Letutian temple was forgotten for many years. Notre-Dame itself  may never have been a symbol of France, if it wasn’t for Napoleon and Victor Hugo. Napoleon Bonaparte decided to crown Pope Pius VII as emperor in Notre-Dame in 1804 (if this sounds like something Napoleon would never do, hang tight. I’ll get there). The church was rundown at this point. It wasn’t just that it was an old building (built with a lot of wood, material not known for lasting centuries. In fact, the cathedral contains the oldest timber frames, made from 52 acres of forest cut down in the 12th century. Each beam was made from an individual tree, giving the woodwork the nickname “the Forest”).

Notre Dame was also vandalized during the French Revolution. Revolutionist pulled down statues of French kings and decapitated them. The original bells were removed from the towers and melted down into cannons. After the revolution, Napoleon invited the Pope to be crowned emperor in the beautifully decrepit Notre-Dame. At the last minutes, though, he snatched the crown from the Pope’s hands and crowns himself as emperor (there’s the Napoleon I know).

Hugo Takes a Crack at It

“[Quasimodo] therefore turned to mankind only with regret. His cathedral was enough for him. It was peopled with marble figures of kings, saints and bishops who at least did not laugh in his face and looked at him with only tranquillity and benevolence. The other statues, those of monsters and demons, had no hatred for him – he resembled them too closely for that. It was rather the rest of mankind that they jeered at. ”

-Victor Hugo

The coronation in Notre-Dame didn’t fix the structural deterioration, though. It wasn’t until Victor Hugo wrote his novel, Notre-Dame de Paris, that the building was brought back to its former glory. The translated title of the novel is The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, but Hugo didn’t intend for Quasimodo, Frodo, or Esmeralda to be the star of the show. The church was to take the limelight. The book was a success and the restoration of the book’s star was underway.

The Visit

Today, Notre Dame is 115 feet (35 meters) tall with the towers standing at 223 feet (68 meters). The towers aren’t identical. The north tower is slightly bigger than the south tower due to the amount of time it took to build the cathedral. The whole building is a culmination of many artists’ work.

The church is free to enter, but a tour of the towers is 10 euros. The view alone is worth the price of the ticket. The gargoyles and other statues were amazing to see up close as well.

The monsters guarding Notre Dame are actually more modern than I expected. They were added in the 19th century (between 1843 and 1864). The architect in charge of restoring the church, Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, was so inspired by Hugo’s description of the gargoyles that he added them in the restoration. Unfortunately, the monsters are starting to decay now, some needing to be removed entirely.

While admiring the view of Paris from Notre Dame’s rooftop, keep an eye out for bees. A small hive of Buckfast bees was installed in 2013. This strain, developed by a monk named Brother Adam, is known for their gentleness. They get their nectar in gardens nearby and the sweet honey is given away to the poor.

Photo by Messy Nessy

Speaking of gardens, there is one I plan to visit the next time I find myself standing in front of Notre-Dame. If you look at the cathedral’s facade, a small blue door can be found to the left. The door is marked “Entrée”. Behind the door, you will find Paris’s oldest hospital, Hôtel Dieu. The once overcrowded disease ridden hospital, now is a quiet escape away from fellow tourists. You can explore the empty halls, described as the perfect set for a zombie movie by Messy Nessy, and then take a break, eat your lunch, and enjoy your view.

Why not check out some vendors while waiting in line?

The streets outside of Notre Dame are just as memorable and beautiful as the church itself. Street vendors take advantage of the tourist trap, so it is a great place to shop for souvenirs. I ended up with a print of the church to remember my visit by. Watch the sidewalks while you are shopping too. There is an eight point star installed in 1924 with the words Point zére de routes de France printed on it. Cities were measured from this point for the distance from France.

There are so many other pieces of history at Notre-Dame. I didn’t even mention the crown of thorns or the organ! The ancient landmark really is a must see during your trip to Paris. Be sure to read Hugo’s novel too. It’s great for that gloomy day where all you want to do is curl up on the couch with a blanket and maybe a pet to keep you company.

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