Tag Archives: paris

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.

The Paris Catacombs: Secrets From the Grave

You are wondering around Paris in July. It’s hot, but coffee shops and restaurants are crowded with Parisians and tourists. What do you do?

Go underground of course!

The complex network of tunnels under Paris is cool and refreshing. For just 12 euros, you can travel through the tunnels and cool off. You may even need a jacket!

Lining the walls of the tunnel is an elaborate display of bones. This may seem dark and morbid, but I found it to be more of a curiosity than anything creepy. The bones are hundreds of years old placed there before there was even a city above it.

Gist of a translation: The work started in 1777 and was finished in 1782

In the late 1700s Paris had a problem. Between the age of the city (it was founded in 3rd century BC, almost 2,000 years before this 18th century AD problem), and the massive amounts of deaths caused by disease and famine, bodies were literally piling up in the French city. In fact, there was a literal flood of bodies when a flood broke the the perimeter of cemeteries, unburying and flowing the corpses into the street. It was a smelly problem.


So, in 1777, King Louis XVI ordered the movement of Paris’s corpses to some abandoned quarries outside of the city. These quarries contained limestone that was mined to build up the city of Paris. Now they were an abandoned tunnel system ready for millions of bones.

And I do mean millions. The bones of 6 million people are buried in the catacombs.

Workers started by just throwing the bones into the underground tunnels, but they began to get creative. Napoleon, keeping with his flashy style, actually had some forethought here. Inspired by the Roman catacombs (Yes, there are catacombs in Rome too. I had no idea! They are much more architecturally elaborate, brought on by Christian persecution and a law against burying the dead in within city walls. What’s the worst that could happen burying the dead in the cirty?), he ordered the bones be placed in a display for future tourists. This is what you can see now with the bones arranged in piles of tibias and femurs, as well as in shapes like crosses and hearts.

One worker, Decuré, spent his spare time in the catacombs carving the stone. One of those renderings was the Citadel of Mahon, a church on an island in Spain, (random enough for you?). You can still see it today. Other exhibits, like the ancient bones of the deformed (so morbidly curious about this one), and a display of the types of minerals found in the tunnels (not so curious about this one though), are no longer open to the public.

Not open to the public, though, is not stopping Cataphiles (catacomb lovers and explorers). A group of Parisians have taken their curiosity and love of adventure to the next level, finding and making new entrances and exits into the catacombs. They explore tunnels not part of the public tour, as well as open restaurants and movie theaters underneath Paris.


Some of it is legal. In the 19th century, Farmers discovered wild mushrooms is the cool dark caverns and began planting them intentionally. You can still find farmers tending to their mushroom crop. Supposedly, you can even walk away with your own handful of button mushrooms if you visit.


Airbnb has also offered a room in the catacombs for a spooky Halloween evening! The room is set up for a whole romantic evening, including a candlelit dinner. Guests enjoy their night by agreeing to respect the catacombs “as you would your own grave”. Learn more about this unusual rental here, reported by a Parisian and fellow blogger.


Legality does not stop explorers though. One summer, Parisians took advantage of the freshwater pools in the old quarry tunnels. In the tunnels, police found a movie theater set up next to a restaurant with only a note saying: Try to find us! One blogger asked a cataphile to take her down for an illegal tour of the tombs. You can see her tour here. It’s pretty cool; if you are at all curious, I highly recommend it. I can imagine it gave everyone quite an adrenaline rush!

One thing you don’t see on the tour are the bunkers from World War II. The French and Germans used the catacombs to keep their movements secret.

I did not partake in any illegal activity on my tour of the catacombs. I was on a three week Europe vacation with my sister. As two scary movie lovers, the plans for our stop in Paris had to include the catacombs.

Is it weird to be smiling in front of a pile of bones?

It started with a dizzying trip down a narrow spiral staircase, and then a seemingly never ending tunnel surrounded by human bones. As I said earlier, it was surprisingly not spooky. Maybe creep factor was ruined by having a whole tour group walking through the tunnels along with us. I wonder if I would have felt the same going on a smaller tour or an illegal one like the cataphiles take.

The catacombs was a unique experience. Where else would it be socially acceptable to pile bones in underground tunnels (Don’t get me wrong. Workers started this project at night to avoid push back from the citizen, but once the deed was done, everyone was okay with it)? Not only are the catacombs accepted, they are sought out. We waited in line at 8:30 in the morning to get our turn in the underground tomb (travel tip! Go on the first Sunday of the month and your tour is free!).

And you can’t forget the gift shop!

Has anyone else visited Paris’s catacombs? What about Rome’s? What was your experience like? Let me know on the comments below!