After a wonderfully French breakfast of pancakes, a strong cup of coffee and a baguette with jam we set off to one of the most famous cathedrals in the world, Notre-Dame de Paris. Being such an important church it is regularly featured in all tourist itineraries and so we made sure we arrived early – a wise move as it turned out as the lines were forming only a couple of minutes later.
Entry to the church is free, but of course you need to show respect and acknowledge that this is not a tourist attraction first and foremost but rather a sacral building for Christians who come here to pray and attend mass. You need to keep quiet and dress appropriately. Even though this is not as strictly monitored as in the Southern European countries, you are still advised to follow these rules out of pure courtesy and respect.
Overall, the arrangements between Christians and tourists are mutually beneficial and well laid out – tourists bringing in euros through donations and souvenir or candle purchases, and believers having the core part of the church to themselves for their prayers.
Notre-Dame is famous for being the best example of the French Gothic – an architectural style which aims at producing light-filled rooms that seem to stretch endlessly all the way to the heavens. Churches from earlier centuries used to be much darker, enclosing the believers with thick stone walls and pressing down on them with dark shadows.
With Notre-Dame however, the builders were reaching higher than ever, using much thinner walls, enormous windows and elegant pointed arches. The structure turned out to be so ambitious and fragile that flying buttresses had to be added as an afterthought – now one of the most recognisable elements of the cathedral. That, and the mischievous gargoyles that adorn the buttresses, of course.
Walking inside the church is just marvellous. The sheer age of the building is sending shivers down my spine – Notre-Dame de Paris is almost 1,000 years old. Upon entering you walk along the sides of the church, which allows glimpses into the side chapels, all of which are individually decorated and used for different purposes.
While there is a lot of glory and splendour in the direct vision of the visitor – life-like statues, gold plated reliefs, hand painted furniture, oil paintings – the real beauty lies within the vaulted ceilings, the upper galleries, the large stained-glass windows, fractured into myriads of colourful pieces that split the incoming light into little rainbows.
If you plan a visit consider to double up your time by also visiting the Crypt next door, an interesting small museum which displays various ruins that have been found in the Paris region. In contrast to the church entry to the Crypt is not free, however the museum does offer some interesting insights into the early stages of settlement of the Paris area, from the Romans all the way through to the Middle Ages.
Besides the old stones (which admittedly don’t sound too attractive) there are also some interactive computer 3D models that you can turn and manipulate and investigate – great fun also for the kids. If you are not afraid to check out the ruins you will be sure to discover clearly visible remains with underfloor heating, wells, stairs, stoves and doorways – many of these not just being 1,000 years old like Notre-Dame next door but mind-blowing 2,000 years!
Many people are familiar with the front facade of Notre-Dame but it is a really good idea to stroll also to the backside, first of all to take in the exterior buttresses along the way but also because you will find here a small park with flowers beds framing the backside of Notre-Dame – perfect if you like to take some more romantic looking photos of the cathedral. For lunch, cross the bridge to the Ile Saint-Louis where you will find a number of authentic small restaurants that serve excellent French food.