Notre Dame Fire Like Losing a Friend

The day dawned cool but clear, tendrils of fog drifting off the Seine. After a quick croissant breakfast, we made our way to Notre Dame Cathedral to be among the first to visit on a Paris morning two years ago.

The pre-opening crowd of about a dozen was split evenly between tourists like ourselves and penitents, including two nuns. Gothic cathedrals are a particular favorite of mine, and visiting Notre Dame was high on the list during our brief, two-day visit to Paris.

Like millions of others around the world, I experienced a profound feeling of loss when learning about the devastating fire at Notre Dame, which will cost billions to repair. According to French President Emmanuel Macron, there is no question that the 800-year-old cathedral will be rebuilt. Cries rang out from the yellow vests and others who believe that money would be better spent assuaging social ills in the republic.

Both sides have merits, but Notre Dame remains one of the most indelible icons of Paris, along with the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and the Champs-Élysées. It’s more than a building and more than a religious relic. Failing to rebuild it would be like failing to rebuild the Lincoln Memorial or the Statue of Liberty. When the twin towers fell, there was no question that the World Trade Center would be rebuilt.

Memories linger

On the day of our visit, a prayer service began at 8 a.m., filling the cathedral with sweet singing, a perfect accompaniment to the early morning light filtering into the worship space.

More than 850 years in the making, the cathedral got its start in the 1160s before receiving its Gothic makeover in the 14th century. For many, Notre Dame represents the quintessential Gothic cathedral—massive rose windows, vaulted ceiling linked by capstones, massive pipe organ, stained glass aplenty and gargoyles that, fortunately for us, weren’t spitting water that morning.

Looking back, I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to see Notre Dame in all of its glory. While I’m certain it will be restored, it will never be the same.

Early Bird Visitors Beat the Rush in Paris

I hate to wait. And I hate crowds. And I particularly hate waiting in crowds. Marilynn knows this, and she did a phenomenal job guiding us to the sights in Paris we wanted to see with a minimum of waiting. Sure, it took a couple of before 7 a.m. wake-up calls, but beating the rush is worth the sacrifice.

Notre-Dame cathedral opens at 7:45, and we were among the first 10 in line when one of the giant entry doors swung open. Without a doubt, it stands as the prime example of Gothic architecture.

More than 850 years in the making, the cathedral got its start in the 1160s before getting its Gothic makeover in the 14th century. It’s got everything you expect in a Gothic cathedral—massive rose windows, vaulted ceiling linked by capstones, massive pipe organ, stained glass aplenty and gargoyles that, fortunately for us, weren’t spitting water. At 8 a.m., a prayer service began, filling the cathedral with sweet singing, a perfect accompaniment to the early morning light filtering into the worship space.

Admission is free, but the crowds that had gathered by the time we walked by the cathedral two hours later were hundreds deep. Heh, heh, heh.

After the cathedral, we nipped into a patisserie for croissants while we waited for Sainte-Chapelle to open at 9. The chapel was built in the 13th century as a reliquary (i.e. a place to store religious relics). Sainte-Chapelle stored what was thought to be the crown of thorns that Jesus wore when he was crucified. However, the artifact moved to Notre-Dame in 1804, where it is venerated the first Friday of every month.

Beautiful, upper-floor stained glass windows are the main attraction at Sainte-Chapelle. About 70 percent of the glass is original, covering nearly 7,000 square feet and depicting 1,113 scenes from the Bible. A rose window is “new,” installed in the 15th century.

Again, we were among the first in line, making a beeline for the upper floor after gaining entry. The early morning sun was still weak but strong enough to dazzle the senses through the windows. After gaping at the windows, the eye naturally travels to the painted walls, which still retain considerable color and character, and then to the floor and its highly decorative tiles.

So by 10 o’clock, we’d knocked out the planned activities for the day, leaving plenty of time for unplanned sightseeing.

Same drill, different destination

We were able to sleep slightly later the next day, because the Musée D’Orsay doesn’t open until 9:30. We had our tickets (bought online) already, but all lines at the Impressionist museum get deep even before opening time. Declan took our place in line just after 9, while Marilynn and I finished our croissant and bread breakfast on stone benches outside the museum.

As before, we cleared security and headed straight for the most popular destination, the Impressionist painters’ permanent exhibition. I’m a huge fan of Impressionist art, especially of landscapes, and the Musée D’Orsay didn’t disappoint. Monet is my current favorite, although I also like Pissaro and Cezanne, and Renoir to a lesser extent. There were plenty of Van Gogh’s paintings, although I’d had my fill the week before in Amsterdam. The museum also has several Degas sculptures and a few Rodins.

We were able to peruse that gallery with few other visitors. As we worked our way down the museum, the crowds got thicker and thicker until they were nearly overwhelming in the temporary exhibit, on the mystical concerns of Impressionist artists.

We emerged after three hours into a plaza full of people in snaking lines, both ticketholders and those needing tickets. One of the lines curved in upon itself, then down the plaza steps to wrap around it by half a block. Again, a great choice to buy ahead and enter early.

Not all of our efforts were successful, however. The line to climb the tower at Notre-Dame stretched more than half a cathedral block when we joined it at about 10:15, or 15 minutes after it opened. We stood in line for about 20 minutes when we decided to do something else. And we weren’t able to score tickets for the Paris catacombs, which Declan decided late that he wanted to visit.

But there’s no doubt the early bird beats the rush to popular attractions.

All the Sights to See, and Then Some

With only two days and a bit in Paris, there was no time to lose. So after checking into our hotel and enjoying a great meal at the French restaurant one door down, we set off for a nighttime boat tour of Paris.

Marilynn thought it would be a great way to get the lay of the land and see many of the famous sights, especially the Eiffel Tower at night. The temperature was brisk, yet tolerable, so we chose seats at the back of the boat with operable windows. Although other families were seated in a single row, the family in front of us was taking up three rows, with dad and daughter in one row, mom in second and son on the back.

Down in front

I thought nothing of it until we reached the Eiffel Tower, when mom proceeded to stand up in front of us to take pictures. Bear in mind, the windows were wide and open, and no one else was standing. You’d have thought she was recording an historic event, the fervor with which she was taking pictures (and blocking our view).

And then 9 o’clock struck, and the monument started pulsating like a spastic disco ball. The mom went wild, snapping photo after photo. For a moment there, I thought she was going to start talking to the monument, telling it to smile and look sexy for the camera.

At least we could check the Eiffel Tower off our list, knowing we didn’t have to get any closer to the monument or anywhere near that family again.

Early in the morning

The next morning, we visited Notre-Dame and Sainte-Chapelle as they opened before returning to the area around our hotel. Grabbing takeaway at a patisserie and having a picnic is how the French have lunch, so we followed the crowd to the ancient Roman arena behind our hotel. A dozen children were either playing football or running around under the watchful eyes of their parents. We spent the rest of the day at the natural history museum and walking through the adjacent botanical garden, Jardin des Plantes.

Our final day also started early with a visit to the Musee D’Orsay. We had no firm plans for the rest of our day, but no one seemed enthused by the prospect of a bus tour. However, I did want to glimpse the Arc de Triomphe, so we walked down the Champs-Élysées far enough to see it. Declan was keen to visit La Chapelle, better known as the Sri Lankan part of town, so we found a Metro station and headed there.

We visited several ethnic grocery stores,  guessing what certain food items were and taking in the sumptuous smells and seeing the sights. Did you know there are Hell’s Angels in France? We didn’t either, but they have a clubhouse in that part of town. We had a snack in an Indian restaurant, where Marilynn and I split a half-bottle of wine because it was nearly as cheap as tea.

For dinner, we returned to the same restaurant we visited the first night, owned by a friendly, gracious man who also serves as waiter. The restaurant only seats two dozen, and it features a limited menu at a set price. Declan wanted to try escargot, so he ordered them as his starter, but we all tried them. Declan said they tasted like mussels, and he’s not wrong. I wondered how much of the taste was sauce and how much was snail.

Our final night in Paris also ended early, because an 11-hour train and bus journey to Prague awaits us. But I wake up confident that obtrusive photo mom will be nowhere in sight.