Notre Dame De Paris: 850 Years?

Gargoyles glare down from the towers of Notre Dame as a motorcycle speeds up a ramp and tears into the air, arcing like a flying buttress, its spinning wheels dropping inches from terrified tourists and the sculpture-encrusted façade of the world’s most famous, most beloved, most reinvented and most mobbed cathedral.

The fantasy flashed through my irreverent mind as I clambered among joyous crowds seated on the temporary wooden bleachers and ramp that will face the cathedral until the end of this year. Worshippers wept and sang as cameras clicked, buzzed and whirred. Bliss and bafflement filled me.

We’d watched the carpenters build the ungainly platform, a here-today-gone-tomorrow structure so at odds with the solid pile of stone 100 feet in front of it. We’d hoped, vainly, that it would recreate the medieval maze of narrow streets that stood here until Emperor Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann wiped the slate in the mid-1800s to make the cathedral’s wide, modern square.

Script large enough for a par-blind skeptic like me to read declared that Notre Dame Cathedral was 850 years old this year, 2013. I wrestled the numbers back to 1163 and smiled a Gioconda smile. You had to wonder how many of today’s hallowed stones, sculpted or squared, had actually been part of this ecclesiastical flagship as it rose from 1163 to 1345, the date of its putative completion.Perhaps the foundation stone was authentic? It would be the now-invisible one laid, we’re told, by Bishop Maurice de Sully. He was the gleeful visionary who demolished the Romanesque church that had stood here for about 800 years when he took over. Added to the tally, that brought us back to the fourth century AD, which seemed about right. The first Christian church on this site would have been built after Paris’ masters in Rome switched from a Pagan pantheon to the great bearded patriarch and his virgin in the sky.

But what might a mole find underneath the 1,650-year-old Romanesque church? Why, a modest little Roman temple, perhaps, and maybe an ancient Gallic one underneath it for good measure.
Everyone knew that Notre Dame Cathedral, that paragon of the Gothic, was merely the spire-studded icing on a layer cake of architecture, history, and myth. All you had to do was clamber down into the archeological crypt facing the cathedral to see its profane underside: ancient Roman or Romanesque foundations, a third-century city wall, medieval hovels, roads and even sewers.

Everyone also knew that the current incarnation of Notre Dame was reconstituted from a ruin in the 19th-century (and restored again and again in decades to follow). The sculptures were fakes — copies or replacements of sculptures looted in the French Revolution or destroyed by weathering and acid rain. The main spire was an extravagant falsehood, put there by architect Viollet-le-Duc. He was the genial fellow who “restored” the cathedral not to any historic reality, but to capture what he considered the quintessence of the medieval.

In fact nearly everything inside and outside Notre Dame is a copy or a replacement or the result of Romantic 19th-century fantasies lifted from the pages of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. It was this wild, violent, irreligious novel published in 1831 that saved the cathedral from the wrecker’s ball. Hugo’s lusty tale was pure invention, like other inspiring tales, and buildings full of wonder, and it’s a story that plays well to this day.

The real miracle is, despite its fakeness, despite the fables, lacunae and inaccuracies, despite the crowds and souvenirs and flashing cameras, Notre Dame still has magic.

When my wife and I set out from Paris to the Pyrenees on foot, a pair of skeptic pilgrims, we began nearby at the Saint-Jacques Tower on Paris’s ancient Roman road. But our first stop was Notre Dame. How now? Can freethinkers be moved by a rebuilt pile atop layers of unbelievable fiction?

Absolutely: You would have to be a brute, or an imaginary stuntman on a tricked-out motorcycle, to not be moved by Notre Dame.

The ramp and bleachers and viewing platform, and the Catholic propaganda, may be ridiculous, useless or offensive to some. But as we stood in line like thousands of others, and finally entered the forest of limestone columns illuminated by ethereal, glass-filtered light, we were glad to be mere skeptics, not cynics. We were delighted to revere this draughty old barn full of windy words precisely because everything about it is a peerless, perennial fake.

Author and private tour guide David Downie’s latest critically acclaimed books are Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light, soon to be an audiobook, and Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James. His Paris Time Line app will be published in March: and

[Photo credit: Alison Harris]

Notre Dame De Paris Celebrates 850 Years With Special Events

One of the icons of Paris is turning 850 this coming year. Notre Dame de Paris was founded in 1163, although the beautiful Gothic cathedral wasn’t completed until 1345 and the building has been altered several times since.

To celebrate, Notre Dame is hosting a series of special events throughout 2013. A concert series has already started. Some of the shows will feature the cathedral’s great organ with its five keyboards, 190 ties and 8,000 pipes. The cathedral has excellent acoustics so the musicians will sound their best.

Restoration work is also underway. Several of the cathedral’s bells are being recast. These are 19th-century bells of inferior quality that had been made to replace bells that had been melted down during the French Revolution in the 1790s.

Notre Dame is one of the most popular attractions in Paris, and justifiably so. Its breathtaking stained glass windows, some dating back to the 13th century, are only matched in beauty by the soaring vaults of its ceiling. There are lots of little details here too, such as the various gargoyles and chimeras perched on the exterior, and the grim scenes of Hell on one of the portals.

The cathedral has witnessed some of the great events of the history of Paris. It was here that Heraclius of Caesarea called for the Third Crusade in 1185. Henry VI of England was crowned king of France here in 1431. In the bitter winter of 1450, Parisians hunted down a deadly pack of wolves in front of the cathedral that had been terrorizing the city. The cathedral was desecrated during the French Revolution but managed to survive and continue as a house of worship to the present day.

The cathedral has numerous holy relics, including the purported crown of thorns, as well as a nail and a piece of wood from the True Cross.


[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Safety And Security When Traveling Takes More Than Common Sense Precautions

Safety and security tips for travelers often include common sense advice like not carrying a lot of cash, protecting valuable documents and not wearing expensive jewelry in public. But while taking precautions is good, knowing what scams or traps are set and waiting for travelers in countries around the world is better.

“While the language barrier and the cultural sites are exciting, they also open up travelers to scam artists and petty thieves,” says an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which brings up some good points.

Record serial numbers on electronics, keep valuables in your hotel safe and watch for “long hauling” where taxi drivers take a longer route to bump up the fare. These measures can be taken to ensure a visit to an unfamiliar turf goes well.

record the serial numbers of any vital electronics that could be stolen, as some cities require a serial number to file a police report.

Read more:

record the serial numbers of any vital electronics that could be stolen, as some cities require a serial number to file a police report.

Read more:

We saw this first hand in Rouen, France, not long ago, visiting the Notre-Dame Cathedral off a sailing of Azamara Club Cruises Azamara Journey. Our local guide was quick to point out that we should ignore anyone standing by the front door collection admission. Entry is free but unsuspecting tourists commonly pay scam artists a fee, believing they cannot enter without doing so.But Americans do not need to travel far to find situations that threaten safety and security.

The U.S. Department of State’s Office of American Citizens Services and Crisis Management offers tips for international travel as close as the Bahamas, a destination frequented by U.S. travelers on a weekend getaway. Also a popular cruise port, on the topic of safety and security, the Department of State warns travelers about commonly used services.

“The water sports and scooter rental industries in The Bahamas are not carefully regulated,” says the Department of State. “Every year people are killed or injured due to improper, careless, or reckless operation of scooters, jet-skis, and personal watercraft or scuba/snorkeling equipment.”

Digging deeper, the Department of State offers information about common crime scams and reports of assaults, including sexual assaults, in diverse areas such as in casinos, outside hotels, or on cruise ships.

“Three separate groups of tourists were held at gunpoint and robbed at popular tourist sites in and near Nassau; each of these incidents occurred during daylight hours and involved groups of more than eight persons,” says the Department of State, adding “several other groups of tourists allegedly were victims of armed robbery at more remote locations.”

Here at home, traveling no farther than the local mall for holiday shopping can put us in situations where pick pockets, scam artists and others are out to take advantage of distracted shoppers.

Regardless of where we are, a nice day of sightseeing or shopping can turn very bad, very fast as we see in this video:

[Photo credit: Chris Owen]

The Historic Heart Of Rouen, A Walking Tour

At the historic heart of Rouen lies the Notre-Dame Cathedral, alone worth a visit to the French city that today boasts a half a million residents. Dating back to a foundation that began in the fourth century, it serves as a centerpiece for a “magic zone” where visitors can trace 1000 years of history, from the Roman era to present day. We went on a walking tour of the still-bustling metropolis that focused on five main sites, offering a unique look into a past that is very much part of today.

The Cathedral itself dominates the Rouen skyline, while ongoing reconstruction continues the structure’s evolution. To those who live and work in the area, that’s nothing new though. Destroyed by Vikings at one time and bombed (unintentionally) in World War II, its cast iron spires stand over 150 meters high, the tallest in France. Inside, one can’t help but be humbled by the still-standing, still-functional testament to the evolution of Gothic art.

Just opposite the cathedral, lesser-known Bureau des Finances dates back to the early 16th century and was once where Impressionist Claude Monet created his “Cathedral” series. Gadling was allowed a rare view from inside where Monet’s studio was at that time.

Walking the pedestrianized streets of Rouen where only foot traffic is allowed, we passed under the city’s signature monument, the Gros Horloge. Initially constructed around 1170, it served as the western gateway to what was the old Roman town. Walking under the clock face and below its richly decorated arch, stopping at shops along the way, it was hard not to realize much of what we were seeing is as it was centuries ago.

Not far is the Palais de Justice, built between 1499 and 1550 on the former site of the town’s Jewish quarter, destroyed in 1306 after the expulsion of the Jews from France. In 1515 the building began housing a court with legal, political and administrative powers. Continuing that theme, today local police cars can be seen in front of the building that was built centuries before their invention. During European Heritage Days in September, the building is open to the public.

Amid all this history, intertwined with centuries of construction, are storefronts that host viable, working businesses at ground level with housing above.

Looking forward, Rouen has launched a host of development, infrastructure, cultural and environmental projects. Rouen’s museums house the largest Impressionist collection outside of Paris, just a two-hour drive away. An international destination for the performing arts, its opera is set to tour the world. Nearby Seine valley attractions are home to a wide variety of must-see monuments, routes and sights.

But what impressed us most was how history and today are intermingled. Like a movie set, today’s buildings are right on top of yesteryear’s structures as those of the future will be on top of todays. Visitors and residents from around the world mingle to make for people watching that seems like a movie scene but yet happens every day, just as it has for centuries. Our short two-hour walking tour could have lasted far longer and gives good reason to return like generations have throughout much of recorded time.

For more information about Rouen, contact the Office of Tourism at

[Photos- Chris Owen]