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]

A Winter Wonderland In Paris? Mais Oui!

The first fat flakes clustered along my sleeve as I stood facing the Luxembourg Garden on the icy Left Bank. A grumpy street sweeper from the south side of the Sahara scattered salt and scowled. Then he looked up and batted his clotted eyelashes. Snow! In Paris? What a forgotten thrill!I hadn’t seen the white stuff since a brief dusting last year. Winters aren’t very wintry these days in the City of Climatically Changed Light.

When I first moved here in the 1980s it snowed like frigid clockwork. And that seemed absolutely normal and desirable. Way back in the 1800s when Henri Murger wrote what was to become Puccini’s famous La Bohème, snow fell constantly. Ice formed stalagmites and poets shivered burning their manuscripts to stay warm. That was the Paris of romantic memory, the Paris of dreams, the Paris I loved before knowing Paris.

Yet it was real, too. A bust of Murger lurked across the street in the Luxembourg. As I’d hoped, its bronze beard and many-buttoned coat were dusted purest white. Che gelida la manina, the famous aria from La Bohème, played in my mind’s ear, an earworm of the most resistant kind.

Tunefully accompanying it, something besides the snow began to fall on the city: a mantle of enchanted silence. Then suddenly the strange and unexpected sprouted on the faces of Parisian passersby: smiles!

The subtle transformation of Paris from gritty, grimacing sun-less sump into winter wonderland was complete by the time I’d walked around the park a couple of times. The short-lived silence was split by yelps and laughter. Grownups frolicked.

Kids threw off their heavy school satchels and built snowmen.

A girl broke away from her boyfriend and cartwheeled.

“Do you ever throw pepper?” I asked the street sweeper with his coarse salt as I exited the park. He stared, uncomprehending. Then the euro-penny dropped.

“Pepper! Oui, and we could toss in some mustard too,” he laughed, now scattering his salt with gusto, chuckling and nodding.

It was downright disconcerting. Parisians seemed drunk with joy. Instead of heading home I spent the rest of the day wandering the streets, parks and riverbanks with my wife, Alison, the photographer. My first years in the city came back to me with a pleasant frisson, mixed into remembrances of things past, things read, music heard, and movies seen.

It dawned on me that while everyone sings paeans to spring, and many even praise summer and fall in Paris, no one loves winter. Are winter and Paris not a match?

How wrong: Paris, it was clear, is a winter wonderland. How could I have forgotten? When else can you ice skate in front of City Hall, counting the spires and sculptures, glancing across to the snowy spine of Notre Dame Cathedral?

When else can you watch the cars slow then disappear under piles of snow? Gone are the maddening motorcycles, buried the mountains of lethal dog dirt. This old whore of a city, usually best seen by lamplight, looks powdered and fresh, smells clean, feels authentic and real.

As happens at night with spot-lighting, the snow highlights, underscores, picks out the details. A carved face appears on a dirty plaster façade. Gargoyles wear ermine cloaks. Turrets look like confectionary and the bulbous Pantheon’s dome looms like a ghostly balloon.

Most magical of all, the color goes out of the cityscape: it reverts to the Paris of black-and-white photos and vintage films, engravings from centuries past. The pure, color-free essence returns.

Here was another revelation, an epiphany: winter was a magical night. It removed the superfluous. Flying buttresses reared up in all their naked stone beauty, their snowy manes framed by leafless, contorted black branches.

But the delights of winter went far beyond the visual, the aesthetic, the artistic or historic. Quite suddenly, with ice and snow on the ground as they rightly should be, my favorite cafés seemed even more inviting than usual. The terraces were miraculously empty and smoke-free. Bundled up and seated under an umbrella-shaped heater I had the sidewalk and oxygen to myself. A piping hot plat du jour of roast pork with sautéed potatoes tasted of strong mustard – the kind the street sweeper liked – and of yesteryear, my hunger seasoned by the season.

As the temperature fell farther, chilled inhabitants headed home, freeing up the sightlines. Even the last intrepid ultra-economy tourists from frozen Eastern Europe, Russia, Korea or China disappeared into the murky white dusk. Blissfully empty were the Jardin des Plantes, the Tuileries and, miracle of miracles, the loved-to-death Place des Vosges in the Marais. No lines at the Louvre. The Sainte-Chapelle glowed and echoed, free of its steamy human cargo. By trotting across town at breakneck speed I even managed to sneak unmolested into the Edward Hopper and Van Gogh exhibitions, which until then had been the incarnation of mobbed.

All good things come to an end – or do they? When the snow and ice eventually melted and turned Paris back into a slippery gray sea, the sense of wonderment lingered. For one thing, my eyes had been reopened to the forgotten advantages of serious weather. For another, the forecasters were already announcing a series of new winter storms. Joy! Wrapping up and sauntering back onto the mushy sidewalks, I felt paradoxically warm and cozy inside. Paris was mine and mine alone – with Alison – for another few months!

Author and private walking-tour guide David Downie’s latest book is the critically acclaimed “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light,” soon to be an audiobook. His next adventure-memoir, to be published in April 2013, is “Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James.” His Paris Time Line app will be published in February. His websites are,, and, dedicated to the Italian Riviera.

[Photos courtesy Alison Harris © 2012 Alison Harris or © David Downie]

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]

France’s burqa ban goes into effect

Today France has taken a controversial move and instated a burqa ban, aimed at the traditional religious covering worn by conservative Muslim women. The ban will potentially affect up to 2,000 women who wear a full-face veil in public, though it is unclear how the enforcement will work as police cannot remove the veil. Women who refuse to lift the burqa or niqab may be taken to a police station for an identity check, threatened with a 150 euro fine, or forced to attend “re-education” classes. Men who force women to wear the veil will face a 30,000 euro fine and up to a year in jail. So far only a few women have been arrested for protesting the ban near Paris’ Notre Dame cathedral.

Jacques Myard, a Parliament member and supporter of the ban said “The face is a dignity of a person. The face is your passport. So when you refuse me to see you, I am a victim.” France has the highest Muslim population in Europe, estimated between four and six million, though only a few thousand women wear the full-face veil. Belgium has passed a similar law but hasn’t enforced it, and the Netherlands is considering a ban as well.

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Louvre, Versailles, Mont Saint-Michel on strike alert tomorrow

Workers at Paris’ modern art center Pompidou are already on strike over planned job cuts, but those at other French museums and landmarks could join in their fight tomorrow.

Seven unions are threatening to walk off the job on December 2nd if their demands aren’t met by the MInistry of Culture. They’re boycotting the government’s plan to cut cultural positions, which would replace only one out of every two civil servants who retire.

The Pompidou Center is Paris’ second most popular museum. If the cuts move forward, 400 of the museum’s 1,100 jobs could be cut over the next 10 years. More than 40 percent of workers there are 50 years or older.

Other tourist sites potentially shutting down during the strike are Notre Dame, the Musée d’Orsay, and the Pantheon. However, the Eiffel Tower would not be affected.