on May 4, 2008
On a small island in the River Seine, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame is the very center of France. Erected in the 12th century to the glory of Mary, the mother of Christ, Notre-Dame translates into Our Lady. While I was able to visit here on an earlier trip to Paris, I took longer to linger in this Gothic church the second time around. Entrance to the cathedral itself is free. In the winter, I remember not having to wait to go inside, but this was a beautiful spring day, and the queue spilled out into the courtyard. Having just visited Aachen, Germany where he has his tomb, I took greater interest in the statue of Charlamagne, the "father of Europe", who is sitting on a horse to one side. As we got closer to the church itself, I hunted the facade for St. Denis near the door. This former bishop lost his head for the Christian faith. (No! NOT during the French Revolution!) He's easy to spot because he's holding his head in his hands near the door. Kids will like finding him as well. Inside the church, you can either walk and look for free, or you can hire an audio guide for 5 Euro. I wanted the extra information at this point, so I ponied up the money. Interior Highlights? There are the Gothic stained glass windows---the "roses"---but I especially liked the segments of the Christ story that you can see "illustrated" in beautiful friezes along the center of the church so that priests could explain the basic stories in the Bible to those who could not read it. You can also hunt out the statue of Joan of Arc.If you're on a budget and don't want to get a guide, you'll still feel as if you've spent your time well here because it is a gorgeous structure worth seeing. The Towers:After turning in our audio wands, we exited the church and found another line. I had not climbed the towers here before, so this time I was determined to do so. After all, I know all about Victor Hugo's hunchback... a story that became so popular in the 19th century that it helped get the money needed to do necessary repair work on the church, which had been neglected after the "Cult of Reason" took over Paris. What a debt is owed to this author for helping to preserve this Gothic gem! The line to access the towers moved much slower than the line to enter the church. So I was intently reading a book to wile away the time... when a gargoyle looking creature stuck his face between me and the pages I was studying. I gave a startled jump but managed to keep my cool as the "creature" continued down the line. This was a street performer of the highest class. After garnering the waiting crowds attention, we were amused as he put his arms around strangers, grabbed for people's hands, and basically made the unsuspecting come out of their "city shells" in which they mentally blocked out the crowd around them until they found this... out-of-place thing invading their personal space. Many of them would jump in the air and yelp. Then the tower crowd, of which I was a part, would laugh and clap, thus letting the "victim" in on the joke. Most of them were very good sports about it, and the gargoyle was masterful. I can't promise you'll see him as well, but he was my son's favorite things to see in Paris. When he finally took off his mask and passed it around for Euros, we were happy to give generously because he was very entertaining, making our wait seem like no time at all. Plus... he was actually a handsome devil. Tip: If there's no street performer on the day of your visit, take heart! You can still buy ice cream to eat from one of the kiosks you'll see on the street. You'll have plenty of time to lick a cone, and this is a great treat for children.After that "show", we made it to the front of the line where our Paris Museum Pass was flashed, gaining us entrance. Similar in difficulty to the climb at the Arc de Triomph, you first stumble across a small gift shop where there is information about Victor Hugo's work as well as his books for sale. Then you can press forward to the platform from which you can stand behind gargoyles and gaze out across Paris. The bell tower with its wooden supports (to absorb the sound waves and stop them from cracking stone) is worth a quick look-see. Then you can climb to the very highest point before beginning your descent. Was it worth the climb? I think so. If you don't have the time to wait, the view from the Arc de Triomphe is quicker to get because the lines are shorter... but there's just something cool about this church. Tip: After you see Notre Dame, you might want to take a boat ride down the Seine for an easy-to-get tour. You can walk down to where a myriad of boats dock and buy tickets. We took a tour that set us back 11 Euro per adult and 6 Euro for the kid. That was a little pricey... but it was nice to just sit down for an hour as a live tour guide pointed out points of interest in multiple languages.
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