on April 26, 2012
Further away from the Louvre embankment, the Seine becomes instantly wider as it bends southwards. It then branches out into two huge waterways, characterized by a number of imposing bridges that allow access from the Right Bank to the Left Bank. Anchored to the riverbed, two majestic islands occupy the space between the waterways.Ile de la Cite is the larger of these islands and its superb attractions are definitely focal points for visitors. The smaller Ile St-Louis lies southeast of its larger sister but the two are interconnected by a picturesque bridge that is perfect for snapshooting the surrounding attractions. Ile St-Louis, particularly the area around Rue des Deux Ponts is a paradise for romantic amblers who want to get away from the crowds. Quiet, peaceful and solitary, the streets along Ile St-Louis abound nonetheless with specialized food shops (confiseries, boulangeries and patisseries), ice-cream parlours, boutiques and art galleries. The only place of worship on Ile St-Louis is the Eglise St-Louis en l’Ile, a small but graceful baroque edifice that I have always found closed except on one particular Sunday morning.Neither quiet nor solitary, Ile de la Cite is the spot where all Paris visitors meet. Don’t expect however to find a restaurant that serves your favourite ‘table d’hote’ or a bar that offers your favourite ‘vin rouge’ on the wine list. Of course, people arrive here with expectations but such expectations are not concerned with good meals or French cocktails. These you can find five minutes away if you dare go over the bridge to St-Michel where restaurants and bars abound.The reason for following the crowds and crossing the bridge to Ile de la Cite is without doubt the magnificent Cathedral of Notre Dame. It has become such a great landmark and such an intimate focus of Catholicism that local Parisians refer to it simply as ‘Notre Dame’. "Avez-vous vu Notre Dame?" asked me the lady receptionist at the hotel. "I have never seen Our Lady, Bernadette Soubirous did. But I’ve seen the Cathedral more than once" was my answer.Why has the Cathedral of Notre Dame and its surroundings occupied central stage in Paris and became a top attraction? The answer to this question is given by Victor Hugo in his world-renowned romantic novel ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’."Each face, each stone of this venerable monument is not only a page of the history of the country, but also of the history of knowledge and art".A living symbol of the eventful history of France since 1163 when the foundation stone was laid, the Cathedral of Notre Dame has experienced over the centuries a succession of awful times but some pleasant times as well. One of the earliest blows the Cathedral suffered happened in the mid-sixteenth century when French protestants known as Huguenots, inspired by the writings of John Calvin revolted against the Roman Catholic Church. Having been a symbol of Catholicism since its inception, the Cathedral of Notre Dame was subjected to intensive rioting that caused structural damages to the building. In addition to this, scores of statues that decorated the Cathedral’s exterior were removed and shattered, considering them idolatrous images.The second major blow arrived 100 years later during the reign of Louis XIV. In an effort to transform the Cathedral into an extravagant display of ornamentation, artists appointed for the purpose destroyed precious tombs and lots of stained-glass windows, particularly those on the side aisles.However, the last setback the Cathedral experienced is unquestionably the greatest. This happened during the militant phase of the French Revolution in the last decade of the eighteenth century. A great deal of decorations, including sculptures, paintings and precious religious artefacts were either looted or damaged and destroyed. The Cathedral was stripped of its most valuable assets although the Gothic structure was in most places left untouched.The historic characteristics of Notre Dame are one reason why throngs of people, more than ten million annually, step over its threshold. Obviously, today’s Cathedral is not the empty structure that was passed on to future generations after the Revolution. During the first two decades of the nineteenth century, various pleas for restoration were made by numerous French celebrities of the calibre of Ingres and Hugo. Restoration works that gradually retransformed the Cathedral into a masterpiece of architecture and a monumental opus of decorative sculptures started in 1844 and lasted for 23 years.During this intensive restoration programme, all interior and exterior damaged decorations were replaced and additional structural works were completed. Worthy of mention from this restoration programme is the construction of two flat-roofed spires that impart to the front elevation a sense of height and majesty. Restored meticulously and filled with more interweaved stonework are the three splendid rose windows, the most superb is the one above the huge organ on the western elevation. The frequent use of contrasting colours, the various shades of bright green, intense red and blue in particular, is an extreme example of exquisite craftsmanship. Even some of the artistic elongated gargoyles you see protruding out of the north and south elevations date back to this period of restoration.Not all visitors are fascinated by the long eventful history the Cathedral of Notre Dame has gone through throughout the ages but if you are not surprised by Notre Dame’s history, you will definitely stand in awe as you view the architectural details of the Cathedral. The west front elevation, recently cleaned from a black layer of eroding pollutants, is loaded with statues that depict the Old Testament kings of Israel while the deep triple portals covered with intricately sculpted bas-reliefs and more statues are a marvel of Gothic art.Once inside, have a look at the graceful columns that support the ribbed vaulting, a structural design that is impressive both for its aesthetic beauty as well as for its architectural value. Go around the choir where rows of amazing wooden stalls are decorated with numerous statuettes and a profusion of intricately carved panels. Each of the chapels within the side transepts is an artistic ensemble of masterpieces in its own right and contains artworks and stained-glass windows that are definitely worthy of inspection.The treasury in the eastern end of the south transept contains relics, monstrances, chalices, church ornaments and a wide range of church vestments, some of which dating back to the times of Louis XV. In addition to these, the treasury houses the ‘Holy Crown’ a wreath of thorns that is supposed to be the one that was placed on Christ’s head before crucifixion. Exhibited every first Friday of the month at 3:00pm, this is one revered item that attracts throngs of people, particularly Catholics who view the relic with respect and admiration.After viewing the Cathedral, join the queue near the North Tower from where you can buy an entry ticket to climb up the long spiralling stairways to the top of the west façade. The panoramic view over most of central Paris is one reason for coming here. Other reasons include the exquisite architecture of the surrounding parapet that you can inspect in detail and the thirteen-tonne bell that adorns the South Tower.Before crossing one of the bridges to go back to the Right Bank or the Left Bank, visitors are encouraged to visit the Palais de Justice, located a few metres west of the ‘Cite’ metro station. You enter the building through a huge gilded wrought-iron gate. From here, follow the signposted directions to the Ste-Chapelle, an exquisite gem of Gothic architecture. Decorated with fine stained-glass windows, it is a marvel few places of worship can match.Admission to the Cathedral is free. Price for renting an audio-guide: 5 euroFree guided tours to the Cathedral in English available on Wednesdays & Thursdays at 12:00 and on Saturday at 2:30pmAdmission to the Cathedral’s Treasury: 3 euroMonday to Saturday: 9:30am to 6:00pm and Sunday: 1:30pm to 5:30pmAdmission to Notre Dame Towers: 7.50 euroSummer timetable: Monday to Friday: 9:30am to 7:30pm Saturday & Sunday: 9:00am to 11:00pmWinter timetable: Daily: 10:00am to 5:30pm.
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