Notre Dame, in sight and sound

Shortly before my recent trip to Paris I was surprised and honored to receive a note from Des Coulam, author of the wonderful Soundlandscapes blog. “I thought it would be great if we could do something together for joint publication on our blogs,” he wrote.

Des’ idea was simple enough: I would choose a place and talk about it, and he would record it. It took no effort to choose my place. “I’d love to explore the area around Notre Dame with you,” I wrote back.

Notre Dame morning 1200093 DES

I visited Notre Dame for the first time in 1997, as a reluctant traveler who had been brought to Paris against her will. I am not a devout person. But as I stood before that façade, I was profoundly moved.

Notre dame in rain 1230953 DES

I’ve been back nine more times since that first trip. And although I’ve discovered many other special, beautiful places in Paris, one of my first stops is always Notre Dame. It still evokes strong emotions, as you’ll hear in my interview with Des. And as you’ll also hear, I’m still struggling to explain what this place means to me, and why.

 Notre Dame audio commentary

There are lots of details I wish I’d included in my interview. Fortunately, I have the opportunity to add them here — along with a few photos. So, with no further ado, I present to you La Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris.

West Side Story

The west façade is where my love affair with Notre Dame started. Completed in about 1250, this ornate entry was built in an age when almost everyone was illiterate. That why it’s literally littered with stories told in stone — from the birth of Jesus to Satan’s eternal damnation.

Notre Dame Mary 1010300 DES

Notre Dame facade 1010484 DES

Notre Dame facade 1010666 DES

Notre Dame facade 1010311 WES

I especially love the depiction of St. Denis, the third-Century bishop who was martyred by beheading. As the story goes, he picked up his severed head and walked about five miles — while continuing to deliver what must have been the most disconcerting sermon in history. According to Wikipedia, Denis is “one of many cephalophores in hagiology.” I love this factoid! But mostly I like his calm expression, and the equally mellow angels who flank him.

Notre Dame St Denis 1010670 BLOG

At the base of the west façade are three gloriously huge, gloriously ornate doors. My friend Corey (author of A French Frye in Paris) told me the heartbreaking legend of the blacksmith who created the doors. It’s a pity that today most of the tourists don’t seem to notice the exquisite, intricate ironwork as they shuffle in and out of the cathedral.

Notre Dame facade 1030630 DES

Notre Dame door 1040480 BLOG

Notre Dame door DES

Notre Dame door detail 1010320 BLOG

If you stand in front of the cathedral and look down, you’ll find the “kilometer zero” marker. Functionally, this brass marker is the point from which all highway-travel distances in France are measured. But superstitiously, legend says that standing on this spot ensures you will one day return to Paris. I’m not particularly superstitious … but still, I always plant my feet here — just in case.

And if you stand in front of the cathedral and look up, you’ll see the famous “gargoyles.” As my friend Corey pointed out, the critters we most associate with Notre Dame aren’t gargoyles at all. What’s more, they’re a fairly recent (mid-1800s) addition, part of architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc’s brilliant restoration. But it makes me smile just the same to look up at their grimacing faces. The view from the top is stunning, too.

Notre Dame Gargoyles 1010303 DES

Notre Dame gargoyles merged BLOG

Notre Dame Chimeras 1010544 BLOG

Notre Dame creepy 2 bw to print

Notre Dame gargoyle top 1010583 BLOG

One last thought about Notre Dame’s west façade: It’s a photographer’s dream! I walked past it perhaps 10 times a day when I was lodging off the Quai Montebello — and every time, the light was different. For a special treat, I especially recommend an early-morning walk.

Notre Dame 1030644 BLOG

Notre Dame Pink 2008 BLOG

Notre Dame facade 2006 2 BLOG

Notre Dame 1210286 BLOG

Notre Dame 1120314 CC DES

History and hysteria

If there was a theme to my interview with Des, it was this: I feel as if I’m a part of history when I visit Notre Dame. This spot — which is still the heart of Paris — is where the Parisii first settled during the Stone Age.

Eiffel Notre Dame 1060200 CC DES

This is also where the Parisii fought off Julius Caesar — and where they eventually (and perhaps inevitably) became part of the Roman Empire, residents of a city renamed Lutetia. Centuries later, Charlemagne ruled an empire of his own from this spot. His statue still rides triumphantly in front of Notre Dame.

Charlemagne 1010717 DES

Notre Dame parvis and river 2008 DES

This is the spot where plague victims came to pray, where revolutionaries went on a rampage, where Napoleon crowned himself emperor, and where Baron Haussmann razed an entire neighborhood to create the view we enjoy today.

During my most recent visit, Notre Dame had again been subjected to a visionary’s grand plan — this time, a bizarre installation designed to celebrate the cathedral’s 850th anniversary. How this blue-and-battleship-gray monstrosity might “enhance” anyone’s visit was lost on me.

Notre Dame bleachers 1010675 DES

Notre Dame facade monstrosity 1010740 BLOG

But at least I had the privilege of being there to see the blessing of the new bells.

Notre Dame bells 1040498 BLOG

Notre Dame bells 1040527 BLOG

Notre Dame has been the site of countless baptisms, weddings and funerals — a centuries-old repository of human hope, fear, joy and grief.

Notre Dame votives 1010475 BLOG

And as I stand in front of this magnificent old church, I feel that my small, insignificant existence becomes for a moment a tiny thread in the rich tapestry of human history and emotion that have been woven together in this place.

Notre Dame wedding 1120265 DES

And for a moment I feel that I’m part of something important and enduring.

I extend a very heartfelt thank you to Des Coulam for inspiring this post, and for forever changing how I perceive and experience Paris. I’ll write more about that soon. But in the meantime, I encourage you to visit his blog. I think he’ll enrich your world, too.


  1. I’ve never taken the trip to the top of Notre Dame, I can see now that I must, if only to meet those wonderful “gargoyles” close up and in person.
    Thanks for another great post. 🙂

  2. Thank you so much for agreeing to record your ‘Personal View’ of Paris. It was a joy to work with you even though the weather was against us. Your knowledge of, and your passion for, Notre Dame shines through. I’m sure that your enthusiasm and love of the place will rub off on everyone who listens to your excellent commentary. Many thanks … and come back soon!

  3. Thanks, Sallyann! A climb to the top of Notre Dame is my #1 recommendation for first-time and veteran visitors alike. In my humble opinion, it offers the best panoramic view of the city — and a great opportunity to form a “mental map” of where everything is located. And it really is a treat to see the whimsical chimeras up close and personal. The gift shop on the first level is quite nice, too. 🙂

  4. Thank YOU so much for suggesting this piece in the first place, Des! It was an absolute joy to meet you, and a privilege to collaborate with you. Thank you, also, for all of your encouragement — and especially for teaching me a new way to experience Paris. I look forward to seeing you again … soon!

  5. Oh la la! This is such a rich and meaty post I can’t help but lay my compliments out in list format:

    -Love the perfect “West Side Story” title. Why didn’t I think of that? Très clever!

    -Also in the category of smart writing, I appreciated the “illiterate/literally/littered” thing you did there. That was some delicious al-LIT-eration if you know what I mean…and I think you do.

    -The pink facade of the church is gorgeous, what light! Normally I’d assume it was a sunset, but with your bizarre up-at-dawn nonsense, who knows.

    -Funny thing about Charlemagne: he’s always portrayed as a towering masculine creature (as in this Notre Dame version), but in reality he was rather short and stumpy. Amazing what a few centuries can do to a man’s physique, non?

    -Speaking of Chublemagne, your pic of him and the Eiffel tower is wonderful, and captures more than most pictures the vastness of the city. The relationship between these two Parisian symbols, separated by a millennium of history, is food for historical thought, for sure.

    -Although I had noticed the cathedral’s big nondescript bleachers set up for the anniversary, I hadn’t thought too much about it. But now after you’ve mentioned it, you’re totally right — I hate it now. For such a monumental occasion why couldn’t they make something more attractive? It feels like I’m going to a middle school soccer game, the kind where you go to the refreshment stand and they’re all out of hot chocolate and the hot dog machine’s broken. Not dignified enough to meet the magnitude of 850 years of history. Grrr now I’m all fired up!

    -Finally, I listened to your Soundscapes interview, and I have to say I was pretty disappointed. Why? Because you told me ahead of time that it was crap, and it was definitely NOT! I thought you sounded sincere, erudite, appreciative, and all without any of the squeaky hamster voice you’d warned me about. You did great! I think other Paris lovers will enjoy hearing it and will relate to it. Be proud!

  6. Wow, Corey … you honor me, sir. Thank you!! I was especially proud that you liked the “West Side Story” subhead — usually the roles are reversed, Mr. King of Clever Wordplays!

    I had indeed heard that Charlemagne was a rather … um … “vertically challenged and horizontally endowed” individual. I suppose we can take the monumental stature of his statue as evidence that history is written — and art is underwritten — by the victors. (And this is precisely why the sole aim of my life is to amass enough power to ensure that I, too, will one day be remembered as a giant. Except, of course, in my statue I’ll be riding a lawnmower. And maybe my beard won’t be quite to long and full.)

    Sorry to call your attention to those ugly bleachers, though. Now I fear it’s the only thing you’ll see, when you visit Notre Dame! My apologies if I gave you the visual equivalent of a tune you detest but can’t get out of your head. (Like 867-5309, for instance. Or Abba’s “Fernando.”)

    I’m also sorry to have disappointed you with the sincerity and erudition of my narrative. I think we can thank Des for some gentle, skillful editing. But I will take your advice and be proud.

    I still think I sound like a hamster, though. Grin.

    Thanks again for your wonderful, witty comment. You made my day.

  7. Your pictures are amazing. I love everything about them but the one that stands out for me is the door. The design is something that I’m inherently attracted to. Thanks very much for sharing 🙂

    • Thank you! You are so kind. I’m very drawn to the doors, too, for some reason. Every time I visit, I see new details — and I’m curious about all sorts of things, like how the wood is protected from the elements. Maybe next time I visit I will ingratiate myself with one of the caretakers and ask. In the meantime, thank YOU for reading! 😀

  8. Oh, just flicking through these glorious images makes me salivate! No time now, but I am so looking forward to settling down in a few days time, once the boys are back at school, with a mug of something hot and a long, indulgent read of this post. (Am stupidly excited by those hinges too: I took some shots of the ones on the doors of St. Magnus’ Cathedral in Orkney a couple of years back, but they are minuscule compared to N. Dame!)

  9. Finally getting around to reading and pondering this one, and as I do so, remembering Paris with such tenderness. I have never laughed at the story of a decapitation before, but this one made me laugh! (And also marvel at the artistry at hand in its depiction.) And the catch in your voice as you describe your love for Paris brought tears to my eyes. And you are right, Des’ blog is wonderful, too. I have read deep into it, and have bookmarked it. Thanks to him, and you,

    • I’m so glad my post brought back happy, tender memories for you, Pam. And I’m SO glad you’ve discovered Des’ blog, too. I was smitten by his kindness — and absolutely blown away by the passion and intelligence with which he approaches his work. I’m working on an actual news article about what he does, actually! I’ll give you a sneak preview as it nears completion. 🙂

  10. Well, I think Corey has said everything I was going to say. He even got in there with the ‘literally illiterate’ thing. 😉 I’ve made myself a cafetiere of strong coffee and have sat down for a few minutes pleasure in reading, looking and listening to this wonderful love letter to Notre Dame.

    What can I add? The details you’ve found: I love the way that St. Denis’ halo is still where his head *ought* to be. (I wonder if it caught up, though, and followed him as he preached from under his arm?) I love the word ‘cephalophore’, a new one on me. Will try to slip it into casual conversation…

    Your many views of the facade are interesting to compare. Rosy light and a starry Christmas tree is probably my favourite, although the blue-lit, pseudo-medieval colouring is pretty amazing. I will delicately avert my eyes from those bleachers. The (non) gargoyles’ view of the city is a treat: I don’t think I’ve been up there. My favourite view, though, is from the back: sitting outside a cafe on the Isle de la Cite (sorry, no accents to hand), sipping a hot chocolate on a freezing day and looking across the river to those extraordinary buttresses. Sigh….

    Viollet le Duc’s restorations were very controversial, I believe, but I think we owe him a debt of gratitude. I imagine that the cathedral was in a pretty sorry state after the Revolution, and it is chiefly thanks to him and Victor Hugo that we have learned to appreciate and cherish the great Gothic heritage of northern France.

    Finally, what a pleasure to hear your aural essay. Not a hamster within earshot: just a warm, knowledgeable, thoughtful guide to one of the world’s great locations. Thank you.

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