PARIS — Smoke billowed from the heart of the city on Monday night as firefighters sought to control the inferno that engulfed Notre Dame Cathedral. Time seemed to stop as we watched the flames topple the spire, ravage the roof and threaten the towers. Crowds of emotional bystanders, some with tears streaming down their faces, gathered on the quays in a hushed, horrified silence that occasionally was broken by collective song and prayer. “Ave Maria,” they sang. “We salute you, Maria.”
Miraculously — and we needed a miracle during this Holy Week catastrophe — the 400 Parisian pompiers were able to extinguish the fire and save the edifice. They worked late into the night, pumping water directly from the Seine to spray on the blaze. (The fragility of the 850-year-old structure meant that dropping water from the air would cause considerable damage.) Arriving on the scene, French President Emmanuel Macron vowed that the cathedral would be rebuilt.
A gentle drizzle tumbled from gray skies Tuesday morning when I walked my youngest daughter to school in the city where I’ve lived for more than a decade and found myself crying with her kindergarten teacher.
Notre Dame’s importance to the French — indeed, the world — cannot be overstated. It plays many essential roles at once. Presiding over the Ile de la Cité, the island in the Seine that was the site of medieval Paris, the cathedral is an enduring and beloved symbol to Christians everywhere, and its beauty and artistry is appreciated by people of all faiths. It’s also a symbol of the historic city itself and marks its center; a medallion embedded in the square outside Notre Dame indicates Point Zero, the starting point for all roads leading to other cities. It has been a witness to hundreds of years of tumultuous history. And it has become the keystone of the city’s tourism industry. One ray of light, perhaps, is that visitors will turn to some of the other jewel-like churches in Paris for solace.
Still, there is nothing like Notre Dame. Bishop Maurice de Sully laid the cathedral’s first stone in 1163, and the colossal construction was not completed for nearly two centuries. Some 52 acres of trees were cut down in the 12th century to create the intricate timber charpente, or framing, often equated to a “forest” with each beam coming from a single tree. The flying buttresses served an innovative architectural function, providing exterior support to the walls of the nave, allowing for abundant stained glass, including the majestic rose windows that date from the 12th and 13th centuries. A marvelous expression of gothic architecture, Notre Dame is also the sacred home of Catholic relics including a crown of thorns said to have been worn by Jesus and the tunic used by Saint Louis. (These relics were saved from Monday night’s fire, along with paintings which will be restored in the Louvre museum. The rose windows also survived.)
Notre Dame, which was badly damaged during the French Revolution, played a starring role in Victor Hugo’s famous 1831 novel “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.” The book’s runaway success drew attention to the plight of Quasimodo’s hangout, and a petition resulted in the triumphant restoration by architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. Between 1845 and 1864, Viollet-le-Duc oversaw an extensive renovation, adding new flourishes, including the now-fallen spire and the fantastical gargoyles on the rooftop.
Over the centuries, the landmark has stood through many other momentous events; wars, Napoleon crowning himself emperor, the liberation from Nazi occupation. I’ve always found it a reassuring and stoic fixture on the Seine. In my day-to-day routine, I’d look up from a bus ride, or Paris Métro Line 5 traversing the Seine, and take comfort in even a glimpse of the steadfast cathedral rising over the river.
For all these reasons, Notre Dame is France’s most-visited monument, welcoming more than 13 million people a year. It’s particularly packed at Christmas, when an enormous village crèche scene is populated with Provençal nativity figurines. (My daughters and I never miss it.) Visitors also flocked to hear the concerts played on the master organ, one of the world’s largest. Lines to climb the towers (422 steps) used to stretch around the block. Just a few weeks ago, I paid a visit to test out a new app, called JeFile , which conveniently expedited the process. From the top, the Parisian panoramas take your breath away — an experience made sublime by the tolling of the bells. Since 1686, the Emmanuel bell has chimed to celebrate the coronation of kings and the end of wars. It was spared when the other bronze bells were melted down for ammunition during the French Revolution — a reminder that Notre Dame has survived terrible assaults over the years.
The cost of Monday’s fire is inestimable. International fundraising campaigns were already launched by Tuesday morning. French billionaires François-Henri Pinault (of luxury group Kering) and Bernard Arnault (owner of LVMH) pledged a combined 300 million euros, reminiscent of when American John D. Rockefeller donated funds to save the gothic cathedral in Reims, which had suffered fire and artillery damage during World War I. The Reims cathedral, one hour from Paris by high-speed train, was the ancient setting for the coronations of French kings.
It’s too early to know how long Notre Dame will be closed to the public. Macron promised Tuesday to have it rebuilt in five years; experts said that was wildly optimistic and warned the process could even take decades. As tourists continue to stream to this lovely city with its wounded heart, they will surely stop to pay homage at Notre Dame, which so dominates the landscape they might not be aware of its glorious counterparts scattered throughout the city. I hope visitors will then turn for inspiration to these other exquisite churches, including one that has a direct connection to Notre Dame: the Basilica of Saint-Denis.
For example, there’s Saint-Étienne-du-Mont. It sits in the shadow of the Pantheon in the Latin Quarter atop a hill honoring Genevieve, Paris’s patron saint, whose prayers are said to have stopped the invasion by Attila the Hun in AD 451. (Her ancient sarcophagus is housed inside.) A graceful study of flamboyant gothic architecture, the church also had a cameo in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris”; Owen Wilson’s character is picked up from the stone steps in a vintage car.
Or there’s the church of Saint-Germain-des-Pres, which is considered the oldest in Paris. It is a Romanesque monument overlooking the cafes that defined the neighborhood as a lively gathering place for the 20th-century literati. Nearby, Saint-Sulpice was popularized in Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” and is a showcase for marvelous frescoes by Eugene Delacroix. On the Ile de la Cité, not far from Notre Dame, Sainte-Chapelle was built in the 13th century to house the holy relics, including the crown of thorns, which was purchased by Louis IX. With 15 stained-glass windows, the light-filled chapel resembles a reliquary, a purpose-built jewel box for relics.
On the right bank, the 16th-century Saint-Eustache represents a melange of architectural styles and hosts wonderful concerts. High above the city, the Sacré-Coeur Basilica is a vision in white atop Montmartre. A relatively recent addition to the skyline (built in the 19th century), Sacré-Coeur offers sweeping views over the city.
But perhaps the most sacred of all is the place where gothic architecture was born, which I toured recently. The Basilica of Saint-Denis was the model for Notre Dame Cathedral, and the burial ground for the French monarchy. And it receives only 130,000 visitors a year. (The hardscrabble northern suburb of Saint-Denis developed a reputation as a problematic banlieue after the 2005 riots but is shaking it off with a flurry of street art projects, craft breweries and an urban farm. The planned Olympic Village should also revitalize the area.)
The legend goes that Saint Denis, the first bishop of Paris, was martyred in AD 250 in present-day Montmartre and, from there, walked four miles with his decapitated head in his hands until he collapsed. His tomb at that site became a place of pilgrimage, with the saint’s bones carefully preserved in a box to awe the swarming crowds. In the 8th century, Charlemagne consecrated an abbey, and in the 12th century, Abbot Suger turned it into a masterpiece.
“Suger was a genius, pioneering the first example of gothic architecture,” explained guide Charlotte Pecheux on my visit. “His idea? God is equivalent to light, so more light was needed to enter the building.” What had been a dark, Romanesque structure morphed into an architectural laboratory with cross vaults negating the need for wall supports. These were replaced by large, stained-glass windows, and colors danced on the walls. The basilica’s inauguration drew a large crowd, including the French king — attendees were so dazzled they resolved to copy it in their own dioceses. Work on Notre Dame started 20 years later.
“It was like Disneyland in the 11th and 12th centuries,” Charlotte said, “with pilgrims pushing to get through.” Now there’s nary a soul to admire the funerary sculpture of French monarchs, dating to Good King Dagobert (7th century). The 70 recumbent statues ooze tales of drama and intrigue; Catherine de Medici forced the artist — commissioned to craft her tomb before her death — to rework her likeness as Botticelli’s Venus.
The basilica suffered great damage during the French Revolution; the royal corpses were thrown into a mass grave. But Viollet-le-Duc also worked his restoration magic here, and a project is in the works to reassemble the north tower and spire using ancient construction techniques that visitors will be able to observe. While its younger sister is being rebuilt, Saint-Denis is more than a worthy destination.
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The churches are free unless otherwise noted. Hours vary seasonally. Check the church’s website before you visit, especially on holidays. Available tours noted below.
Basilica of Saint Denis
1 Rue de la Légion d’Honneur, 93200 Saint-Denis
Ticket price is 9 euros, or about $10. Available at no additional charge, guided tours are highly recommended. (Send an email through the contact form on the website.)
8 Boulevard du Palais, 75001 Paris
011 33 (0)1 53 40 60 80
Ticket price is about $11.
Church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont
Place Sainte-Geneviève, 75005 Paris
Check the website for occasional guided tours.
Church of Saint-Germain des Pré́s
3 Place Saint-Germain des Prés,75006 Paris
Church of Saint Sulpice
2 Rue Palatine, 75006 Paris
Church of Saint-Eustache
146 Rue Rambuteau,75001 Paris
Audioguides offering a guided tour of the church are available at the reception area.
Basilica of Sacré-Cœur
35 Rue du Chevalier de la Barre, 75018 Paris
Entry to the basilica is free. The ticket to climb the 300 steps to the dome costs about $7.