Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Top To Bottom Notre Dame

Noon mass
For us, any trip to a European city wouldn't be complete unless we visited a local cathedral or two.  In Paris, that meant a trip to the Cathedral of Notre Dame.  The Gothic cathedral's cornerstone was laid in 1163 and it was the largest religious building in western Europe until the mid-13th century.  It was the setting for Victor Hugo's 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which in addition to bringing public attention to the cathedral's need to be preserved, created a greater awareness of France's national heritage.  The cathedral was restored after it suffered damage during the French Revolution and since 1991 has been on the UNESCO list of important historic sites. 

Like so many of the other churches we have visited, Notre Dame didn't disappoint.  Iconic stained glass windows that soared for stories, a grand pipe organ, and numerous apses were all a part of Notre Dame.  We visited on a Saturday around noon and were surprised to see a mass underway.  I'm not Catholic, or for that matter, religious, but somehow it felt wrong to be traipsing through a cathedral while a sacred rite was taking place.  I would have assumed that the church would have been closed to all but the worshipers during services.  In fact, that is why we opted to visit on Saturday rather than on Sunday since we had encountered more than one iconic church who closed their doors to tourists during religious services.  Numerous signs, written in multiple languages, cautioned visitors to silence their cell phones, remain silent and refrain from using the flashes on their cameras but human nature being what it is, people continued to speak at volumes that echoed throughout the church as flashes popped and a few cell phones rang.  We tip-toed along the perimeter of the cathedral taking in the grand spectacle of this famous church.  With my layman's perspective,  I vacillated between being in awe of the gold gilded accouterments and wondering about the monetary worth of the treasures the church contained.  It is easy to see the wealth and influence the Catholic Church held, and perhaps still holds, over the faithful.  During especially dark times I can understand why people would turn to such an impressive institution for both comfort and direction.  At the same time I take pause when thinking about the abject poverty that thousands of common people endured while the Church prospered.  Despite, or perhaps because of these dueling feelings, I left the inside of the Cathedral slightly disturbed but in awe just the same.

Just one of  many amazing stained glass windows

Despite all of the cathedrals we have visited--ones in Rome, Budapest, Prague, and Vienna to name just a few-- our visit to Notre Dame marked a first for us.  For the first time, we went to the top of the church and viewed the city from the 69 meter high towers.  Since I have an insurmountable fear of heights, this excursion was not planned.  When we first approached the exterior of the cathedral we noticed an ever growing number of people lining up along the perimeter of the building.  Upon closer inspection we saw the usual stanchions indicating where people should stand and a sign informing us that the tour started at this point.  We assumed our place in line and huddled in the blustery wind as the queue of people snaked forward ever so slowly.  Finally after what seemed like hours but was actually closer to just one, we earned our opportunity to enter the cathedral. I thought we were going to enter the chapel; instead we found ourselves climbing a steep and narrow staircase that wound upwards in an endless spiral.

A bird's eye perspective of Paris
As it dawned on me what was happening, I had a moment of panic. After all, I am the one who makes it a rule to never go above the ground level if I can help it.  After a fearful climb up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Glenn has accepted the fact that he will be touring towers by himself while I remain safely on the ground below.  However, on Saturday, chilled from standing in line, I decided to give a trip to the top a go.  Slowly I followed Glenn up, up, up to the top of the towers.  Just when I began to wonder how much higher we could climb, we emerged on the terrace of the Chimera Gallery complete with gargoyles and the sound of peeling bells. Much to my relief the entire area was protected by a security netting that would prevent all but the smallest of objects from plummeting to the ground below.  I stayed close to the back wall but bravely opened my eyes and looked out at the vista before me. I was rewarded with a spectacular view of Paris. Below me the Seine flowed, green open spaces abounded, and not so ordinary, ordinary buildings lined the streets.  The Eiffel Tower soared in the background creating an iconic Parisian scene.  I was shaky but I had done it and it was truly beautiful.

And the view in the other direction
From here we had the option of continuing even higher to the top of the south tower.  Not wanting to press my luck since this was higher that I had been in a very long time, I decided to descend to the stable ground below while Glenn continued upwards.  Back on the ground I reflected on the views from above that provided a very different perspective than is possible from ground level.  The views were amazing and I admit, worth the climb.  And I just might make that climb, or a similar one, again.

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