Sunday, January 23, 2011

The bells of Notre Dame

Throughout our trip, every time we went into a cathedral, however grand (and they were, oh, they were,) and Mike went WOW! I would assert, yes, yes, this is awfully special, but wait 'til we get to Notre Dame.

So, now in Paris, I was a little nervous. Had I given Notre Dame too much of a build-up? Would she truly be as magnificent as I remembered? Were my scathing lessons on NOT pronouncing Notre Dame the Cathedral as you would the football team -"noh-trah-daahme" vs (cringe) "nohtrrdam" too stringent?

We'd seen some dauntingly long lines in front of the cathedral the day before, would Notre Dame be so crowded we wouldn't be able to truly appreciate her grandeur in the sort of serene, awed silence she deserves?

Trying to beat the crowds, then, in the first clear morning light of Paris we hurried, as best as we could, through our croissants and beautiful coffees to get to the 4th arrondissement, that beautiful island in the Seine, the Île de la Cité. It is, I read somewhere, the oldest part of Paris, having been occupied for thousands of years, beginning with the Parisii tribe of Gauls. I'd always assumed Paris was named after Paris of Troy.

Guess I was wrong.

No worries, I'm used to it.

It took 200 years, beginning in 1163, to complete one of the most magnificent cathedrals in all the world. Victor Hugo called Notre Dame "a symphony in stone". I all the years that she has graced the Earth, I doubt that anyone could more aptly describe her.

We had chosen well to come early and were there before the lines formed, able to walk in and proceed through the holy spaces at our own contemplative pace. Few scenes, to my mind, compare with the complexity and brilliance of the masterpiece of the South Rose Window, which would take pages and pages to describe were I to to try and do it justice.

Which I'm not going to do to either of us.

Inside the cathedral is just as you would imagine, full of the work of centuries of artists and craftspeople, from paintings and sculptures to stonework and brickwork and woodcarving, and, over all second only to the skies themselves, the dizzyingly soaring architecture of the cathedral embracing and sheltering all.

I learned what gives a cathedral its name, by the way: it is the seat of the bishop, which I knew, but actually holds the chair where the bishop or archbishop sits called, wait for it, the cathedra.

Now that is some good trivia right there.

We walked the long, long circuit around the interior, admiring such things as the nave, transepts, lintels, archivolts, and trumeaus. And when we gazed up at the jewel-like stained glass windows there were terms to ferret out like medallion, lancet, mullions and tracery.

At which point you put down the guidebook, soak it all in, wallow in your ignorance, trust your own reactions to things and call it good.

Also, make donations and light candles for loved ones. It can't hurt.

The number of people inside was increasing exponentially, and we had a second destination for the morning, the towers of Notre Dame.

My record for climbing Parisian landmarks wasn't that great, and I was about to distinguish myself and add to my list of shame. Mike and I got at the end of the line, which stretched a good distance next to the cathedral on the Rue du Cloître Notre-Dame. The first guests hadn't been allowed to ascend the 387 stone steps yet, but we were fine with waiting.

There was a strange fellow who was undoubtedly held in great regard wearing a frightening mask and played pranks on passers-by, to the hilarity of some of the waiting crowd, and to the discomfort of others. The gargoyles looked down and grimaced...but then they always do that.

Another couple stopped and asked if we were at the end of the line, which we affirmed and they happily joined us.

many, many gargoyles

A woman came up to Mike and me and began to speak in a somewhat agitated manner, I believe in French, but I couldn't swear to it. I could understand a few words of what she said, but not enough to quite get it. I thought she was asking where the line began, especially since she was pointing to the other end of the line. We agreed, oui, oui, and smiled benignly at her, happy to help.

She walked away, then came back, and we went back and forth again. Bystanders joined the conversation. Many hand gestures, possibly several languages, and voices raised. We continued smiling and nodding, the gargoyles continued to grimace in their cheerful stony way.

Finally after many and impressively varied attempts at communication, it was finally made clear to us. We had, (in a perfectly innocent mistake, I would like to emphasise) cut and stood in the very beginning of the line, in front of the other good people waiting.

Oops. Er, pardon, pardon s'il vous plait, pardon...

line to enter Notre Dame

We made a good show of apologising to anyone who would listen and scuttling to the other end of the line as quickly as possible.

But after our slice of shame it went well. We waited politely and contritely with the other nice couple we'd invited to join us at the front of the line, Americans on a whirlwind honeymoon.

With the newlyweds we climbed the many, many spiraling stairs in their tight rotation. About halfway up was the gift shop, to entice the winded to pause and purchase. We pressed on, calling encouragement to one another until at long last we stood atop Notre Dame. It was thrilling to see Paris spread out below us this way, the way I think everyone should see this beautiful city.

The chimera stand guard there, mythical creatures looking out with us over the city, naughty and whimsical. These are not gargoyles, as to be a gargoyle, we learned, you must also be a rainspout. The word "gargoyle" comes from from the French gargouille, originally "throat" or "gullet", related to our word gargle. The rain, then, gargles in the throats of the gargoyles. Say that 10 times fast.

The gargoyles not only frighten away evil spirits, but also protect the masonry of the cathedral, rerouting rainwater that would otherwise cause erosion.

As for the purely decorative chimera, who could not love them? To me there is something deeply compelling and humorous about these fanciful stone denizens of the heights.

We even climbed into the belltower, to see the enormous bells that Quasimodo would have rung, had there been a real Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Up there, among the grotesque and amusing creatures, the angels and the heavenly city, I realised, if there is a part of Paris that speaks Paris to me, it is Notre Dame.

She is the heart and soul of the city. She has a long and complicated past, an enduring legacy, imposing and wonderful, serene and overwhelming, with rich treasures and humorous delights and layers and layers of meaning. Undeniably enchanting.

The Paris of my dreams.


Joanna said...

It's crazy exam week, and I needed a study break, so I went to Paris for a few minutes! Thanks for refreshing my memory, too. As always, excellent narrative. :)

AKBrady said...

Traveling around Europe I remember whenever I was out of money I'd go sit inside a Cathedral and listen to the organists practice. A great place to be during a rainstorm. Notre Dame, however, was spectacular.

paris parfait said...

Great photos, which reminded me I have never climbed those steps. And now, even with my injured knee, I really need to climb then to get some shots from that view! Must fit it into my time left here. :)

Natalie said...

Jo, best of luck with those exams. It'll feel good to have them over. Erin, you always have the best travel tales and tips, love it!
and Tara, you MUST go up there. I can't wait to see what your amazing photographer's eye comes up with, I mean, I was up there with a P&S camera that's been fried by the desert sun, and the photos were still there snow in Paris now? A chimera peeking evilly from beneath a cap of snow would be amazing photograph...!

*Paula* said...

OOh I loved that tid-bit about the gargoyles! I noticed them on a cathedral in Prague but didn't get the connecting. Now I know. Thanks! ;)

Nathalie said...

You always have the best perspectives in your photos, along with great text :) I have been thinking about you lately as I am trying to! :P