Smoke billowed from the heart of Paris last week, as the city’s 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.
Miraculously — and we needed a miracle during the Holy Week catastrophe — the Parisian pompiers were able to extinguish the fire and save the edifice. Arriving on the scene, French President Emmanuel Macron vowed that the cathedral would be rebuilt.
A gentle drizzle tumbled from gray skies the day after the fire 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.
I’ve always found Notre Dame a reassuring and stoic fixture on the Seine. In my day-to-day routine, I’d look up from a bus ride, or the metro line 5 traversing the Seine, and take comfort in even a glimpse of the steadfast cathedral rising over the river.
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 is a witness to hundreds of years of tumultuous history. And it has become the keystone of the city’s tourism industry.
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 creche scene is populated with Provençal 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. From the top, the Parisian panoramas take your breath away.
It’s too early to know how long Notre Dame will be closed to the public. Macron has promised 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 that they might not be aware of its glorious counterparts scattered throughout the city.
I hope visitors will then turn for inspiration and solace in these other exquisite Paris churches.
For example, there’s Saint-Etienne-du-Mont. It sits in the shadow of the Pantheon in the Latin Quarter atop a hill honoring Saint Genevieve, Paris’ patron saint, whose prayers are said to have stopped the invasion by Attila the Hun in 451 AD. (Her ancient sarcophagus is housed inside.) A graceful study of flamboyant gothic architecture, the church also played 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, considered the oldest church 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 originally built in the 13th century to house the holy relics, including the Crown of Thorns, 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 church represents a melange of architectural styles and hosts wonderful concerts.
Basilica of Sacré-Coeur
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.
Basilica of Saint Denis
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 hard-scrabble northern suburb of Saint Denis developed a reputation as a problematic banlieue after 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 250 AD in present-day Montmartre. From there, he walked 4 miles, carrying 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 eighth 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,” said Charlotte, “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 (seventh 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.