One of France’s most brilliant expressions of medieval architecture, this remarkably harmonious ensemble of carved portals, huge towers, and flying buttresses has survived close to a millennium’s worth of French history and served as a setting for some of the country’s most solemn moments. Napoleon crowned himself and Empress Joséphine here, Napoleon III was married here, and some of France’s greatest generals (Foch, Joffre, Leclerc) had their funerals here. In August 1944, the liberation of Paris from the Nazis was commemorated in the cathedral, as was the death of General de Gaulle in 1970.
The story of Notre-Dame begins in 1163, when Bishop Maurice de Sully initiated construction, which lasted over 200 years. (The identity of the architect who envisioned this masterpiece remains a mystery.) The building was relatively untouched up until the end of the 17th century, when monarchs started meddling with its windows and architecture. By the time the Revolutionaries decided to convert it into a “Temple of Reason,” the cathedral was already in sorry condition—and the pillaging that ensued didn’t help. The interior was ravaged, statues were smashed, and the cathedral became a shadow of its former glory.
We can thank the famous “Hunchback” himself for saving Notre-Dame. Victor Hugo’s novel, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, drew attention to the state of disrepair, and other artists and writers began to call for the restoration of the edifice. In 1844, Louis-Phillipe hired Jean-Baptiste Lassus and architect/archeologist/writer/painter Viollet-le-Duc to restore the cathedral, which they finished in 1864. Though many criticized Viollet-le-Duc for what they considered to be overly romantic and unauthentic excesses, he actually took extreme care to remain faithful to the historic gothic architecture. His addition of a 45m (148-ft.) spire, for example, was in fact a re-creation of one that existed in the 13th century. Made out of lead-covered oak (chene), it weighs 750 metric tons (827 U.S. tons).
Begin your visit at Point Zéro, just in front of the building on the parvis (the esplanade). It is the official center of Paris and the point from which all distances relative to other French cities are calculated. Before you are three enormous carved portals depicting (from left to right) the Coronation of the Virgin, the Last Judgment, and scenes from the lives of the Virgin and St-Anne. Above is the Gallery of the Kings of Judah and Israel—thought to be portraits of the kings of France, the original statues were chopped out of the facade during the Revolution; some of the heads were eventually found in the 1970s and now are in the Musée National du Moyen Age/Thermes de Cluny. Above this is a superb rose window, over which soar the two bell towers of Quasimodo fame.
Upon entering the cathedral, you’ll be immediately struck by two things: the throngs of tourists clogging the aisles, and then, when you look up, the heavenly dimensions of the pillars holding up the ceiling. Soaring upward, these delicate archways give the impression that the entire edifice is about to take off into the sky. Up there in the upper atmosphere are the three remarkable stained-glass rose windows, one for each of the west, north, and south ends of the church. The north window retains almost all of its 13th-century stained glass; the other two have been heavily restored. The impressive treasury is filled with relics of various saints including the elaborate cases for the Crown of Thorns, brought back from Constantinople by Saint Louis in the 13th century. The crown itself is not on display; however, it can be viewed, along with a nail and some pieces of the Holy Cross, on the first Friday of the month (3pm), every Friday during Lent (3pm), and Good Friday (10am–5pm). For a detailed look at the cathedral, take advantage of the free guided tours in English (Mon, Tues, Sat 2:30pm; Wed–Fri 2pm) or rent an audioguide for 5€.
When you leave, be sure to take a stroll around the outside of the cathedral to admire the other portals and the famous flying buttresses.