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Who Could Have Imagined?

17 Apr 2020

Photo By Wieslaw Jarek

August 2017: Taking in the view of Notre Dame from the Quai d’Orléans on the Île Saint-Louis.

Taking in the view of Notre Dame from the Quai d’Orléans on the Île Saint-Louis, August 2017 |  Photo by Kristin Blakeman

It was one of those indelible moments that enter the permafrost of memory.

It was just after 11:00 am in Chicago when the first notification popped up on my phone. Notre Dame de Paris was ablaze.

A day earlier, I’d spoken with clients visiting Paris who were considering going to Notre Dame. I wondered if they had made it–hoping they had. It had only been 30 minutes since the first report of the fire lit up phones across the globe, but from the earliest photos, my heart sank, knowing the damage would be significant, if not catastrophic.

The images coming from Paris were heart-rending. The gasp when the spire fell was palpable. As the world watched and prayed, the pompiers of Paris courageously battled to save the cathedral and the historic heart of the Île de la Cité.

I visited Paris a week after the fire and seemed to find myself everywhere except within view of Notre Dame. I wasn’t ready to see her–afraid it would be worse than the pictures I’d seen on TV. 

Two weeks later, on my final day in Paris, I took the same farewell lap I always do, saying ‘until next time’ to some of my favorite places. I crossed the Rue de Rivoli where it spills into the frenetic Place de la Concorde until I reached the relative calm of the Jardin des Tuileries. I followed the dusty, butter-colored paths of crushed limestone up the central axis, under the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, past I.M. Pei’s iconic Pyramid, and beyond into the Renaissance heart of the Louvre, the Cour Carrée.

“The wonderful cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, one of the greatest achievements of European civilization, was on fire. The sight dazed and disturbed us profoundly. I was on the edge of tears. Something priceless was dying in front of our eyes. The feeling was bewildering, as if the earth was shaking.”

– KEN FOLLETT, BESTSELLING AUTHOR OF THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH

Turning eastward, I passed through the stone archway that perfectly frames the dome of the Institut de France on the opposite bank of the river. Low clouds cast that distinctly Parisian shade of grey across the facades of zinc, slate, and stone, reflecting in the dark surface of the Seine as I crossed the Pont des Arts bridge. Along the left bank I passed the green-wooden stalls of the bouquinistes. Clusters of tourists with arms stretched above their heads tried to capture photos of the cathedral–now roofless and exposed to the elements. It had been just three weeks since the fire, yet work on the massive restoration effort was already underway. 

April 2019: Notre Dame after the fire, from the Quai de Montebello.  |  Photo by Radu Razvan Gheorghe

I crossed the Pont de l’Archevêché linking the Rive Gauche and the Île de la Cité, navigating the newly restricted areas until I found a spot on the eastern tip of the island to pause and take in the scene. As I took out my phone to capture a photo of my own, a man I hadn’t noticed on the sidewalk behind me started playing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah on his guitar. It was surreal and poignant. While the scene felt broken, the music offered a hopeful reminder that all was not lost.

I’ve been thinking about that moment a lot in recent weeks, knowing the anniversary was near. I remember, in the days after the fire thinking how quickly things can change–how devastating loss can make us feel as though things will never be the same as we grieve and long for ‘the way things were’ before a disaster. 

Who could have imagined that in an instant Notre Dame would be, once again, forever changed? La forêt (the forest), the 12th-century roof timbers, the medieval lead roof, and la flèche, the spire added during the 19th-century restoration by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, all lost in under 5 hours. Priceless, irreplaceable treasures of history and heritage extinct in the blink of an eye. Thanks to the heroic efforts of firefighters and officials, the towers still stand, and precious artworks and religious relics, including the crown of thorns, were saved from the flames. Perhaps most miraculously, there was no loss of life in the blaze.

“When a man understands the art of seeing, he can trace the spirit of an age and the features of a king even in the knocker on a door.”

– VICTOR HUGO, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME

Ironwork detail on the entry doors of Notre Dame de Paris.  |  Photo by Svetlana Day

In the days and weeks after the fire, historians reminded us that this fire was far from the first traumatic event Notre Dame had withstood since the laying of her foundation stones more than 860 years ago. The French Revolution claimed both tower’s bells for cannon. In 1793, when Catholic churches throughout France were closed–she remained open, but under a new name, The Temple of Reason. Through wars, revolution, occupation, and the fire of 2019, she endured–her body altered but still standing.

In the days ahead of the Notre Dame fire, who could have imagined the events to come? A year later, who could have imagined how quickly and even more dramatically, the world could have changed once again? As we face a new challenge, unlike anything many of us alive today have ever experienced, I find myself reflecting on Notre Dame. When uncertainty and fear swirl, it is easy to feel lost as our eyes and hearts try to keep up and process the scenes before us. Unimaginable new realities that only days and weeks ago, a year ago, were the stuff of sci-fi movies and Orwellian novels.

While experts and politicians disagreed over how long it would take to reopen her doors to the faithful and tourists, I wondered if I would ever be able to set foot inside her walls again–if my eight-year-old daughter would in her lifetime? I felt sad for those who had not yet made it to Paris to see her, to sit in awe in one of the thousands of tiny wooden chairs arranged in neat rows below her vaulted ceiling.

Interior of Notre Dame de Paris before the fire.  |  Photo by Yorgy67

Just a month ago, I was packing for another trip to Paris, only a few days before flights became erratic, and travel warnings increased as countries grappled with containing COVID-19. By March 7th, we decided it was best to cancel and not risk the travel uncertainties or, worse, bringing Coronavirus back home with us.

At that point, in early March, our summer 2020 trip to France still seemed entirely plausible. News reports predicted that things should be mostly ‘back to normal’ by the end of June. As I write this on April 14th, the end of June now seems unlikely, and my thoughts have turned to our home in Southwest France sitting empty and feeling so very far away. Sometimes I wonder when we will walk through its doors again and return to meeting friends for an apéro on the Place du Château. I wonder how changed the town will look, and if our two little haunts, L’Alambic and La Comédie, will survive or remain shuttered.

None of us can say with any certainty what we will lose during this time. Right now, many of us are watching events unfold from the safety of our homes just as Parisians watched Notre Dame burn from the banks of the Seine. We are praying and hoping while the most courageous among us walk into the flames to try and save all that we hold sacred. We rally at each small sign of progress, feeling one step closer to victory. But the fire we are facing today is enormous and unpredictable. It will not retreat in hours–we will not understand the devastation by morning. It will take many months of sacrifice and perseverance to overcome. How we emerge in the aftermath is still unknown. We must steel our resolve, and above all, have faith that we will come through this resilient like Notre Dame herself.

The world will undoubtedly look different after the smoke has finally cleared. Some losses will be devastating, total, and permanent. Rebuilding will be a long, slow, and expensive journey. We will grow weary of the difficult tasks at hand and long to return to gentler times. When we feel fatigued, we must remember the generations of laborers who continued to build Notre Dame, knowing they would never see her completed and look to her enduring presence, as the visible proof that we, too, will come through this.

VISIT

MUSEUM: La Cité de l'architecture et du patrimoine

This museum of architecture & heritage opened in 1882 after an initiative by Viollet-le-duc, the celebrated architect in charge of the 19th century restoration of Notre Dame.

The collection in the museum’s Galerie des moulages, features a wonderful collection of architectural models of the cathedral, the 19th c. spire, sculptures and architectural drawings.

Location: 16th Arrondissement1 place du Trocadéro et du 11 novembre
Métro: Line 9, Iéna or Trocadéro
Line 6, Trocadéro

Museum Website

CLOSED: Notre Dame Cathedral & Crypte archéologique

Due to the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in April of 2019, the Cathedral and the Crypte archéologique remain closed to visitors. A re-opening date has not yet been announced.

READ

Notre Dame: A Short History of the Meaning of Cathedrals by Ken Follett

Notre Dame: The Soul of France by Agnes Poirier

The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

Science Magazine | Scientists are leading Notre Dame’s restoration—and probing mysteries laid bare by its devastating fire

The Guardian | Our Lady of Paris a history of Notre Dame Cathedral

WATCH

LISTEN

A Playlist For Celebrating Notre Dame Cathedral's Musical Impact

by Peter O'Dowd | Here & Now

ABOUT THE AUTHOR  |  KRISTIN BLAKEMAN

I help others discover France’s storied destinations with bespoke travel experiences and relocation services. I divide my time between Chicago and France where I’m always in search of exceptional experiences to share with my clients and the armchair travelers who journey with me via my blog I Dream in French.

Ready to plan your perfect-for-you French adventure?

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