Table of Contents for this Episode
Episode 6, Notre Dame Self Guided Tour Transcript
How to “Do” Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris
Annie: This is join us in France podcast number six. Hello, I’m Annie.
Elyse: And I’m Elyse and we welcome you to the join us in France podcast, the show where we share the best of France.
Annie: Elyse is a professional tour guide, art historian, and this is the podcast we help you prepare your trip to France and share with you everything you need to know to have a great time in France. On today’s show we are going to be talking about the stunning Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris and Elyse will take us on a virtual tour around the Cathedral. On join us in France.com you will find our show notes. Will hope you come by and say hello, and we have some extras for you there. And now, a little music to get us in the mood and then we’ll jump right into it!
Elyse: So today, our third podcast on Notre Dame, the fabulous must-see monument in Paris, we are going to concentrate on how to organize your visit, how to walk around, which way to go, what do not miss, etc. So I’ll let you take it away Elyse!
You MUST Walk around the Outside
Elyse: Okay! So we talked so much about the history, we talked about the architectural details, and basically what to look for. Now what I’d like to do as our final podcast about Notre Dame is my suggestions on how to do the visit. I do this a lot with the people I take to see it, and I think it really helps put everything in perspective. And it’s to me the very best way of doing it.
Elyse: I’m talking about doing a visit that’s between an hour and an hour and a half visit. Which includes mostly being on the outside, but a little time on the inside. And it includes the surrounding environment which I want to talk about a little bit right now. If you don’t have at least an hour and a half to give to Notre Dame, which I think is nice to have if have several days in Paris.
Elyse: But if you really don’t, and you have a very little time, my suggestion—is instead of not going there—to go and then just spend some time looking at the Western facade. The very front of the church. And if you have a few minutes to do some walking around, do it. But don’t leave Paris without at least seeing that.
Annie: Otherwise her arm will come out and slap you!
Elyse: This is my idea of how to do Notre Dame. You’ve arrived in the front of Notre Dame and you are standing on the space in front which is called the Esplanade or in fact the old original word in French is the “parvis”. Basically it’s the big space that helps you stand there and look at it. So, my suggestion is this the first thing you do is take in the Western facade that is this incredible wall that has down below the three magnificent carved doorways; that has the line of incredible 12 statues on the second level; and the towers going up.
Elyse: Give yourself the time to take it is all in. Move back to get a view of the whole ensemble from a certain distance. If you have to step on a few of the tourists, it’s okay just do you push them out of the way to give yourself a chance to move back and then move in closer so you can take some great photos. You can take photos from a distance, you can take photos from close-up. It’s really a trip to see this whole thing. And you know some, people like one part, some people like another.
Originally, Notre Dame Was Painted in Bright Colors!
Elyse: One thing though, all of what you’re going to look at has recently been recently cleaned up. This is all, remember, very very white limestone. It’s brilliant that shines in the sun. It’s absolutely gorgeous, and it helps you see all the details. And all this work was done in the last 15 or years or so thanks to the mayor of Paris. But, think about this: the original church was all color. Everything was painted! Everything was painted in color! And, with these three doorways on the facade, the background was pure gold.
Elyse: The beautiful 12 big statues on the second level, they were all in color, and they were in these alcoves that were all pure gold. It must have been amazing! In the Middle Ages there was color everywhere on Notre Dame and it it was totally different from what we see today. So, that’s a hard one to imagine. Apparently I’ve been told that they are trying to put together a program on the computer that gives you a synthetic version of what that was like back in the Middle Ages.
Annie: It would be really cool!
Elyse: If there is, we will be letting you know about that. It really is amazing to imagine that.
[Addition: If you Google “Dame de Coeur Cathedrale Notre Dame” you will find a sound and light show that illustrates what it might have been like. We don’t know what color items on the facade were painted specifically (other than where there is some paint left), but we do know that it was colored]
Elyse: So take your time, take in everything you can see, all you can get up close to see if some of the details. If you look at the doorway on the left side, you’ll notice that the statuary on the left side of the left doorway, there are a few big statues Saints, and there’s one there’s a guy standing there with his head under his arms. And that is Saint-Denis. Saint-Denis is the unfortunate one. He was the first martyr and the patron saint of Paris, so we have to give him credit, he’s been standing there holding his head under his arm for a very very long time. So once you get done with the really taking in the facade, this is my suggestion.
Elyse: Move off to the left and go down the little side street that is on the left-hand side as you’re facing the church. You will notice that at the corner there is the gateway and entrance to the towers. If you are interested in going up to the towers, that is where you have to get online, and will talk about how much it cost them of the hours are at the end of this little podcast right now. That is where you would go if you want to actually do the towers themselves
[Correction: This has all changed in the meantime: you now get a ticket from the machine (during business hours) and you come back at the appointed time. They don’t want too many people lining up on the side of the Cathedral for security reasons, so they want you to come back at a specific time to go up the tower.]
Elyse: But if you don’t, keep going down the street and you will notice that on the walls of the church there are some really beautiful little medallions with some relief sculptures in them that are very very lovely. Again everything has been cleaned up and is all gleaming and very clean limestone now. Some of these, if you take a good look, you might notice very tiny little pieces or suggestions of color on some of them. Because most of these medallions are still the originals. That means that they are from, let’s say about the year 1200. They are really old.
Elyse: So, go all the way down that street and then all of a sudden you’ll be coming to an iron “grille” gateway that takes you into a little park. And this is the Notre Dame Park. This is the beautifully renovated and fixed up park. That was part of the gardens that belonged to the monastery years and years ago before the French Revolution. And so if you go in that gateway which is open of course until nightfall all the time anyway, you will be in this beautiful park space. There are some trees, there some benches, and it’s a place from which you can turn around and look up and see the whole choir and backside of Notre Dame Cathedral.
Why You Must Go to the Park Behind the Notre Dame Cathedral
Elyse: And it is fabulous because it gives you a sense of the size. It gives you a sense of the power of the structure and the complexity at the same time. Because as you walk through the park and you walk around towards the other side of the church, you will see the flying buttresses, you will see how they push into the upper levels, you will see all the different levels of the side chapels, and the choir and all the incredible work that was done. And I must say, as beautiful as the Western facade is, if you really want to get a sense of the history and the actual construction of the church there is no place better to do that then at the back end of the church.
Annie: And many tourists never go to the back. They just look at the front, they go in and of course if it’s a bad weather day I understand what you’d spend more time inside than out. But, really, the outsiders is where it’s at.
Elyse: To me this is invaluable, and it’s really a fabulous thing to do. So you go through this, and again on this is a fabulous place to take lots and lots of photos, you have space, it’s never too crowded so you have space to move around. You can really get a great some great shots in. And then go through the park and you’ll see there’s a gateway opening up on the other side. That’s actually taking you literally to the walkway that runs along the Seine River. And between the landscaping in the park the river, it is such a beautiful spot anyway, and then you are on the other side of the church. And so what you’re doing is literally walking all around the church from one side on the north to the back-end which is the East coming around the other side which is the south side that runs along the edge of the river right.
Elyse: And you get to see the southern rose window high up. You get to see the rooftop and from here, as you go along heading back towards the Western side, where we started from, you get to see part of the roof that was redone in the 1800s. And has this absolutely magnificent copper that’s oxidized. So it’s all this very beautiful patina in green and there’s this very funny very strange big spire that was added on to the peak of the roof in the middle of the church that was added on actually in the 1800s it was never there before. It was something new that was added on, I guess they just couldn’t resist in spite of doing all of this careful restoration of what was there before they just could not resist adding something new onto the church so that on the spire and a couple of incredibly good sculptors added on a whole series of figures that represent various kings again from the Bible And these figures, believe it or not are not in stone, they are in copper also.
[Correction: These are the 12 Apostles, not kings. One of them, Judas, is turning his back on the others.]
Elyse: They are green because it is oxidized and they’re moving up the edge of the roof on both sides and it’s very strange because there’s a quality to them and makes you feel like you’re going to start moving and just keep on going up to know to the top of the spire. Really, there is nothing more impressive than walking all the way around the church and getting a full feel for the basic idea of what Gothic architecture was. And how incredibly impressive I Notre Dame.
Annie: I’m so glad I’m listening to this because last time was a Notre Dame I didn’t walk around the church all the way. I have to confess, I looked inside for a long time, so next time. I go a lot anyways.
Elyse: And it’s really nice because on top of everything else, the city of Paris has renovated this beautiful little park. So it’s very user-friendly there lots of benches, lots of flowers and beautiful plants it’s really lovely. And it’s a fabulous way of getting a sense of what Notre Dame is.
Annie: Isn’t it back there that you said the bathroom was as well?
[Addendum: YES, it is!]
Elyse: We will talk about in a minute, just wait for a second.
Elyse: Do all of this walking around, get in these fabulous photos you have shots on the north side, with details from the back east side of the fabulous structure with the flying buttresses, on the south side with the towers and the rose window. And, of course, if you look out across to your left across the river and you see literally the oldest part of Paris that’s still standing you can get a very very very small idea of what it must’ve been like hundreds and hundreds of years ago when this church was there in the midst of all these old old buildings. It was really fabulous. So, you get yourself back through the park and you come out of the gateway again. And, there you are back at the beginning.
Elyse: I just want to say a couple of words about this esplanade that is this big open space in front of the Western facade of the Western Wall of of Notre Dame Cathedral. The French call it a “parvis”. It is a strange word P-A-R-V-I-S okay. We don’t say the “S” at the end. It sounds like a nice southern word. “Parvis” today comes from the Latin word “paradisum” which means paradise. Because, in the Middle Ages, paradise was always associated with the entrance to the big Cathedral. And so, when you are standing in this open space, which by the way is much bigger than it used to be. It used to be a much smaller space, but still, it’s the same basic idea: you’re entering into the space of paradise. Isn’t that neat?
Annie: You are facing paradise.
Elyse: You are going into paradise. I love that! Now, there are two other things to know about the “parvis” or the esplanade. Yes it was renovated and made much much bigger in the middle of the 1800s when they did all the restoration work on the church. There is this huge statue of Charlemagne on a horse.
Annie: Yes, that is Charlemagne, yes.
Elyse: That is Charlemagne standing off to the side if you again are facing the Western facade, so he’s off your to your right. And he is a big guy on a horse. And, of course, the reason why Charlemagne is there is because he was put there in the 1800s, but he represents the founder of the unified country of France. So going back to the eighth century. So he is considered to be the founder of the country so that’s why he’s there.
Elyse: And one last little thing, if you look down on the ground and you’re standing pretty much where you’re in front of, but about a good hundred feet away from the the doorway on your right, the one facing closest to the river. You will look on the ground and you will find this circular plaque made out of bronze. There’s a circle in the middle and it has four quadrants on it. And it is from this spot—now originally was there was a stake there originally in the Middle Ages that was something else. But it was, but it was recently (in the 20th century) redone and they put this plaque in the ground this is point zero. This is the spot from where all roads are measured in terms of the distance for any other place in France.
Annie: Yeah and I was really important back then. By now we have GPS it’s all done from the sky. But, you know it was high-technology back then, and it worked!
Elyse: And it worked! And of course, the other thing is, it’s not just that it worked, it’s that even today—and as you and I know Annie—everyone will say I yeah everything is centered around Paris. Well, of course it is! Paris is the center of everything, so there you are! Everything starts in Paris and ends in Paris.
Annie: Oh, dear!
Elyse: So it’s really really great. So we’ve done the outside, we’ve done the inside. My suggestion is, once you have walked your way around the church, then go inside and depending on how much time you have, visit the inside of the church. If you have two hours, take the two hours. It is wonderful, it’s totally an amazing experience, and this is what I suggest you do it this way. Because by doing it this way, you really feel Notre Dame. And you are situated in the heart of the old city of Paris.
Practical Information about Visiting Notre Dame Cathedral
Elyse: Before we end, I would like to give some simple very practical information.
Annie: Okay I’m all ears again!
Elyse: Here we go. The church is free. It’s open all the time, most days it is open from 8 till 6:45 in the evenings. On the weekends and in the summer time it’s open till 7:45 at night.
Annie: They do close it and lock it down. Don’t show up at 9 PM and expect to get in, not going to happen.
Elyse: But, it is also true that because it is so big even when there is a service, when there is a mass, you can go in. You just have to be quiet and be respectful. But it’s such a huge church that is possible. And again it’s a really functioning Cathedral, so there is a mass said many many times during the day.
What’s inside the Treasure of Notre Dame
Elyse: Now, the treasure of Notre Dame. There is a place inside the church called the treasury. That has the relics. It has all these of objects that were built and made over the centuries that either held valuable artifacts, or even old relics, which are obviously pieces of of the Saints or even pieces of the Holy Cross. This is a separate part of the church in Notre Dame, it is free, in some other churches it’s not.
[Correction: in 2017 you have to pay €4 per person to go see the Treasure at Notre Dame. Annie thinks it’s worth it if you’re a history buff because these treasures come up all the time in French history. If you’re not someone who loves history, it’s fine to skip it.]
Elyse: It’s open from 9 to 6, and so if you want to go in there, you go into the church and it’s off to the side on the southern side you can actually go into the treasury.
Annie: Southern side, left or right?
Elyse: Right when you go in down the aisle. It’s off to your right third of the way down.
How to Do the Towers of Notre Dame
[18:54] Elyse: The tower is 837 steps.
[Correction: there are 387 steps all the way up the tower, not 837.]
Annie: Oooh, that’s a lot of steps!
Elyse: It’s a lot of steps, you’ve got to have good knees and a good pair of lungs. Lots of people do it. Now you have to pay to go up the tower. It is eight euros per adult and five euros for anyone under the age of 25. It’s open starting at 10, not at 8 the church is open from eight the towers open from 10. It is open at night late, and it’s open till 11 at night in the summer months only, and until 5:45 from October through March. If you want to go up, and lots and lots of people do in spite of how many steps it is. Get there early because there’s always a line. Always! Even in the rain, even in the cold weather.
Elyse: But but if you have the legs for it it’s worth it because you get to see the bells close-up, you get to stand up on top of Notre Dame, and you have a view out over the old part of Paris that is unbelievable.
Annie: I have been up there and I mean obviously my legs were burning that day, but I have forgotten, and I’d probably do it again. But 800 and something steps, that’s a lot, you won’t need to go to the gym that day!
What’s in the Archeological Crypt near Notre Dame?
Elyse: now there’s a new thing on the “parvis” and that is called the archaeological crypt. And you have to pay four euros to go in there it’s open from 10 to 6 every day except Monday. And it’s in a space that was made underground where you can see small-scale models of what ancient Paris looked like. Also examples of some of the artifacts that they’ve dug up in doing their archaeological work, both in the river and in the ground nearby. They’ve done a lot of renovation work they’ve been doing some digging and in the digging they found a lot of things. So, for those people who are really interested in that part of the history of Paris and Notre Dame it’s really interesting.
Elyse: and if you go to Paris and have a museum past, you can go in on your pass so you don’t have to spend the extra money. So that’s it for the entrance fees.
How to Get to Notre Dame via Public Transportation
Elyse: Transportation. Notre Dame Cathedral is as we’ve said many times now on the Ile de la Cite. Dead center, dead heart of Paris. You have many many many ways of getting there now. If you’re lucky enough to be in a hotel or an apartment that’s not too far away, really easy, just walk there. If you’re in the Latin Quarter if you’re in the sixth if you’re in the fourth or in the third or the second, yeah, you can actually walk there. But if you’re not, here we go. The Metro (the subway line) in Paris, of course there arelots and lots of lines. We’re going to do a whole podcast and just transportation [ADD LINK], but just for general information.
You can get off at a stop called La Cite, it is like a block away. That’s line number 4. Subway lines in Paris are numbered. You also have another subway stop called Châtelet. And Châtelet is on of the two or three stops in Paris that has the most converging subway lines. So that’s a huge subway stop. What you need to know is that you have lines 1,4,7, or 11 that all converge there so it’s a stop you can get off and walk to the church from. And there’s also a train called the RER which is basically the suburban line, but it goes through the center of the city and there’s a stop at Saint-Michel which is literally just on the other side of walking bridge from the church.
It’s really really close that’s line C, really easy stop to get off. And there were many many many buses that stop either a block or two away, or literally across the river right from the church and just to mention, because you can go online and see all the bus maps and plug that in, but many of them stop there. You have lines number 21, 24, 27,38, 58, 70 and 96. You can imagine it means it’s a really really easy stop.
Annie: and besides you can’t miss it. With buses I always wonder am I going to miss my stop. But you can’t miss that.
Where to Eat near Notre Dame Cathedral
Elyse: and, two more things very quickly before we end. Eating! So you’ve taken my advice, and you decided to spend two hours at Notre Dame.
Annie: And walk around the church on the outside!
Elyse: and walk all around the church on the outside! And do it if you can in the morning. But you don’t have to do in the morning, it’s open all day. And truthfully, sometimes it’s actually less crowded if you do it at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon. But me, I’m supposing you’ve decided you’re going to start your day at Notre Dame. So, you’ve done Notre Dame. You’ve done the outside, you walked around, you’ve spent time in the park, you’re hungry, right?
Elyse: this is the deal. You can go far away. If you’re going somewhere else later on the day, that’s fine, it’s up to you. You can go back on transportation and go somewhere else. That’s fine, it’s up to you. If you want to get something to eat right there, this is what’s important to know, and it’s useful information. Wide across the street from the church you have a whole series of café-restaurants and small snacks stands. You can get a sandwich, you can get a crepe, you can get a soda, you can get any other kind of drink you want. And you can take those and sit either on one of the benches in front of the church or you can go to this very nice park that I mentioned that’s behind. And if it’s a nice warm sunny day, you can sit outside and have your little picnic lunch.
Elyse: and if you prefer to actually have a sit-down something, you just go to one of the nice tables that on nice days are outside. Or go inside and you can get an omelet, you can get a salad, you can get a hot dish, you can get a croque-monsieur which is this wonderful French version of a grilled cheese sandwich. And the service is fast, efficient, they have thousands of people coming through all the time.
Annie: and what’s the average price? I mean, in the rest of France or something like this you pay 13€ – 14€.
Elyse: it’s about the same. So, just because it’s next to Notre Dame it is not more expensive. This is basically your ordinary kind of service stuff. So, what I’m saying is that it’s really not worth saying oh my goodness I’m probably not going to get something to eat here. If you’re hungry and you’re tired, stay right there, get yourself something to eat, and take in the view of the church, and appreciate it while you can since you may not be there for a whole long time.
Annie: and you’re facing paradise!
Elyse: and you’re facing paradise, you certainly are! Now, one just last thing. We always do have to have one last little practical thing. If you need to use facilities if you need a toilet. Obviously if you’re going to be sitting at a table either outside or inside one of the-café restaurants, you can use the facilities they have. However, it is not considered to be appropriate to try and go in and use the toilets in a restaurant in France, unless you are a customer. So the good news is that in this little park that is at the back-end of Notre Dame that I have mentioned, there are free very clean public toilets. They are in the park, but they are closer to the north side.
Nice Public Toilets Near Notre Dame
Elyse: so if you go into the park on the north side, they are right there. When you go through the gate, they are right there to your right. Go down two steps, it’s really very good to know because they are very clean. They are kept up by somebody there, and you don’t have to pay. And it’s very reliable because they are open as long as the park is open. Which means of course at sundown the park is closed, so you need to know that too.
Annie: so in winter by 6 PM it would be closed.
Elyse: that’s it, it’s closed. But it’s very important to know that they’re there because unfortunately that can be one of the most annoying things about getting around in Paris. So that is good to know. So we talked about how to get there, where you get something to eat, how much it costs to visit, and you think that we’ve covered pretty much everything.
Annie: I have to add one more thing to what you said earlier. We were talking about taking up pictures inside of the church, as somebody who loves photography, turn off your flash, because you will get worse pictures. Especially if you are taking a photo of something that’s far away from you. If it’s more than 5 meters away from you your flash is doing nothing. So, figure out how to turn off your flash on your camera even if you have a new point-and-shoot it’s it’s well worth.
Elyse: you’re absolutely right and of course, you’ll just get glare back at you. And it’ll be out so frustrating when you get home and don’t have that wonderful picture.
So here we are, we’ve done our three podcasts about Notre Dame. It’s really a fabulous place. In a way if you just do Notre Dame and then you go to the Eiffel tower, really have gotten yourself a good feel for Paris, anyway.
Annie: well thank you again Elyse you have taught us a bunch of things. I will have to remember it all. Especially that you will have to walk outside of the church!