Paris: A Week in the City of Love: Day 7 - Notre-Dame de Paris, Crypte archéologique de l'île de la Cité
[UPDATE August 11, 2019: At present both Notre-Dame de Paris and Crypte archéologique de l'île de la Cité are closed due to the fire on April 15, 2019. The area is currently hazardous due to lead from the fire. For more on the situation and some history on the building with lead, check out this article here.]
The final day of a trip is always bittersweet: bitter that it is coming to an end and for the upcoming return flight home and sweet for the new memories and experiences. I often get to the end of a trip having not done things I thought I would do but having done other things that led to unexpected surprises.
A few places on our list for Paris that we never made it to: Eiffel Tower (though we saw it from a distance, which honestly was enough for me) and Montmartre, which I am bummed we didn’t see. One place that we almost didn’t make it into was Notre Dame, only making it there on our final morning in the city. There was really no excuse for almost not making it into Notre Dame. As we shared before, we were just a few minutes’ walk from the cathedral, could hear its bells tolling from our apartment, and walked by it multiple times a day. I think we left it to the end for the same reason most of us are not great at visiting things in our hometown - the sense that it’s right there and convenient and can always do it later.
When we watched the Notre Dame fire on the news a week and a half later, we felt fortunate to have seen it when we did. Though the site is currently closed for clean-up and repairs, and may be so for quite some time, we will still share our experience and tips for those future visitors.
There are two parts of Notre Dame available for visits. The first is the standard front door entrance into the cathedral. The second is the tower tour that starts on the left of the building (when viewed from the front) and provides visitors access to the rooftop walk and one of the bell towers, Quasimodo’s haunt.
We started with the tower tour and used the Duck the Line app to select an available entry time on our phones. It basically held our spot in line through the app, and it alerted us when we had a short window for entry so we could head over. We had trouble finding the side entrance and literally showed the gatekeeper our time slot on the app with 30 seconds to spare. Because we had a Paris museum pass, we also did not have to wait to purchase an access ticket inside and could continue straight up.
It you suffer from dizziness, dislike enclosed spaces, have poor knees, or are not in pretty good shape, you may want to think twice before going up in the tower. The access route is a curved staircase that goes on and on in a circle. There are a few stops along the way on the way up to catch your breath, but some people were definitely struggling. On our exit from the building, I counted the steps in the continuous flight down on the other side, and it was 386 steps!
At the top of the tower, you are rewarded for your exertion with an amazing view. You are able to walk along the front of the cathedral and meander back along one of the sides. We were eye-to-eye with the spire that was built in the mid 1800s (read some interesting history of the spire here) and famously collapsed in the fire, and from atop the building we could see the landmarks of Paris spread out before us.
Up on a hill to the right was Montmartre, the Eiffel Tower stretched out in front of us, we could see the Montparnasse Tower, and the Seine winding its way through the city. There were workers up on the roof, and I thought what an interesting job that must be to work high atop Notre Dame and be so intimately familiar with its peaks and rooftop. It is believed that it the construction was the source of the fire. We got to go up in the bell tower on the side closer to the Seine and see the inner woodwork surrounding the huge bell and climb up even higher to a platform above the bell itself.
As I said, the exit was a continuous circular stairway of 386 steps that felt like it would never end until it finally did and dumped us out, blinking, into the light of day. From there, we entered the main front doors of the cathedral.
Having climbed the entire height of the cathedral and walked along its massive rooftop space, I was still surprised to discover how massive it was indoors. The cathedral was jam-packed with people even though there was no long line yet, which suggests to me that it can be even more crowded during peak season. There were so many different paintings and areas, endless candles that could be lit in prayer, which is a Catholic tradition. There was a separate section that could be entered for additional pay to see more artifacts of the church, which we did not do. I feel like I wasn’t able to take in as much as I would have liked because it was so very crowded. Looking skyward were lots of wooden beams and wooden sections so that later when the church burned and they talked about the wood construction hidden below the roof, I knew exactly what they were talking about.
For lunch, Dustin and I returned to St. Regis Café, just across the bridge on Ile St. Louis. We spend some time talking through what we wanted to do that afternoon - our last hours in the city - and decided to visit the Crypte archéologique de l'île de la Cité near Notre Dame.
First, let’s set the stage for what a ‘crypt’ is because I had mistakenly affiliated it only with burial spots. A crypt, at its core, is an underground vault. Most commonly they are associated with churches and are burial spots below ground. This crypt is an anthropological one, an underground vault housing archaeological findings, I guess in a way it is a burial ground of a prior city, too.
When we looked at the map online, it indicated that the entrance to this spot was right in front of Notre Dame, but in all of our walks through the area, we had never seen anything that looked like an entrance to an underground museum. In front of Notre Dame is an open square where visitors photograph the church and wait in line to enter. Lo and behold! When we knew what we were looking for we found the entrance tucked away at the far end of the square. I wonder how many people visit and have no idea that this really cool spot is hidden in plain sight! Given the relatively small number of visitors there when we were, I suspect it is often overlooked.
Before explaining what visitors to the crypte archéologique will find, let’s first take a quick time travel journey.
Like all cities, Paris had a start and one that didn’t initially differentiate it from many other small towns that had been settled across modern-day France. Early settlers in the area established themselves on Île de la Cité and over time the population grew. Lives were lived in much the same way as they always had because before the modern era, the life from a person to his great, great, great, great grandchild didn’t vary much at all - facets of the human experience such as technological advancements and economic changes were slow moving.
Over time through political actions and wars, Paris became a central part of France and then eventually the ultimate capital. But it all started right there with the center of the city on Île de la Cité, smack in the middle of the Seine. A book I read before this trip that provides a helpful summary of the city’s origins - Robert Cole’s A Traveller’s History of France. At 238 pages, it truly reads as a cliff notes version of history so is a great (though dense) way to get yourself up to speed on the country's history before a trip.
Over time, the island was expanded to where its current shoreline is today, and prior buildings were razed or destroyed by time, by fire, and by human engineering. When the area in front of Notre Dame was being excavated for - of all things - an expansion to the parking lot that was there for visitors, archaeologists discovered the foundation of that early Paris underground and after studying it for clues and knowledge, kept a portion of it open to the public, the modern-day crypte archéologique.
Visible in the museum are the actual ruins of the old buildings and narrow passageways that developed as the city became more populated. The original, reinforced city wall on the bank of the island is visible, which shows how much larger today’s island is. There are coins found on site from civilizations far and wide showing the extent of trade routes. And there are displays that explain the evolution of the area over time through maps and depictions of the completed buildings. For any lovers of archaeology, history, and the Roman empire, this is a must-see stop. It also puts the modern city in a different light as you think about what it meant to different people and how they lived over time. We learned that when Notre Dame was first built, it was crammed in to a crowded area; the flat viewing area in front of it is a modern invention. You can learn more about this cool spot on their website here.
One really cool thing that Dustin actually noticed when we returned above ground is that the flat viewing area in front of Notre Dame is actually labelled with markers for the earlier streets and buildings we had just learned about. That neat feature helped us to visually picture the area as it once was.
For our last night in Paris, we ate dinner at Le Petit Pantoise, a few blocks away from where we were staying. The food was simple and unadorned and palatable but not the greatest. The restaurant itself was small and cute with a very small number of tables.
After dinner as we searched online for options for the rest of the evening, we found a few jazz clubs housed in caves that we thought we might go check out later in the evening but upon going home, we realized we were way too exhausted to venture out and called it a night to be well-rested for our return trip home from CDG to Reykjavik to Washington-Dulles before the 5-hour drive home.