After the Fire: Notre-Dame de Paris, Our Lady of Paris

Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris

The Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris has been closed since the devastating fire of 15 April 2019. Its perimeter is fenced-off, with several bridges and roads also closed. The view across the Seine, and occasional gaps in the fence, give glimpses of the damage and early repair efforts.

Clive and I spent one evening and another afternoon taking it all in.

Our Lady of Paris

Map from Grand Paris Pratique, Éditions l’Indispensable

Notre-Dame is located on Ile de la Cité, an island in the heart of Paris and the city’s ancient birthplace. As shown above, the cathedral occupies a rectangular plot, running approximately west to east.

Notre-Dame’s two monumental towers and main entry doors face west. At its eastern end is the sweet Square Jean XXIII, a pocket-sized park beneath the flying buttresses, and Pont St-Louis, the pedestrian bridge over the Seine to the other central island, Ile St-Louis.

The cathedral’s north side is approached from bridges on the Right Bank and streets on Ile de la Cité. Its south side runs along the Seine, across from the Left Bank.

Left-Bank view, rue St-Julien

Years ago, I read the origin of the names ‘Left Bank’ and ‘Right Bank’ and how to remember which is which.

To do so, simply stand (or imagine standing) on the Place du Parvis de Notre-Dame, the large plaza in front of the towers, with your back to the cathedral entrance. Perhaps stand on the plaque marking Point Zéro, the place from which all distances are measured in France.

Point left, and that’s the Left Bank. Point right and that’s the Right Bank.

Approaching from the south, Left Bank side

First glimpse, rue Dante

Last Sunday evening, after the weekend heat wave, we walked up rue Dante for our first sight of Notre-Dame.

What a moment, to see those towers. From a distance, our initial impression was how clean they still look on the outside, lighter than we expected with no apparent fire damage to their exterior and no major charring or blackening.

The towers of Notre-Dame, from Pont St-Michel

Closer up, we came upon the huge exclusion zone, with police manning the barricades 24/7.

The two bridges closest to Notre-Dame, the Petit Pont (leads to the beginning of the Parvis, or plaza) and Pont au Double (leads to the front entry doors) are closed to vehicles and pedestrians.

The south side of the cathedral can only be viewed from across the Seine, with the river acting as a partial moat.

Some of the scaffolding in view

We noted the enormous amount of scaffolding, and Clive thought some of it looked quite precarious. We couldn’t always see where (or if!) it was fixed at regular intervals to the exterior.

Scaffolding and Rose Window

As we contemplated the vast extent of the damage and what herculean efforts will be required for restoration, Clive said it reminded him of the Ken Follett novel Pillars of the Earth, and how workers spent their entire adult lives building a cathedral. Notre-Dame now needs, and will provide, guaranteed work for specialist tradespeople and expert artisans for years to come.

We wondered, too, about the difficulty of finding the right craftsmen and women available right away, or precisely when needed. Surely this will be an ongoing challenge, though surely also many will be keen to work on Notre-Dame.

Walking east along the river, you can see one of the Rose Windows, stained glass removed, covered with plastic and wooden scaffolding.

Rose Window, south side of Notre-Dame

At the easternmost end, the Pont de l’Archevêché, a bridge to the Left Bank, is open. Here what strikes me most about the view is everything that’s missing, most notably Viollet le Duc’s iconic mid-1800s spire and the vaulted wooden roof. A flat-topped edifice remains.

Though much remains, much is missing

By this time, darkness was falling and we were feeling a bit overwhelmed. We decided to return the next day to walk around the other side, from the Right Bank.

Approaching from the north, Right Bank side

Notre-Dame towers visible from a Right-Bank café

The Right Bank bridges to and from the Ile de la Cité are all open. However, more police and barricades at Pont Notre-Dame immediately divert traffic onto the Ile’s outermost street, with no access to the cathedral.

Typical intersection: blocked-off street on Ile de la Cité, Pont Notre-Dame

Access to the front is also prohibited, with gates and barriers about halfway down Quai du Marché-Neuf (white van on left side of photo below) preventing vehicles or pedestrians from getting closer.

Notre-Dame from Pont St-Michel

The main street from the Right Bank across to Notre-Dame, rue d’Arcole, is open only to pedestrians. You can walk up rue d’Arcole to the edge of the Place du Parvis, where a giant fence begins and police protect the entrance for workers and their vehicles.

Walking up rue d’Arcole with police barrier at end

Crowd viewing Notre-Dame from end of rue d’Arcole

Beyond the fence are tents, sheds, workmen, tools and heavy machinery. Clive said the work crews must be grateful for the large plaza area in which to store all their equipment.

Clive taking in the view from end of rue d’Arcole

Inside the barrier

Based on the two days we spent around Notre-Dame, it appears that even in its damaged state and perhaps, sadly, sometimes because of that, the cathedral will remain a tourist destination, albeit now for a painful reason.

Looking back down rue d’Arcole

From this point, you can walk along the footpath (sidewalk) of the street named Cloître Notre-Dame, which runs next to the cathedral’s north side. The street itself is totally fenced off, except for one or two gaps which provide close-up and rather distressing views.

What you can see above the fence, Cloître Notre-Dame

First gap in the fence, Cloître Notre-Dame

Looking up: scaffolding everywhere, Cloître Notre-Dame

View through the gap

Continuing down Cloître Notre-Dame

Rose window, north side, with plastic covering and wooden scaffolding

Although this work began fairly recently, you can already see evidence of other countries providing equipment, such as a large yellow crane apparently from Germany.

Second gap in the fence

Cranes and other heavy machinery behind the fence

Inside the fence, from the end of Cloître Notre-Dame

Always a close police presence

From the back – the saddest view

Photo taken this week

Photo taken (by me) a few years ago

Finally, coming around to Quai de l’Archevêché and the back of Notre-Dame, the pedestrian bridge to Ile St-Louis remains open. Square Jean XXIII, one of my favourite small Paris parks, is entirely fenced-off. Before the cathedral comes into view, all you can see is a fence inside a fence.

Fence within a fence, Square Jean XXIII

What remains, behind the fences, Quai de l’Archevêché

Police on Quai de l’Archevêché

We ended our exploration back at the Pont de l’Archêveché bridge, completing the circle – or to be precise, the rectangle.

For me the view from the back is the most emotional, largely due to the absence of the spire and vaulted roof, along with the presence of so much scaffolding. No doubt the cumulative effect of our evening walk the night before and the day’s closer-up views also played a role.

The beloved cathedral

A violinist on Pont de l’Archevêché captured the moment as he played a slow, mournful version of Hallelujah.

Hallelujah, Notre-Dame, violinist on Pont de l’Archevêché

The Aftermath of Loss

I honour and respect Notre-Dame’s centuries of history and its place in French culture, literature and the French psyche. The cathedral holds great meaning, regardless of religion, for many world citizens, and the scale of the fire damage is heartbreaking.

But I also can’t help reflecting that – as magnificent as it is — Notre-Dame is still a temporal, earthly creation in a world I believe possesses a mystery and divinity beyond our understanding.

What a blessing no lives were lost in the fire! And what a blessing the heroic pompiers (firefighters) saved so much of Notre-Dame, including the main structure and the priceless rose windows, which remain intact.

It’s early days after the fire, and the city feels like it’s still getting to grips with the damage. Clive commented that with so many re-routings and street and bridge closures, Paris will likely and by necessity tolerate dislocated traffic for many years.

Fences and closures and barriers, oh my

The French state has owned Notre-Dame since 1905. On 27 May 2019, about six weeks after the fire and after rampant speculation about what modern architectural designs might be approved for Notre-Dame, the French Senate voted to restore the cathedral to ‘its last known visual state.’ (Any new law must still be agreed with the National Assembly.)

A few days later, a survey by The Local reported 78% of respondents agreed with the Senate’s view.

Politicians may aim for full restoration within five years, in time for the 2024 Olympics. Many experts say the timeline is too short. Everyone seems to have an opinion on what should be done, and by when. Various financial elites (individuals and corporations) have donated hundreds of millions of euros to the cause.

A police boat speeding up the Seine

As with human loss and trauma, rebuilding and healing will – and should – take whatever time it needs to take, to do what must be done until, eventually, a new reality is reached.

Progress and setbacks will occur. Changes of direction may be involved, perhaps some dramatic. Judgments will be passed, whether asked for or not. I know we’ll continue to visit Notre-Dame often, even if we can’t get very close, and we’ll watch with so many others as plans progress.

French Senate vote notwithstanding, the renovated structure won’t be exactly the same. It couldn’t be. But it will incorporate this latest event into its present and its future.

May the reconstruction proceed smoothly, however long it takes. May no lives be lost in the process, and may you always bless the heart and soul of this city, Notre-Dame de Paris, our lady of Paris.

Still a stunning silhouette, Notre-Dame de Paris

Meilleurs voeux, best wishes from Paris and merci for reading.


14 Responses

  1. Carolyn, this is a beautiful post. It put me right there and answered so many questions. We are still reeling from watching the spire topple down. Our circulation will be quite impacted when we’re there in the fall. I couldn’t exactly tell if the Shakespeare Book Store is still open and accessible? Will you be around at all in the fall? We arrive on September 14 for almost 3 months!

    • Linda, merci and yes, the bookshop is open and doing its usual bustling business.

      Schedules (travel and otherwise) permitting we definitely hope to see you here later this year!

  2. Thank you for so thoroughly showing with photos and extensive description the current state of Notre Dame. It was very helpful and you have done a great service for those of us not there!

  3. Such interesting pictures accompanied by well explained commentary. The fire was tragic and it is unfortunate that you had such subject matter to deal with. I can see why both you and Clive were tired after making the circuit. It must have been an emotional experience.

  4. Thank you Carolyn for your informative and thought provoking post.

  5. Our Girl In Paris!!! Thank you Carolyn for your beautiful photos and commentary! Love to you both ❤️

  6. What a shame the parliament bottled it and we are not going to get a modern spire.

    • I have a feeling it’s still fluid (not sure if both ‘houses’ have or will agree with each other and really make this law, or if the Senate’s vote was somewhat or mostly symbolic?).

      It’s going to be interesting to see what emerges as the chosen replacement for the spire, presuming there is to be one. I’m always impressed at how Paris & France seem to be able to save and preserve yet also rebuild and sometimes transform their historic treasures.

      • There will be a lot of pissed off heritage professionals if there is a vote to make it law — forcing through something that doesn’t meet the UN Convention on the Conservation of Heritage Monuments. And they need to consider the impact on their UNESCO Listing if they opt for repro.

  7. Great points and thanks so much for your comment, Susan.

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