Thursday, February 5, 2009
Soon after I arrived in Paris I visited Notre Dame on returning to the apartment late one afternoon but just for a brief stop. No point in dwelling here just now, I thought. Notre Dame is the anchor of the Ile de la Cite, the neighboring and comparatively much larger island just a footbridge away from the Ile Saint Louis where I am staying. I walk by it several times every day and I have known right along that I would want to have a closer look at some point. I had noticed that at 2:00 p.m. on Thursdays there was a tour through the place conducted by an English-speaking guide, and so it came to pass that I returned this afternoon for a thorough briefing of this legendary cathedral. I felt I needed a guide here to help sort out the panorama that is Notre Dame. I spend very little time in sanctuaries of any sort and so I knew that most any information coming my way would be, if not breaking news, then surely an enlightenment of some kind. So I had a late lunch and walked over to join the little tour. About ten of us, including three from Brazil, two from Japan and one from Chicago, met at the back inside the huge building. We were hosted by a very entertaining and educated French woman and she was thorough beyond belief. She led us outside to the front and began to explain in detail the origins of this church. She was well prepared, with a notebook of laminated pages designed to help us understand the whens and whys of everything. Stringing together the highpoints: The first stone was laid in the middle of the 12th century and it finally topped out about 170 years later. It is said to be the geographic heart of France, but that must be for the truest of believers. Have a look at the map. As was the case with so much around here, Notre Dame was dramatically affected by the French Revolution. And not in a very positive way. In fact, with beheading all the rage, nothing would do but for the firebrands to vent their frustration with authority by lopping off the tops of all of the figures of bishops which extended across the front of the building. Not to worry today though as there is a new head for everyone. Some of the glorious glass windows were ruined, the interior was ripped apart, everything was a mess. And for the most part it stayed that way until Quasimodo came along in the 1820s. Apparently it was Victor Hugo with his wildly popular novel, Notre-Dame de Paris (we know it as The Hunchback of Notre Dame), who called attention to the sorry state of affairs and moved the folks in charge to set about repairing the place. Work has continued right up to the present, with a large gold cross behind the pulpit installed a couple of years ago. The stunning glass in what is called the North Rose Window has remained mostly intact since the early days, but some of windows have needed work across the ages. The famous and curious gargoyles proliferate top to bottom, just out of reach but they are all over the place; everywhere. Also, the famous and curious and much photographed stone arches have survived many centuries out back and still look to be doing their part to support the structure. This encourages me to muse that “there is nothing like a group of flying buttresses to hold up your apse”.
Tonight was a wonderful change of pace as Emma Atinay came over for a glass of wine, followed by dinner on the Left Bank. We had reservations at a spot recommended by a friend but we couldn’t find the place as the name did not match the address. So we stopped instead at Le Petit Pontoise nearby, and that turned out to be a dandy move. Very small and cozy, as the name implies. But also beautiful ambience and very fine food. Emma had a salt-encrusted sea bass and I had a rack of lamb and only a few crumbs were left. So what do to about wine? No problem. Gregory, our waiter and son of the owner, opened two bottles of burgundy, one white, one red. The rule is that each drinks no more half a bottle (“about to the top of the label,” Gregory pointed out), and we are charged the price of a single bottle. As this has happened in several restaurants of late, I have to say that this is another of those restaurant habits the French have that really win the day with me. Emma and Gregory were happy to smile for a picture at one point and that provided a nice permanent memory of this very sweet evening.