Tag: france

My Notre Dame Cathedral Tour: 11 Days Before the Fire

My Notre Dame Cathedral Tour: 11 Days Before the Fire

On Monday, April 15, I returned to work after taking nearly two weeks off for my first solo trip – to Paris. I emailed my co-workers to let them know that I had brought a box of Parisian chocolates and some other souvenir trinkets for them.

Around mid-day, one co-worker emailed me back. He wasn’t in the office but had checked his work email from home. Did you hear about what is happening in Paris? he wanted to know.

I had no idea what was going on in Paris, so I Googled it. And my mouth fell open when I saw the news that Notre Dame Cathedral was on fire. Nothing could have prepared me to see the iconic church set ablaze while millions watched, helpless. Especially since I had been there just eleven days earlier.

But that wasn’t my first time visiting Notre Dame cathedral…

1984: My First Notre Dame Cathedral Tour

Notre Dame Cathedral Tour 1984 - I thought I was heading to the toilet and ended up atop the cathedral.

This photo was taken in April 1984, when I took a trip to Paris with our high school’s French Club. Now, I wasn’t studying French… I was taking Spanish. But they needed extra people to go on the trip, and because my Spanish teacher considered me “gifted” with foreign languages, I got to go. Even though the only French I knew was basically “oui” and “non.”

Part of the pre-departure lecture my parents gave me was to make sure that I got lots of pictures of me in front of “French things”. At the time I rolled my eyes and thought that was just silly. However, I’m glad I followed their instructions. This picture alone is worth it. Here’s why:

It was our first day in Paris and we attended mass at Notre Dame cathedral. Jet lagged and confused by all the French (or maybe it was Latin – I couldn’t tell), I nearly fell asleep during the service. When it ended, the teacher ushered us outside and began speaking to us in French. I’d venture to guess that everyone knew what she was saying except for me. I assumed by the vigorous head nodding and enthusiastic responses of “oui!” that she had asked if anyone needed to go to the bathroom. I certainly did! So I too nodded my head and said “oui” like everyone else.

Off we marched, back inside the cathedral, up a stone staircase that twisted and turned. Up, up, up. Imagine my surprise when we emerged not near a public bathroom, but at the top of the cathedral!

So, dutiful to my parents’ instructions, I had a friend snap this picture. I don’t know if you can tell, but I’m sneering a little because (a) I still needed to go pee, (b) I’m afraid of heights, and (c) the gargoyles were really quite creepy. For the rest of my time in Paris, I made sure that I understood the question before I said, “oui.”

35 Years Later…

On this trip to Paris, I flew from Newark NJ to Zurich and then from Zurich to Paris. Unfortunately, my luggage stopped in Zurich and didn’t accompany me to the City of Lights.

I usually travel with only a carry on – a practice to which I will now return! – and I was at a loss as to how to proceed without all of my stuff. The way I saw it, I had two options. I could hole up in my Airbnb and stay there until the courier brought my luggage. Or I could get over the jet lag, then go ahead and see the sights as I had originally planned.

After a two hour nap and a bit of a meltdown with an emotional call to Hubs at home, I decided upon the second option. After all, I had a plan for every day of my trip and missing one day would throw all of my other plans off kilter.

The next morning, I awoke rested and determined to not let a thing like missing luggage derail my vacation. After getting a call that my luggage would arrive around 2:00 in the afternoon, I headed off to see Sainte Chapelle, Notre Dame, and the Deportation Memorial. All were located on Île de la Cité, one of two islands in the Seine River in Paris.

I’ll cover Sainte Chapelle and the Deportation Memorial in separate blog posts. Today, in light of the devastating fire that recently took place, I want to focus on Notre Dame Cathedral.

2019: My Second Notre Dame Cathedral Tour

Almost as soon as I arrived, the bells of Notre Dame started ringing:

As you can see, it was a beautiful day – all blue skies and sunshine. I stood outside the cathedral and took in all of the amazing architectural details.

Thought to be on the former site of a Roman temple to Jupiter, Notre Dame Cathedral has stood in Paris for over 850 years. Until the completion of the Eiffel Tower in 1889, the massive towers of Notre Dame were the tallest structure in the city of Paris (226 feet high).

I wish I could find a statistic for how many figures are carved into the stone facade of this amazing piece of Gothic architecture. Let’s just say a lot. But there’s a good reason for that. The cathedral is an example of a liber pauperum, or a “poor people’s book”, covered with sculptures that vividly illustrate biblical stories. During the era in which the cathedral was built, the vast majority of parishioners were illiterate. The only way they could learn about biblical stories was by looking at the figures carved into the church building.

For instance, if you face the towers of the cathedral, you will find above the middle doorway a vivid portrayal of the Final Judgment:

Notre Dame Cathedral Tour - the iconography of the central portal shows a vivid depiction of the Final Judgment.

Jesus sits on his throne in Heaven. Beneath his feet there are two figures holding scales. On the left is the archangel Michael; on the right, Satan. Each side of the scale holds a person whose life is being judged. Those who have been condemned are being led away by a demon on the right hand side.

The stained glass windows at Notre Dame are just beautiful. There are three circular “rose” windows, and the one on the west facade over the Final Judgment scene is the smallest. That said, the window still measures over 31 feet in diameter. From the outside of the church, you can see three figures in front of the rose window: the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus, and an angel on either side of her.

My Notre Dame Cathedral Tour - The Virgin Mary and two angels stand in front of the cathedral's smallest rose window on the western facade.

Below the window you will find statues of the 28 kings of Judah in “The Gallery of Kings”. During the French Revolution, rebels thought that the statues represented the kings of France. As a result, the angry French citizens lobbed off the heads of the statues. Fortunately, the statues have been restored, and you can see some of the old heads at the Cluny Museum in Paris.

While I stood there admiring the cathedral’s exterior, I started to notice some odd details that I might have overlooked if I hadn’t paused to take it all in. For instance, this poor fellow:

When taking a Notre Dame Cathedral tour, be sure to study the figures carved on the outside of the building.
I’m not sure who this king is, but a much larger man is standing on him!

Inside the Cathedral

As stunning as the outside of Notre Dame is, though, its real beauty lies within.

As with most Gothic cathedrals, Notre Dame has chapels on each side of the building. These alcoves, dedicated to saints, can hold some of the most beautiful artwork found inside the church building. For instance, a memorial to the 14th century heroine, Joan of Arc:

Notre Dame Cathedral tour - statue of Joan of Arc (Jeanne d'Arc)
Statue of Joan of Arc

I especially liked this memorial, dedicated to Denis Auguste Affre, the Archbishop of Paris from 1840 to 1848. The phrase inscribed above his head translates to “May my blood be the last shed”.

Memorial to Denis Auguste Affre

Affre was led to believe that his personal involvement in the June Days uprising of 1848 could lead to peace between the French military and the insurgents. Mounting the military’s barricade, he waved a branch as a symbol of peace and began to speak. Insurgents heard some shots and suspected a betrayal, so they opened fire upon the National Guard. A stray bullet hit Affre, and he died two days later.

In another spot, there was a model depicting the construction of Notre Dame Cathedral.

Notre Dame cathedral tour - model of cathedral's construction

The 14th century wall separating the choir from the main walkway of Notre Dame was decorated with stunning detail.

This scene shows Jesus with the apostles. the inscription, in Latin, says “Christ appears to the Apostles near Lake Tiberias” (Lake Tiberias = the Sea of Galilee). This scene constituted only a small portion of the scenes depicting the life of Jesus.

One massive piece of statuary that caught my eye was the mausoleum of the Earl of Harcourt:

Cancre [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Note that there are four figure here. An angel carelessly holding a torch, a woman kneeling as if pleading to someone, a man who appears to be coming out of a coffin, and a hooded skeleton holding an hourglass in his bony hand.

I read that this memorial’s name/theme was Conjugal Meeting. The angel has lifted the lid on the Count’s sarcophagus, and he has risen. The skeleton, AKA Death, is holding an hourglass to symbolize that the Countess’ time has come. The Countess is reaching out toward her husband and Death as if she is ready to join them. (She outlived her husband by ten and a half years.) It was beautiful and tragic all at the same time.

On a Notre Dame Cathedral tour, be sure to look for the three rose windows of stained glass.
The South Rose Window, one of three in Notre Dame Cathedral.

The south rose window was constructed in 1260, and most of the original thirteenth century stained glass is still intact, even after last week’s tragic fire. Larger than the west rose window that I wrote about earlier, this one measures more than 42 feet across. Unlike the north rose window, which features Old Testament prophets and kings, this one is dedicated to the New Testament.

The center medallion features Jesus reigning as King in Heaven. The sixteen panels beneath the south rose window feature the prophets of the Bible. The four center panels depict the great Old Testament prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel) carrying the four New Testament evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) on their shoulders.

From outside the cathedral, the south rose window looks like this:

A Notre Dame Cathedral tour offers glimpses of the church's three rose windows - from inside and outside the building.
The south end of Notre Dame’s transept, featuring the south rose window.

You can see the church spire sticking up above the roof in this photo. Sadly, the spire was completely destroyed by the fire.

At the very back of the Cathedral, I found a small area with the most venerated holy relic in France: the Crown of Thorns.

The Crown of Thorns display, as seen on my Notre Dame Cathedral Tour

The crown of thorns, worn by Jesus at the time of his crucifixion, has been in the possession of the French since 1238, when the Emperor of Constantinople gave it to King Louis IX.

King Louis IX had the cathedral of Sainte Chapelle built to receive and hold the crown of thorns and other holy relics. The crown stayed at Sainte Chapelle until the French Revolution, at which point authorities hid it at a different location. From 1806 until the fire, it was located in Notre Dame cathedral.

The reliquary holding the crown of thorns is in the case that you see between the candles in the above picture. A semi-translucent sheet of bright red material (resembling a cascade of blood) hangs over it. Through it, you can just make out the circular outline of the reliquary.

Inside the reliquary, the crown of thorns is actually thorn-less. Some 70 thorns were removed and distributed to holy sites across the world over the centuries, leaving just a band of rushes for this reliquary. One of the thorns was inside the rooster that sat atop the Notre Dame spire. The day after the fire, someone found the rooster in the rubble … dented but intact.

On the first Friday of every month at 3:00 p.m., the time of Jesus’ death, the faithful attend a special “veneration of the crown” church service.

Conclusion

The fire at Notre Dame Cathedral was certainly tragic, but it could have been much worse. I am so thankfully that I was able to see the beautiful building and all of its treasures before the fire took place. I am looking forward to the day when I hear that the cathedral has been fully restored and rebuilt. Until then, I will cherish the memories of my Notre Dame Cathedral Tour!

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My Travel Planning Process

My Travel Planning Process

How to Plan for an Amazing Trip (My Way)

I recently found a great airfare deal and booked myself a ticket to Paris. Just me. No one else. This is my first ever solo trip, and I’m a little nervous but also very excited. Okay, considering that I don’t really speak French, I’ma lot nervous. But in the words of Dr. Sheldon Cooper, “If there were a list of things that make me more comfortable, lists would be on the top of that list.” So I’m making a lot of lists in preparation for my trip.

Travel Planning Process: How I'm planning my first ever solo trip to Paris.

As I dive into doing this trip 100% my way for 100% me, I thought it might be helpful to show you what my travel planning process looks like.  But first, a disclaimer: I am a highly structured, type A, over-planning kind of person, even on vacation. If you prefer to be a little less organized more spontaneous than me, you might want to follow this guide loosely and omit anything that seems like it might be too much effort.

Step 1: Have No Destination or Date in Mind

travel planning process - if possible, and to save money, start out being flexible on destination or dates

Yes, you heard it here first. The best plan starts by having no plan. Amazing vacations often present themselves as unanticipated opportunities in the form of cheap airfare. When you choose your destination or dates first, you lose a lot of flexibility in how much you will need to spend. My family and I have flown from Baltimore to both Peru and Iceland for around $200 per person round trip. It can be done. And since we want to travel as much as we can, it only follows that we need to do it as cheaply as we can.  After all, money saved on this trip means more money for the next trip!

Step 2: Start Putting Together a Destination List

travel planning process - make lists of where you want to go

One of the first places I look once I’ve booked my tickets is Pinterest, which I have written about before. Pinterest is great because not only is it a place to find destination ideas, it’s also a place to keep destination ideas. As soon as I’ve booked a trip, I create a board for my new destination and start pinning away. At first I pin everything that looks even vaguely interesting. For instance, my trip is to Paris but I’m pretty much pinning everything in France that I find of interest. I’ll be able to go through later and scale down, but if I find 3+ points of interest relatively close together outside of the city, that might make for a good day trip.

Depending on how anal organized I want to be, I might then set up a different board for each day of the trip with the activities for that day. I realize that it sounds over the top, but when you’re in an unfamiliar place, it actually makes sense to plan a day’s activities according to where they are located. Less time in transit between points makes for more time to see the sights.

The only caution I have to offer about using Pinterest as part of your travel planning process is to not allow your board to become oversaturated with images. You only need one pin with helpful information about visiting, for example, the Eiffel Tower. You do not need eight to twelve pins about the Eiffel Tower because they all have stunning images to go with them. The more you look at pictures, the less impressed you will be when you stand before it in person.

Other sites I like to peruse for things to see at a particular destination are Roadside America (US travel only) and Atlas Obscura. Both of these sites offer tips for seeing things that are off the beaten path and not likely to be on every tourist’s must-see list. They also usually have some history attached to them, which you know I love.

Corollary to Step 2: Accept That You Can’t See it All

travel planning process: to stay sane, set limits as to what you can reasonably hope to see/do on your trip

Unless you are visiting your destination for a very long time, you will have to prioritize what things you want to see and do on your trip. You cannot realistically expect to see every great architectural wonder, museum, monument, cathedral, park, and restaurant in one week’s time.

If you compile a massive list of all the places you want to see, and add to it all the places someone (friends/family/blogger/travel guidebook) recommended that you see, you are going to end up with a very long list. And when you find that you only have time to do about 20% of the things on that list, you will probably be disappointed and/or feel like your trip has been a failure.

I prioritize my destinations into three distinct lists:  Must See (I will not forgive myself if I don’t do this), Should See (important in order for me to consider the trip a success), and If There’s Time (everything else). The Must See List should be reserved only for iconic sights and experiences – things that, if you don’t do them, you won’t feel like you really even went to that location. In the case of Paris, it would be visiting the Eiffel Tower and seeing the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. The Should See list will have a reasonable amount of attractions/activities – between one and four per day. The If There’s Time list, if you’ve kept track of all those recommendations, should be the largest list.

Step 3: Finding Lodging

Travel Planning Process: Things to consider when booking lodging on your trip

A lot goes into finding the perfect place to stay. Here are just a few of the things you must consider:

  • Expense – How much can you afford for this portion of your trip?
  • Area – What sort of neighborhood do you want to stay in? Hip and trendy, or residential and quiet? How safe is the neighborhood you’re considering? Do you want to have a room with a view?
  • Type of accommodations – Do you want complete privacy? Do you want to be able to fix some of your own meals? Do you want to stay someplace that provides you with breakfast each day? Will you need local staff to provide you with recommendations on where to go?
  • Convenience to public transport – If you aren’t renting a vehicle, you may want to make sure that you are within walking distance of a subway station or bus route

As for when to book, I’ve found that you want to do it far enough in advance that you have plenty of options (particularly if you plan to stay in an Airbnb or private home), but not too far in advance in case your itinerary changes. There is nothing worse than booking a place for an entire week, only to decide later that you want to spend part of the time elsewhere. I’d say three months ahead is probably a good window, but you can go with less advance booking if you’re staying in a hotel.

Step 4: Buying Tickets in Advance

travel planning process: consider buying tickets for attractions in advance online so you won't have to wait in line when you arrive

I will admit, this step is riskier than the others. The potential benefits of buying your admission tickets in advance are:

  • Little to no time spent waiting in line when you arrive at the attraction.
  • Allows you to start paying for your vacation expenses before you go
  • No need to worry about an event being sold out; your admission is guaranteed
  • Some venues offer a cheaper admission rate when booking online.

The potential drawbacks of buying your tickets in advance are:

  • Your plans change and you cannot go on the day for which you purchased admission
  • You forget to take your tickets with you when you go (or lose them, or they get stolen, etc.)

Now, as you can see, there are more pros than cons here. Also, in many cases, venues who offer online admission sales either are not date specific or will honor your ticket on a different date if you cannot use it on the date you originally booked. These days, you will most likely have an email or other electronic record of your ticket, which should suffice if the printed version got lost.

Step 5: Keep it Together, Girl!

travel planning process: keep your information color coded and organized in a binder or folder

This is where my type A super-efficient personality makes most people roll their eyes and groan. I color code all of the information I’ve assembled (green for financial, blue for nighttime activities, orange for daytime, hot pink for anything in the Must See category, etc). Then I make a folder or three ring binder with all of the information I will need for my trip.

I keep everything that I need together and sort it by day. Typically, each day’s packet will include:

  • a list of activities for the day
  • maps and/or directions on how to get from A to B
  • printed admission tickets if purchased online
  • brochures or other information about what I will be doing (opening and closing times, special significance, etc.)

It might be important to note that I do not carry the entire binder around with me – just that day’s pertinent documents. Apps are great, but I’m old school enough that I like paper. Using paper doesn’t have me at the mercy of finding a wifi connection.

YMMV

I cannot stress enough that this is the process that works for me. Following these steps is what gives me peace of mind so that I can relax and enjoy my trip. If you prefer to be impetuous and plan as you go, that’s great. You do you! The point is to be prepared for your trip, know what you want, and not spend valuable vacation time under stress.  Bon Voyage!

The travel planning process - practical tips to get the most out of your trip.

 

 

 

The Romance of Brittany, France’s Celtic Nation

The Romance of Brittany, France’s Celtic Nation

Very few people would think of France as being Celtic. However, the region of Brittany in northwest France is one of the original six Celtic nations. It’s also one of the most beautiful regions in the country, and it’s often overlooked by international tourists. Just four hours away from Paris by train or six by car, Brittany captures all the romance of Paris and more. Here are some of the most romantic destinations within the Brittany region.

St. Malo

St Malo - Romance of Brittany France Walled City

Image via Flickr by www.rubenholthuijsen.nl

The distinguishing feature of St. Malo, on the northern coast of Brittany, is the wall that surrounds the area. Construction of the original wall began around the 12th century, and with the help of many improvements over the years, it still stands strong today. Visitors can walk the entire length of the ramparts while holding hands and gazing out at the sea. Alternatively, you can explore the historic streets, admire the architecture, do some shopping, and stop for a drink at a café.

Pink Granite Coast – Morlaix

Pink Granite Coast Morlaix - Romance of Brittany France

Image via Flickr by Rizla+

Adventurous couples will enjoy exploring the Pink Granite Coast of Morlaix Bay. The area is renowned for its unusually shaped pink rock formations. You’ll find them on the coastal path between Perros-Guirec and the port of Ploumanac’h. Wind and waves have worn down the rocks, resulting in strange shapes that will remind you of animals or everyday objects.

Mont St. Michel

Mont St Michel - Romance of Brittany France and Normandy

Image via Flickr by rognonton

Technically, Mont St. Michel is in Normandy, but it’s quite close to the Breton coast. Since it’s such a spectacular site, I would be remiss not to include it.

Mont St. Michel is a tidal island, which means that when the tide is low, you can walk right out to it. At high tide, water surrounds the area. The island’s development started in the 11th century, when it was the site of an abbey. It was fortified for defense in the centuries that followed. Today, it’s home to posh hotels and charming restaurants. I’d recommend booking a room at the romantic Auberge Saint-Pierre, which features magnificent views of the sea, half-timbered walls, a stone-paved terrace, and a four-star restaurant. You’ll feel like royalty!

Beauport Abbey

Beauport Abbey - Romance of Brittany France

Image via Flickr by niessbernard

Beauport Abbey, constructed in the 13th century, overlooks Paimpol Bay. After the turmoil of the French Revolution, the site became a stable, town hall, residential accommodation, school, and cider press. Maybe I read too many gothic romance novels during my formative years, but there’s something so romantic about larger-than-life buildings that still stand as ruins. The beautiful flowers and gardens at Beauport make it even more romantic.

Brittany has a lot to offer in the way of romantic destinations, with cobblestone streets in historic towns, the cozy isolation of small islands, stunning vistas, and so much more. Enjoy the romance of Paris, but be sure to set aside a few days for a side trip to Brittany and keep the romantic vibe going strong. You’ll be glad you did!

The Romance of Brittany, France's Celtic Nation