Paris just wouldn’t be Paris without Notre Dame. Built 850 years ago, the cathedral is one of the oldest and most recognisable landmarks in the city. Its intricate stone facades, gothic gargoyle trimmings, elaborate stained-glass windows and lofty belltowers are world famous, and rightly so. But Notre Dame is so much more to me than its status as a world monument.
I’m not religious at all, but I have some very fond memories of Notre Dame. Last Christmas Eve, as I wandered through the peaceful, twinkling streets, we came upon Notre Dame in all its midnight mass glory. As we admired the cathedral from outside, we could hear the choir singing Silent Night.
Another sweet memory I have of Notre Dame was a brief moment late last year following a winter rainfall. Though I generally try not to play the tourist if I can help it, I couldn’t resist bringing out my camera, just like about thirty other people around me, when this happened:
And perhaps my most enduring connection with Notre Dame is through my old friend Victor Hugo and his classic novel Notre Dame de Paris, lavishly translated as The Hunchback of Notre Dame. In fact, when my dad and sister visited last year they found me a beautiful 19th-century edition of the book. Sublime.
I think of all these things when I think of Notre Dame. But I never associated Notre Dame with subterranean ruins. At least, not until recently.
The Crypte de Notre Dame is an underground space which remained hidden beneath the cathedral for centuries. Inside lie stone foundations, traces of the village of Lutèce that originally lay on the site before the settlement flourished into the city of Paris. The spot was discovered only in the mid-20th century, when excavators encountered it during the glamorous task of building an underground car park.
The preserved passageways, foundations and remnants of homes, streets and public baths are incredible, and accompanied by lovely old maps, models and stories about the development of the city from this most ancient and central of Paris locations.
This is neither the tourists’ Notre Dame, nor Victor Hugo’s one. It doesn’t show the classic, monumental side of Notre Dame we all know. But it’s a precious remnant of the site’s rich history. If only Hugo had been alive when they tried building that car park; I have a feeling Quasimodo would have felt quite at home in this curious, shadowy, mysterious place.