Terror and Towers


Notre Dame Cathedral in morning light, Paris

On Sunday morning, I woke up early and feeling refreshed, and quickly ran out the door to head to mass at Notre Dame cathedral. I had passed by the beautiful yet imposing building many times already during my visit, warily eyeing the long lines and anticipating this moment. I took the metro, purchasing a chocolate croissant and coffee to-go to get in line for 10am mass as quickly as possible. I walked over the Seine river in the morning light, the sun cutting through the mist rising from the river and casting a soft, pink glow. It was quiet at this time on a Sunday morning. No masses of tourists about yet, no rush hour traffic, not even any accordion players on the benches yet. It was as if the heart of the city was taking a deep and soulful breath before hosting the world, and I got to reap the benefits of that meditation too. It was peaceful, and that moment ensured that mornings in Paris are my most favorite time of day.


There were more people to be found milling about the square in front of Notre Dame, but I was pleasantly surprised to see no line. I sat on a raised wall and ate my breakfast while people watching. The bells rang every now and then, singing out from the tall towers. Wiping crumbs from my shirt front, I stepped inside the cathedral.

Preparing for mass at Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris

I will say that the inside of Notre Dame is remarkably similar to most other cathedrals in the city I had seen so far. It is the rich history of this one, it’s location, and the stories about it that makes this one so famous, I think. It was grandly awesome, with cavernous ceilings and enormous stained glass windows. The previous mass had not yet ended, and the chanting echoed up into the vaulted arches high above, accompanied by billowing organ music.

I purchased a comfort cross made of olive wood from Bethlehem and a reproduction stained glass window to hang at home, then took a seat for mass. The mass was in French, so I couldn’t quite understand all of it, but just sitting and listening to the words and hymns, inhaling the scent of incense, and digging my back into the hard, wooden pew was magical. The incense wasn’t cloying, and it wafted up into the vast space above. It was a beautiful service.

Inside Sainte Chapelle, Paris

After mass, I crossed Ile de la Cite to visit Sainte Chapelle, another towering cathedral built in the Gothic style, tucked inside Palais de Justice. I bypassed the line with my French ID card and entered the first level. The painted walls and low ceiling set this apart from other cathedrals I had seen so far, and as nice as it was, I couldn’t understand why it was such a draw for tourists. I then climbed a tiny spiral staircase up a level and saw why. The level below had been what was built for the masses, the level above, for the nobility. The wealthy. The king. It was staggering. The world was bathed in colored light, and the ceiling was hundreds of feet in the air supported on all sides with intricately designed stained glass windows, so wide it was impossible to see any wall. I felt like I was inside a Fabergé egg, and despite the thick crowds, looking up, it was easy to feel alone.

I left Sainte Chapelle and headed down the block to La Conciergerie, another site top on my list to see in Paris.This had been the prison where Marie Antoinette was held before she was sent to her death – Josephine was also held here. During the French Revolution, they crammed hundreds of prisoners into this small space, only giving them access to a tiny courtyard for daily exercise. In this tiny courtyard, they would announce who would go to the guillotine that day, and those condemned would wait in a fenced off corner and say their goodbyes through the fence. I cannot even fathom how they must have felt – the discomfort, the despair, the terror. La Terreur was an escape from all reason, compassion, and understanding. They were desperate times that showed one of the many dark sides of humanity. It is disquieting to know that we are capable of such things.

You enter La Conciergerie through the largest room, a vast expanse of stone and columns where the guards were housed for centuries. It was empty except for the columns and a large, stone, black table fragment. An exposed spiral staircase led to some kitchens with fireplaces I could fit in ten times over. I crossed back through the guard’s hall and walked up into a considerably smaller area, where they prisoners were kept. It was far smaller than I could have imagined. Now, half the area was a gift shop. Time plays funny tricks. Over to the right was the room where the Revolutionary Tribunal was held, where men and women entered for justice and left condemned. On the other side, past the gift shop, were several cells, some of which had acted as management offices. Not a very cheerful place to work. Across the hall, next to a room playing a video on loop of the many people that were condemned in La Conciergerie (sobering), was a thick wooden door boasting a heavy iron lock and a little grated window you could peek through. The cell of Marie Antoinette.


Marie Antoinette’s cell at La Conciergerie, Paris

You could walk around for a better view of her cell. They had placed a figure of Marie Antoinette herself in the room, draped in robes of black and sitting by a rickety bed. The cell was empty but for that bed and chair, and across from her, over a not-so-adequate partition, where the figures of two guards. After seeing the opulence of Versailles, the starkness of the cell struck a raw chord. We will never know her final thoughts, and she may have made some poor choices, but I will always feel sorry for her and the life she was thrust into. Turning around, I saw some artifacts on display, including the little pitcher from which she had her last sip of water, and graphite sketches of her at the guillotine. Haunting.


The courtyard at La Conciergerie

I went out into the little courtyard where prisoners had their exercise. There was a stone fountain where the prisoners washed their clothes, and to the left was the gated area where they waited to die. Looking up, all you could see was a patch of blue sky framed on all sides by imposing, grey buildings. The air was chilly, and the yard was empty and lonely. A door on the opposite side led to a small chapel, which honestly looked more like a shrine. It was a chapel devoted to Marie Antoinette. Plaques on either side of the hallway leading to the main room commemorated King Louis XVI and his sister. The original floor was frozen beneath my feet, the tiny bricks making up a fishbone pattern. Paintings depicted different moments of Marie Antoinette’s later life, including her final communion and her departure for the guillotine.

I left La Conciergerie and headed across the Seine to Rue des Barres, a surprisingly quiet street in central Paris that was lined with medieval-style buildings, not far from Rue de Rivoli. I miraculously found a seat at the restaurant L’ébovillanté, sharing a table with an elderly gentleman and his granddaughter. We shared conversation, and the gentleman and I commiserated about the American political situation despite my halting French.

I took a bus across town to catch a Bateaux-Mouche tour at Pont Alma. It was essentially a river boat ride down and up the Seine river to see all the buildings and landmarks, and a particularly touristy thing to do, but I had the time, and middle-school me had loved it, so I wanted to do it again. I sat at the front on the top deck despite the whipping wind.

All aboard Le Bateau-Mouche!

In the fading light, I hopped back on a bus and was off to Montmartre despite my hesitation in going so late. The bus is a fantastic way to get around Paris. The metro is fast and cheap, but the buses are as well, and you can see so much more of the city. My decision to go to Montmartre paid off. The bus dropped me off behind the hill, on the opposite side of the masses of tourists, so I climbed up hundreds of stairs in relative peace and surrounded by quiet French apartments. The colors of the sky were a brilliant pink and orange, and peeked through the buildings. The top of the hill was thriving. Cafes and restaurants buzzed with activity, and a little train cut through the throng, giving rides to tired tourists. I bought an Orangina 

The busy streets of Montmartre

and walked through the square, eyeing portrait artists charging tourists an exorbitant price to sit and be painted. Le Musée de Montmartre was regrettably closed for the evening, but it was worth the walk over to see some of the most softly painted houses on the hill in the sunset light. One of which was called Le Maison Rose, a place I desperately want to return to someday.

I walked through the Sacre-Coeur Basilica, the famous cathedral on top of Montmartre. The inside was just as grand as the others, and the evening mass music added much to the ambiance. Upon exiting, I found that you could climb to the top, and I eagerly got in line.

There was definitely no warning for how many steps it would take to get to the top of the basilica. The spiral staircase was narrow and wound impossibly tight, with no landings to stop and catch your breath. There were locked doors every now and then, so I supposed in years past they never had to do it all in one go as we now do, or maybe they were just in better shape. Climbing and climbing, I felt like I was in some sort of time warp, and felt as if the walls were crushing in and the stairs would never end. Not even a window to remind myself I was sane. Silly thoughts, and soon enough I burst out into cold night air and a completely different world.

The sun had set fully while I was climbing. I was on the roof of Sacre-Coeur, on a narrow, fenced-in pathway leading to more steps up the roof into the dome. I was cast in shadows, but the basilica around me was glowing from the light of strategically placed spotlights. Out past the belltowers, views of Paris for miles. It was magical to take it all in, and the best part was that I was completely alone. The stairs do a good job of spreading tourists thin, as everyone has a different climbing speed. I found considerably more people up around the dome itself, but the views were still spectacular. I went back down the exit stairwell (an even more dizzying feeling) and exited the basilica.

A view from the top of Sacre-Coeur, Paris

I climbed down the steps at the front of Montmarte, and after fending off a particularly grabby trinket seller, I ate dinner at an Italian restaurant, then metroed home to enjoy some fresh caramels and tea.

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