I once had the privilege of climbing the stone stairs to Notre Dame’s organ, built in the 19th century by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. The organist and composer Thierry Escaich was rehearsing for a concert, and I joined him with a few friends under the immense vault of the cathedral after it had closed to the public. As Escaich practiced and improvised, I gazed at the galleries overlooking the nave and felt an extraordinary sense of connection not just to the Middle Ages but to religious, musical, and literary history.
I have lived on Paris’s Ile de la Cité for 30 years and always considered my home to be in the Notre Dame neighborhood, often stopping by the cathedral to enjoy the cool temperatures and smell of incense. There were always plenty of tourists, but they didn’t stop me from wandering among the chapels to gaze at the paintings or the flickering votive candles, faith to some, superstition to others. A service was often underway in the choir, and the cathedral of the onlookers embraced the cathedral of the devout, the vastness of the edifice making possible that cohabitation between church and forum. I admired the rose windows of the transepts and Baroque decorations of the choir, such a contrast to the Gothic geometry. In the square outside is the zero-kilometer stone, from which all distances from Paris are measured.
During these meanderings, I learned to love Notre Dame from every vantage point. On the Rue Chanoinesse side, I could go right up to the wall, with its sculptures and gargoyles, so different from the spectacular perspective across the square, opened up by Baron Haussmann in the 19th century. The cathedral always looked splendid from the Left Bank of the Seine, surrounded by flowers and vegetation. It was lovely even in winter, glimpsed through the bare branches of the trees filled with crows and sparrows. Seen from the Pont Sully, it seemed to stand guard over the city. From the Right Bank, as I walked along the Rue Beaubourg toward the Hôtel de Ville, Notre Dame seemed to rise gradually under its magnificent roof—which burned on April 15—to dominate the neighborhood, as though the buildings on Ile de la Cité were just tiny figures on the dock next to a great ship.
Padlocks and pedicabs
On sunny days I headed for shade in the Square Jean XXIII, a garden nestling under the flying buttresses where it was always cool, thanks to the leafy summer trees and the neo-Gothic fountain. Sometimes there was music from the bandstand, perhaps a brass band from Sweden or the French navy, contributing to the unique pleasure of this spot where the two arms of the Seine meet again, a tiny haven of urban beauty.
Things changed over the years as the neighborhood became a bastion of the tourist industry. The last traditional shops turned into fake “typical” Parisian restaurants or souvenir shops. Then came the private hire cars, the pedicabs, and the double-decker buses offering tours of Paris in English. Asian women went to the Pont de l’Archevêché to be photographed in wedding dresses; tourists fastened padlocks symbolizing love to the railings of the Pont des Arts footbridge—so many that the city was forced to replace the railings.
But the real change for the locals, as for many people in France, was after the terrorist attacks, which led to strict control of visitors to Notre Dame and other public places. Instead of a steady flow of people through the main door, a long line of visitors extended to the center of the square, which meant I couldn’t just pop into the cathedral anymore. There were frequent bomb scares because of forgotten bags, and the mood changed. There was no room for jokes: Security perimeters could be extended without limit, and authority had to be visible, gun in hand. Recently, my street was closed off because of a suspect parcel, although it is quite far from the square. I tried to negotiate with the police to reach my building just on the other side of the barrier, but a young policewoman told me bluntly that if I didn’t like it, I could move to a different neighborhood. The same security measures are implemented whenever an important person visits the cathedral. When the Obamas visited with their daughters, I had to wait until they left before being allowed into my building.
Arrival of Häagen-Dazs
In 2017 former president François Hollande and the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, unveiled a renovation project for Ile de la Cité, to transform it into a major tourist and shopping hub, moving the law courts, the police headquarters, and the hospital functions of the Hôtel-Dieu to new premises; one plan proposed covering the flower market with a large glass dome and using it for a range of events. Around then, the woman on the Rue d’Arcole closed her old shop selling newspapers and holy pictures, the last vestige of a time when the neighborhood was a place of pilgrimage rather than a stopping-off point between the Eiffel Tower and Disneyland Paris; the ice-cream giant Häagen-Dazs bought her out. Recently, the police closed several gates in the Square Jean XXIII, ostensibly to prevent the thieves who prey on tourists from escaping. This was undeserved punishment for the locals, and I rarely go through the little garden now; the city council seems to have abandoned the upkeep of the fountain, and it is almost always dry.
Early in April I watched as the spire was covered in scaffolding and thought sadly that I wouldn’t see it again for a while. I consoled myself with the belief that the experts with their computers had made the right decision to secure the fragile spire that had graced the roof for 150 years. And then, at around 7 in the evening of Monday, April 15, I came out of the Rue de Bièvre carrying my shopping, onto the embankment, where I saw hundreds of tourists taking photos from the Pont de l’Archevêché. I was surprised by their numbers, even though the view from the bridge is one of the most famous in the world.
I turned my head and saw huge flames rising from the scaffolding. The fire, fanned by the wind, was spreading, and I felt a terrible anguish, not at the danger but at the fury of the fire unleashed on the monument, which still looked radiant under the blue early evening sky. I wondered how the firemen could get up there, and I hurried home, knowing from experience I had to get there before my neighborhood was cordoned off. The police arrived an hour later, even though it was a long way from the fire, and insisted we evacuate and spend the night in a gymnasium, with a psychological support unit. I spent the night clandestinely at home while the firemen gradually got the fire under control and the vast plume of smoke began to disperse. But I remained in shock, horrified by the devastation so close to me, in the heart of Paris.
Over the following days, while the images were replayed in the media, the Ile de la Cité became a fortified camp, accessible only by showing ID. The nearby Metro stations were closed, and getting in and out of the Ile de la Cité became difficult. The security perimeter extended far beyond Notre Dame, leading to massive traffic jams on both sides of the river, as though the authorities wanted to show they were taking measures commensurate with the scale of the event. When the mayor and the interior minister came to see the devastation, my neighbors were asked to stay off the island until they had gone. We live in a strange world, in which an obsession with security failed to prevent the 800-year-old forest that had been the roof from going up in smoke and the spire from falling and in which more tourists than ever gathered on both banks of the river to photograph the burned cathedral. The mere sight of it is heartbreaking.
I take comfort from the fact that the great organ seems to have been spared, and I hope to hear it again one day. And now as I walk toward Notre Dame along the narrow Rue Massillon, I see the medieval wall with its gargoyles still standing, as though nothing has changed. There was another consolation: During the few days when the Ile de la Cité was closed to all but residents, a few tourist cafés opened just for us, and we became a village again, a few steps away from Notre Dame.