One of the most fun and most memorable things to do in the City of Lights, is to climb up to the top of Notre Dame to see the cathedral’s largest bell, its monstrous gargoyles and to be rewarded with one of the best views in all of Paris.
Getting to “QuasimodoLand” demands climbing up 387 steps and no, there isn’t an elevator. You need to be fit; not like marathon runner-fit, but “kind of” fit. Kids and grannies can tackle this with no problem. There is a built-in break during the climb and since this is not a “guided tour,” you can set your own pace.
You’ll start your climb in the North Tower where you’ll buy your ticket. Note the staircase is narrow and the steps are fan-shaped, so if you’re claustrophobic or wearing high heels – skip this.
On your climb up, let your mind wander and your fingers travel along the smooth stones that make the staircase. Imagine yourself a mason, or sculptor having to put these stones (millions and millions of them) in place, one by one. Don’t rush it, this isn’t the Grand Prix. As the stairs climb ever higher and higher, you’ll be on autopilot as you go round and round and round and round. Don’t think of your legs, let your mind drift and think of all the secrets these stones hold, what they’ve seen, what they’ve heard. Give these stones a good o’ pat on the ‘uhh brick – they’ve survived the revolution, wars, diseases, despair and Jerry Lewis!
About halfway up (and remember you’re still in the North Tower) you’ll reach a small gift and book shop (how clever of them to place this at such a strategic spot). Take a breather here, take a look at the plaque near the steps leading up to Esmeralda’s Cell, which includes an excerpt from Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
Perfectly choreographed, a guard will open the door to the upper staircase, and you will resume your climb. You’ll soon reach the open gallery of the North Tower, where a narrow open walkway leads across to the South Tower. (Don’t freak out – there is a protective wire structure that keeps tourists, young kids and the stupid from falling.)
This is a great photo-op and you’ll be able to take some snaps of and selfies with the gargoyles and chimeras.
And what a sight they are to see
Just like your fellow climbers, they come in all shapes and sizes: skinny, chubby, some have hunched shoulders (those are the teenagers), some are chomping on grapes and some look bored out of their minds (those are the French teenagers).
The gargoyles are really interesting.
There are hundreds of these monstrous figures, projecting from building’s façade and towers.
They were never part of the original construction.
The first stone of Notre Dame was laid in 1163, but the gargoyles were added later in the 19th century; and they weren’t added to attract tourists – these gargoyles are working stiffs.
Planted firmly in place with their mouths wide open, they were added to serve as gutters to drain rainwater off the roof and far from the cathedral’s walls to prevent damage.
The chimeras are the real “bling,” and they’re brilliant.
Created only to serve as decoration, some are half-man/half-beast, some have eagles beaks and wings, or serpents tails, even lions talons – but they’re horrific, grotesque and fantastic.
The best-known chimera, le Stryge or “the vampire,” is perched atop the left-hand buttress of the North Tower overlooking the city. His face is world-famous – the star of many postcards.
A wooden staircase will take you to the belfry to see the 13-ton Emmanuel bell in the South Tower. It has been here since 1685 and is the biggest and most prominent of Notre Dame’s bells. Originally all 11 bells were rung by hand, but in the 20th century, electric motors were installed. Sighhhhhh, no more swinging from the ropes.
It’s a bit of a tight fit in here, you’ll have to channel your inner Quasimodo to squeeze in and out the doorway.
After leaving the belfry – get ready for the piece de resistance – the top of the South Tower. To get here you’ll have to squeeze your way up a two-way corkscrew staircase to the viewing platform. But once there, c’est magnifique! You’ll have fabulous views of the cathedral spire, the flying buttresses that keep the whole building from falling down, and breath-taking views of Ile de la Cite and Paris in all directions. Once you see this view you won’t even remember the climb – yeah, it’s that good.
Been There/Done That
The tower is open daily and the Tower Tour costs about 8 Euros – OR – is free with the Paris Museum Pass.
The entrance for the visit of the tower is located OUTSIDE of the cathedral, on the left-hand side of the facade, Rue du Cloître Notre-Dame. Here’s a link on how to get to Notre Dame
My advice, plan this visit after a couple of days of seeing museums – the kids will love this excursion as it really burns off that energy and angst.
Climbing the South Tower is great for kids of all ages (yep, even those hard to please teens). The steps up the tower are really easy to climb (loads of kids and grannies do it), but the steps are quite narrow, and it wouldn’t be easy to manage carrying an infant in a baby backpack or if you’re wearing heels.
And after this climb you won’t have any guilt for eating those crepes, ice cream bars or extra glass of wine!