top of page
< Back


April in Paris

Jonathan van Bilsen



June 16, 2019

April in Paris

Whenever we visit a locale, be it near or far, we tend to have a special connection with some of the uniqueness of the place. Albeit the people, buildings, culture or just the simple beauty of the landscape. Such is the case with Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

Anyone who has been to the city of love has surely seen this great lady of French Gothic Architecture. The recent fire, which destroyed a large part of the structure, was devastating and no doubt, more of a shock to those who have set foot inside it.

Notre Dame de Paris was the brainchild of Bishop Maurice de Sully, and built in 1160. It took exactly 100 years to build and was, without a doubt, the most spectacular structure in Paris, until the Eiffel Tower was built, more than 600 years later.

During the French Revolution in the 1790s, Notre Dame was desecrated, and much of its religious imagery was damaged or destroyed. The masses were trying to separate France’s connection with the Catholic Church, and declared Notre Dame not to be a religious building at all. This caused great looting of artifacts and more than two dozen statues were decapitated in conjunction with the beheading of Marie Antoinette.

The Cathedral was greatly publicized around the world in 1831, when Victor Hugo published his immortal classic, the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Thousands of tourists flocked to the French capital to catch a glimpse of the two bell towers where the story takes place. Set in Paris of 1482, the beautiful gypsy girl, Esmerelda, was loved by several men, including the deformed bell-ringer, Quasimodo. She was falsely accused of murder, and just as she was to succumb to the gallows, Quasimodo swept down from the tower and rescued her. The act of valour cost him his life, and so the story remains perhaps one of the most romantic, yet gripping stories ever told.

The success of the novel led to a major restoration project in 1844, and 100 years later, the liberation of Paris was celebrated within Notre Dame. Beginning in 1963, the Cathedral received a major overhaul, and the entire façade was cleaned of centuries of soot and grime. Another cleaning and restoration project was carried out between 1991 and 2000.

During construction of Notre Dame, as was the case with many Cathedrals in Europe, money was always an issue. In an effort to raise more funds, Bishop Maurice de Sully came up with the original idea of placing dozens of statues all around the entire Cathedral. He then offered the nobility an opportunity to make a sizeable donation, which, would have their likeness on the face of one of the statues. In some cases, in an effort to sweeten the pot, guaranteed seats in purgatory were offered and in two cases, reserved seating in heaven.

Until recently, the Cathedral of Notre Dame (Virgin Mary) was the most frequented stop for sightseers to Paris, with more than 12 million tourists visiting each year. Three artifacts, which have been scientifically acknowledged as being original, are kept within the walls of the Cathedral. They are the most important relics in Christendom, and include the Crown of Thorns, a sliver of the true cross, and a nail from the true cross.

The reason for this article on Notre Dame, is due to the great fire, which occurred on April 15, 2019, during which, the spire, the oak frame and lead roof were destroyed. It is speculated that the fire was linked to ongoing renovation work. The main structure was intact, and firefighters saved the façade, towers, walls, buttresses, and stained glass windows (although some of the glass in the Rose Window had melted). The great organ, which has over 8,000 pipes and was built by Francois Thierry in the 18th century, was also saved, but sustained water damage. As part of the ongoing renovation, the copper statues on the spire had been removed before the fire. The stone vaulting that forms the ceiling of the cathedral has several holes but is otherwise intact. 

Since 1905, France's Cathedrals (including Notre Dame) have been owned by the state, which is self-insured. Some costs might be recovered through insurance coverage if the fire is found to have been caused by contractors working on the site. The French insurer AXA provided insurance coverage for two of the contracting firms working on Notre Dame’s restoration before the blaze, which devastated the Cathedral. AXA also provided insurance coverage for some of the relics and artworks in the Cathedral. Fortunately they are safe and have been moved to the City Hall. 

Approximately 500 firefighters helped to battle the fire. One firefighter was seriously injured and two police officers were hurt during the blaze. President Emmanuel Macron vowed that Notre Dame would be restored, and called for the work to be completed within five years. An international architectural competition was also announced to redesign the spire and roof.

Paris has many other interesting sights, well worth visiting, but it is extremely sad that it’s most famous landmark will be closed to the public for a number of years. 

Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit

bottom of page