Our second day of Paris was full of sightseeing – I knew our plan to see Notre Dame, Versailles, and Sainte Chapelle in one day was pretty ambitious, and that we’d need serious fuel to get us through the day ahead. Around the corner from our hotel was a delicious bakery and a Starbucks, so those were our first stops that morning – 2 pain au chocolates and a croissant from la boulangerie and a tall latte from the ‘bucks set us up for success. (And don’t think I can’t hear you gasping, Starbucks in a foreign country? How utterly American of you! I know. It kind of crushed my soul too, but after reading in a reputable source that Parisian coffee is awful – with some exceptions – I opted to swallow my pride in favor nearby, palatable caffeine.)
Fortified with sugar and caffeine, we took the metro to the Châtelet stop and walked across the bridge to the Île de la Cité, the island in the Seine river that is the heart of Paris. We stopped to view the statue of Charlemagne the Great, and then joined the mass of tourists waiting in line to enter the Cathedral.
Unbeknownst to us, we were trying to visit Notre Dame on the very morning that a statue of Pope John Paul II was revealed in the public garden. We had been in line for about 10 minutes and everything appeared to be normal. The line was moving pretty quickly, and we were using our time in line to read about the church’s history in our guidebook and study the facade.
The courtyard of Notre Dame is considered “point zero”, the place from which all distances in Paris are measured. When the Romans conquered the Parisii tribe in 52 BC, they built a temple to their god Jupiter on this land; after the fall of Rome, in the 7th century, the Germanic Franks conquered modern-day France and replaced the temple with a church dedicated to St. Etienne. By 1163, the church of St. Etienne had long been reduced to rubble and the first cornerstone of Notre Dame was laid. Building continued for the next 2 centuries and was finally complete in 1345.
After about 15 minutes, we noticed that the line had stopped moving, and that people were suddenly crowding around the left portal, which is used as the exit door. Suddenly, we saw a procession of all kinds of people in what I now recognize as traditional Polish costumes leave the church. All thoughts of queuing thrown aside, everyone surged forward to catch a glimpse of the action. As we got closer to the entrance, we saw a sign proclaiming that the Archbishop of Paris was on location to officiate a divine service before the big reveal of the Pope statue.
The procession exiting the cathedral finally stopped, and we were eventually able to muscle our way inside the church. It took a little longer than expected, due to all the disrespectful heretics cutting in line (I’m convinced there’s a special place in hell for people who cheat their way into a church), and once we made it inside it was absolutely packed. We didn’t stay long due to the crowds and the televisions set up to broadcast the ceremony now taking place outside. I can’t say I approve of hooking up tvs in an 800-year-old church. Call me old fashioned, I’m ok with that.
Even with the crowds and the obnoxious technology, Notre Dame is a must-visit. We did a quick once-over inside, and then walked around the exterior. I find the outside architecture to be just as beautiful, even on an overcast day.
Those “flying” buttresses (beams sticking out of the church) are what enabled the builders of Notre Dame to make the interior so light and airy. The buttresses support the weight of the roof and allow the walls to be opened for stained glass windows. The tall spire is actually Neo-Gothic, added in the 1860s as part of a project to restore the church to its former glory.
We then walked over the Pont de l’Archevêché, famous for the hundreds of “love locks” attached to the fence on the bridge. We didn’t attach a lock of our own, but enjoyed looking at everyone else’s.
From across the Seine (on the Left Bank), we had amazing views of the Cathedral and all the people surrounding the new statue of JPII. We also stopped at one of the bouquiniste stalls to buy a few souvenirs.
After grabbing a quick lunch (takeaway sandwiches and a crepe), we caught the RER-C train to Versailles. One thing we didn’t do that we should have was purchased round trip tickets from Paris. The Versailles station is small and has only two ticket machines (one of which doesn’t work with anything except a chip and pin credit card, which we fortunately had). We had to wait in line for about 15 minutes to buy tickets, which meant we missed our first return train, but were able to catch the next one – trains back to Paris run frequently. Other than that small inconvenience, getting to and from Versailles was a breeze. From the train station, turn right and follow the crowds and in about 10 minutes, you’ll be entered the palace grounds.
On our way to the palace, we stopped at the small, uncrowded, and very helpful Tourist Information center to purchase the Paris Museum Pass, which is SO WORTH IT. (Don’t be confused by the “Paris Pass” – it’s way overpriced and isn’t sponsored by city.) We bought the 2 day pass for 39 euros (price has since increased to 42), giving us free entry to virtually all the city’s museums, including Versailles and the Louvre. (Basically the only tourist attraction the pass doesn’t cover is the Eiffel Tower.)
If you’re going to be in Paris, even if you’re only going to the Louvre and one other museum (hell, even if you’re only going to the Louvre), the biggest tip I can give you is to buy the Museum Pass. Passholders are allowed to skip all entrance lines at the Louvre, Versailles, and most other museums (the biggest exception is security lines, like the one for Sainte Chapelle if you visit during the week). Based on the crowds we saw at the Louvre and the Orsay, the pass is worth every penny and then some.
Shameless (and unsponsored) plug for the Museum Pass aside, the courtyard of Versailles is stunning – there’s gold leaf everywhere you turn. The entrance gate (properly called the Royal Gate) alone has 100,000 gold leaves (this is a recent replication of the original).
Versailles was a small hunting lodge (the section with the clock represents the original building) until Louis XIV turned it into a palace “fit for the gods”, adding wings to create the current U-shape. The total cost of that project has been estimated at half of France’s GNP for an entire year. During the 1700s, the successive Louis-es added to the structure, making it increasingly opulent and awe-inspiring.
Inside is just as stunning and even more splendid. For some reason, I don’t have any good pictures of the interior, but trust me – it’s worth the trip. Sadly, we were there on a day when a musical fountain performance was scheduled, so admission to the gardens, which is usually covered by the Paris Museum Pass, was an extra charge. We opted to save our euros and forgo the gardens.
Our guidebook recommended at least a half-day for Versailles and the surrounding sites (grounds, Trianon Palaces, and Domaine de Marie-Antoinette), but we were in an out in a few hours. If palaces and French history are of particular interest to you, I’d definitely allocate more time, but we were fine with a shorter visit and omitting the Trianon/Domaine entirely. Logistically, getting to Trianon/Domaine is a headache and we decided it wasn’t worth the extra effort. Rather than trekking to the extra sites, we headed back into Paris to visit Sainte Chapelle.
Both Notre Dame and Sainte Chapelle are located on the Île de la Cité, so it might have made more sense to visit Sainte Chapelle after Notre Dame, but I wanted to visit Sainte Chapelle at the end of the day, after most of the tourist crowd had dissipated and when the fading light would more evenly illuminate the stained glass windows. Fortunately, the Saint-Michel Notre-Dame stop on the RER-C line is right across the Seine from Sainte Chapelle, making Versailles very convenient to squeeze in between church visits.
Sainte Chapelle was built in just 6 years (1242 – 1248) for King Louis IX to house the Crown of Thorns relic (which is now housed at Notre Dame and shown only on special occasions). The church consists of a lower chapel, where commoners were allowed to worship, and the Chapelle Haute, where royalty was went to bask in the light of amazing stained glass. In the lower chapel, light is minimal and the walls and are covered in monarchical symbolism. Be sure to visit the lower chapel first. It’s beautiful in its simplicity.
Because there is nothing simple or humble about the upper chapel. Upstairs, that is where the magic happens. That is where the royalty went and that is where you want to go.
In the Chapelle Haute, there are 15 separate panels of stained glass (nearly two thirds of the original 13th-century glass remains) depicting over 1,000 scenes from the Bible. When you come up the stairs from the lower chapel, the window immediately to your left shows the story of Creation, followed by Cain murdering his brother Abel, on through the Old Testament, culminating in scenes of Christ’s Passion behind the altar. Windows on the right tell how the Crown of Thorns made its way from Jerusalem to Paris. The climax of the scenes is the Rose Window in the rear of the church depicting Judgment Day.
Sainte Chapelle is undergoing a massive renovation and conservation project, so the Rose Window and several panels on the left side of the church were covered up during our visit. It was a disappointment to be sure (especially the Rose Window which faces west and is said to be absolutely brilliant late in the day), but c’e la vie. That just gives us another reason to return to Paris!
Check out these other posts to read about the rest of our Europe 2014 trip!
- London Part I – arrival in London, fish & chips, a snazzy pub, and the British Library
- London Part II – walking tour of London highlights, Westminster Abbey, and an Irish pub
- London Part III – St. Paul’s, Borough Market, and an incredible WWI memorial at the Tower of London
- Paris Part I – a walk through Luxembourg gardens and sunset at the Eiffel Tower
- Paris Part III – the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, and Auguste Rodin museum
- Bayeux – small town France
- D-Day Beaches – paying tribute to the Greatest Generation
- Mont Saint-Michel – an abbey on an island