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The Archeological Crypt of Notre Dame Cathedral

Notre Dame Cathedral is the most visited monument in Europe, receiving about 12 million visitors annually (in contrast to the Eiffel Tower, which receives about half that) and as many as 30,000 people per day. If you’ve ever walked past the parvis (the open area directly in front of the cathedral doors), you know this isn’t an exaggeration; the notoriously long, snaking line to enter seems to have a life of its own as it twists and turns with no formal line boundaries to accommodate everyone waiting to get in.

Notre Dame Cathedral and the open public space before it, known as the parvis.

The funny thing is that as these people gaze up towards the 850+ year old towers, an entire museum lays right under their feet. The Archeological Crypt of Notre Dame is my favorite under-rated Paris attraction that doesn’t even make a bleep on most tourist radar and its overlooked entry sits just beyond the parvis. Which is disappointing, because here under the cathedral beats the historical heart of Paris, and walking through it brings you back through 2,000 years of history to a time when Paris was known as the Gallo-Roman city of Lutecia. Throughout Paris and especially on the île de la Cité (the small island where Notre Dame sits and the very center of the city) the history of the city remains underground and built up in layers, with entire time periods superimposed on each other.

The Crypt Entrance

You do some serious digging around here and you are bound to hit a goldmine of history. Which is exactly what happened at the parvis of Notre Dame in 1965 when construction crews discovered vestiges dating as far back as antiquity while they began work for an underground parking garage (which never happened thank god). Over the next 15 years, excavation teams uncovered the foundations (dating as far back as the first century AD) of entire neighborhoods as well as a shipping port, sections of former ramparts, wells, even Roman baths where a sub-ground heating system can still be seen.

Incredibly, with the help of historical records researchers were even able to identify the owners of medieval cellars uncovered here!Over time, these were covered and new homes were built on top of the old ones, slowly raising the ground level and modifying the shape of the island as time went on. When they were rediscovered, instead of covering them up to be forgotten; they were carefully unearthed and studied, then transformed into this fabulous, interactive museum which opened in 1980. I highly recommend anyone interested in Paris history and archeology to check out this museum, (tickets are only 5 euro!) which is always free of lines and crowds unlike other popular tourist attractions. Its not huge but if you want in-depth information of how Paris has transformed itself through the past two millennia you could easily spent an hour or two here.

Have you visited the crypt? If so, what did you think?

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Recycled Tombstones

26 rue Chanoinesse, 4ème arrondissement Ile de la Cité.

The very heart of Paris for nearly 2,000 years sits on a small island right in the center of the city. And if you walk past the dozen tourist shops and cafés selling post cards and expensive crappy coffée, nestled just behind the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral is a beautiful little medieval street that was spared during the great renovation works of Paris in the 19th century that left the rest of Ile de la Cité basically leveled. This street was home to the clergy of Notre Dame since the 14th century, as well as the clergy to the previous church that existed there before then. It’s reminants are still present, hidden behind massive doors to sleepy buildings.

Rue Chanoinesse in 1910 and today

There are 2 very important things to know when you are in Paris. 1. Always go through open doors that are usually locked if the opportunity to do so arises. There are many special hidden corridors (called coure in french. They lead to buildings behind the main building you see on the street) on the other side of big doors in Paris and it is an unspoken rule that you can always enter if you can manage to get through the door, which is usually always locked and accessable by a code 2. If you are in an old building, always check out the bathroom. More on that another day..

What’s behind the door?

Behind the red door at number 26 (I waited outside for approximately 4 minutes until a lady left and let me enter. She gave me a look like, “I know you don’t live here but IDGAF”) is an obviously old and narrow corridor leading to the entries of several apartment buildings. It is believed that this used to be an alley way leading to the parallel Rue des Ursins.

Watch your step here, and not just to avoid a broken ankle on the uneven cobblestone. You are walking upon the tombstones of the dead. If you look along the left wall at the ground, you can make out gothic style latin lettering, faded over hundreds of years of footsteps. Apparently these are the re-purposed tombstones of long gone religious members that used to reside in this area. So much for respecting the dead eh?

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Boutiques of the Pont Neuf

Let’s Review.

The Pont des Arts AKA The Lock Bridge before it became The Too Heavy for its Own Weight Bridge is NOT the bridge you want to be spending time at, especially now since its covered in smudgy plexiglass. The real OG Bridge is one bridge to the east; The Pont Neuf (New Bridge). If you don’t already know, here is a quick recap: despite its name, this is the oldest bridge in Paris, and the first to be built without being lined with houses (Bridges were prime real estate).

Combined with the view of the mighty river Seine and the addition of SIDEWALKS (to the relief of Parisian mothers everywhere “FFS, Little Dagobert treaded in horse shit AGAIN!”) the PN was the hot new place to see and be seen. Connecting the royals at the Louvre palace and Rive Droite with the up and coming new hot N’ trendy neighborhoods of Rive Gauche while incorporating the tip of the central ile de la cité; this bridge was not only convenient, it was the epicenter of Parisian life. The bridge was built with small moon shaped alcoves where vendors hawked everything from books and clothes to food and ink.

Need a rotten tooth pulled? A prostitute? A book that is in bad shape (this was the specialty of the bridge)? The Pont Neuf was your one stop shop of the 17th century. Walking across it 400 years later, I always wondered what the little shops that were set in the alcoves were like. (Anyone else wonder about these random kind of things or is it just me?) Today you can relax and enjoy the views in them on the built-in benches; but how did they appear long ago? And why were they taken away?

I did some research and found this daguerreotype of the Pont Neuf taken anonymously around 1842 with the boutiques, built like small, sturdy little cabins. (See comparison photo of the same view, more or less, today. Note the Louvre in the distance) The boutiques were all dismantled by 1850 (to offer a better view but really to limit the people congregating in large numbers to talk of rebellions and such) and replaced with the benches and street lights we see today.

ile de la cité, Maps

The Crown of Thorns

Notre Dame de Paris 75004

Here’s another semi Paris secret involving Jesus I bet you didn’t know existed, and even if you aren’t religious- it still has some pretty rad historical significance.. Religion is super mystical right? Virgin births, turning water into wine, defying gravity and walking on water. It’s like Harry Potter but with genocide, miracles, and war. Whether you are god fearing or not, if you are a history enthusiast- you gotta respect the ole holy trinity. After all, history and religion go together like sketchy massage parlors and happy endings amiright?

About a month before the fire at Notre Dame, I found myself in the holy-mother-of-GOD of all lines, trying to get in like a 3rd armadillo wanting to get on Noah’s arc. It was 2:15 and the Vénération de la Couronne d’épines (The Veneration of the Crown of Thorns) was starting in 45 minutes.

Wait, the crown of thorns? Like from Jesus?

Yes the very one. It’s in Paris apparently, not far from Mona Lisa and the Eiffel Tower. And at 3pm each first Friday of every month, (and every Friday during Lent) you can come to Notre Dame and kiss it during a special ceremony. Pretty rad huh?But is it the realio dealio? Let me give you the history and timeline of the most famous crown ever worn. Prior to coming to Paris, the only religious relic I had ever heard about was the Shroud of Turin, and I was baffled to learn the crown of thorns even still existed.

We all know how it started. Jesus, nailed to a cross- is crowned with a helmet of thorns by three Roman soldiers (if hell exists, you know these assholes are being barbequed for eternity) mocking him as King of the Jews. He is crucified. Dies. Then resurrected.

But what happens to the crown after that and how did it wind up in the city of lights?

If we go off the modern calendar. Jesus is born 0 AD (that’s latin for anno domini, or “in the year of our lord”) and dies around 33 AD. That’s 1,98y years ago. Not that long ago if we look at the big picture here.

The first evidence we have of its existence is a heavily filtered instagram photo posted by @TheGospelGangsta in 400 AD. Er, no that can’t be right. The earliest written reference of it is made in 409 by St. Paulinus of Nola, who notes that there is a veneration of the crown of thorns in Jerusalem in 409 A.D. A christian pilgrim also writes about it still being in Jerusalem in 870. It is transferred to Constantine (Istanbul today) around 1063 to be housed along with other religious relics for pilgrims.

So there are only about a few hundred years span there where the crown’s whereabouts aren’t accounted for. Unfortunately for Constatine, the Emporer Baldwin II finds himself short of cash, and sells the crown to France’s King Louis IX in 1238. King Louis, who is pious AF (eventually he would be given the title Saint to add to King) enters Paris on August 19, 1239 wearing only Calvin Klein boxer briefs,a simple shroud, and the crown of thorns on his head. (Pretentious much?) He brings it to Notre Dame, which is still in the early phases of construction, to be kept until his reliquary, the Sainte-Chapelle, a royal gothic chapelle you can visit in Paris today, is finished in 1248.

The Crown of Thorns is kept there until the French Revolution 1789, where it is then transferred to the Cathedral Saint Denis, followed by the French National Library. It is given back to the Notre Dame in 1801 and put in the treasury there, where it is still kept today.

So aside from a few hundred years, the evidence to its existence and legitimacy is pretty solid IMO. It’s also interested to note that the actual thorns from the crown (allegedly from the Jujube tree) have been dispersed as holy relics and more than 200 are floating around all over the world.

So when I finally entered Notre Dame, I found a seat and waited for the parade to begin. Necks arched as the Holy Team walked up the center aisle, with the crown held on a red satin pillow and encased in a clear, probably bullet proof container, which was covered in gold bling. The Top Chef holding it was surrounded by a team of Priest and Nuns (who were so serious and stern looking they must have been packing heat under their robes).

Other than this, the whole ceremony was just like any other catholic mass. When it came time to the actual veneration, they led people pew by pew to line up in front of the crown. Everyone had their turn to kiss it, touch it, gently headbutt it, whatever. They wiped off the crown between each person. It took a longgg time for my pew, which was maybe 15 rows back, to line up. Taking pictures was STRICTLY forbidden. I found myself getting kind of nervous when my turn came close.

What did I want to do? Kissing it seemed weird. And I wasn’t sure if I should do the signing of the cross after. I ended up giving myself a second or two just to look at it. My academic scientific training- which consists mostly of 2 weeks high school biology before I dropped out; determined it was definitely an old tree branch. I looked into the eye of the priest holding it for some sort of reaction, like he could read my soul and sense my hesitation. I wanted him to say “have no fear my child” or at least give me a wink, but he just looked bored and like he wanted a cold beer. (it was stifling hot)

So I awkwardly kneeled and touched it with my forehead, before throwing out a sign of the cross I’m pretty sure was in the wrong order of holy spirits. (left to right, or right to left?) But no one cared or excommunicated me from the church while banishing me to hell.

Did I really touch something that actually touched Jesus? If so, what does it mean? I don’t know but I left Notre Dame feeling pretty damn HOLY that day. I can’t wait for when the cathedral is restored and I can go back for this.

ile de la cité, Maps

Dead Woman Walking

16 October 1793

The Conciergerie/Palais de Justice 75001 Paris

It’s been 227 years since Queen Marie Antoinette climbed these same stairs to her mortality.. Whether you are Team Vive la Reine or Team Let Them Eat Guillotine, you can’t deny the historical impact of her life and death. How moving is it that this scene (the painting itself dates from 1885) is nearly the exact same more than two hundred years later? This is what History of Our Streets is about Citoyens, it may not be time travel, but its as close as we are gonna get!

MARIE ANTOINETTE LED TO EXECUTION 1896
G. Cain