I can’t quite believe it. When I saw the images yesterday that Notre Dame de Paris was on fire, it was an unreal jolt, as it was with many many other people. I watched the French news channel online, watched as the smoke filled the clear sky, as the flames engulfed the roof and threatened the towers, as the tall central spire burned orange and slowly tumbled, hoped desperately that the Parisian pompiers would stop the fire from completely destroying her. For me, Notre Dame is Paris, it is France, the heart of the country where so much national history has taken place; it was simultaneously a picturesque stone flower on an island in a river and an unbreakable gothic powerhouse. My wife was heartbroken to see the news; it was the very first building she ever visited in Europe. It just didn’t seem real that it could be destroyed like this, having survived so much. Instantly urban sketchers from around the world were sharing their sketches of Notre Dame. I went to sleep early last night, and awoke this morning to find that the building ultimately survived – severely damaged, with a distinct lack of roof, but the structure is for the most part intact, and the large rose windows mostly undamaged. She will be rebuilt, it will take a long time, but she’ll be back. I drew the sketch above while standing on the banks of the Seine one golden May evening in 2012, after a long day of walking and sightseeing. My young son had just been playing in the sandpits next to the cathedral, before my wife took him home on the Metro for some pre-dinner sleep, while I sketched. I love sketching cathedrals. I have a number of them framed on the wall of my staircase at home. Notre Dame is one of the greatest cathedrals I’ve ever been to. I first went there when I was only 13, on a day trip to Paris during a school trip to northern France. I’ll never forget that day trip; we got off the coach near Notre Dame, and couldn’t believe it when we saw a policeman carrying an actual gun! Not something you saw in Britain. Notre Dame was so exciting for me. My big sister had been about a year before, and brought me back a metal Notre Dame keyring, which I treasured. I got her a keyring when I was there. Going inside I remember how dark it seemed compared to the bright sunlight outside. In those days, Notre Dame itself was much darker on the outside too, stone grey and stained from years of smoke and pollution. That was normal to me. The London I grew up in during the 1980s was full of blackened dirty buildings – when Westminster Abbey was finally polished to a gleaming white I didn’t recognize it. Similarly, when I came back to Notre Dame years later, it was still in the process of a deep cleanse, and I was astonished at its brightness. The things I remember the most from that first trip back in 1989 though were the immense rose windows, pouring in colourful light, so big and round that I could not believe that they were over 700 years old, and the coldness of the stone, ancient stone that I just knew could feel everything around it, that if it could speak would tell us tales of its history. I put my ears to the stone to see if I could hear it. I could hear it calling my name, “Scully! Oi, Scully!” but it turned out to be my mate Hooker telling me to stop hugging the cathedral and hurry back outside, everyone’s off to the Eiffel Tower.
I don’t remember if I ever went back inside, though I always made a point to at least go and see the cathedral every other time I went to Paris, which wasn’t actually many times. I went in 96 with this one girl for a couple of days, that wasn’t actually much fun, then again in 98 during the World Cup, but didn’t stay overnight, then again a year later (or maybe it was it a year before) with someone else I was going out with, and then not again for many years until our family trip in 2012 (those photos above are from then). I’m well overdue a visit to Paris. This year, definitely.
I was so shocked to see Notre Dame burn, but if I know one thing about cathedrals, I know they are built to last. She’ll be back. It may be a long time before I can finally go inside again, but when I do, I’ll bet the old stones have another story to tell me.