Remembering Notre-Dame

I first saw the cathedral of Notre-Dame in September, 1966. I had just arrived in Paris for a year of study towards a master’s degree in French. At the time, the cathedral was being cleaned to remove the many decades of dirt, soot and pollution that had turned the façade and other portions a grimy black. Postcards and photos of the era show a Notre-Dame clad in widow’s weeds.

The project had been proposed in 1963 by Minister of Culture André Malraux to mark the cathedral’s 800th birthday. Cleaning techniques requiring chemicals or pressure were rejected as too harsh, and ultimately workers actually washed the tender Lutetian limestone with scrub brushes and plain water in a painstaking manual process that lasted years. When it was at last revealed, the beautiful creamy-white stone was breathtaking. Notre-Dame looked brand new, perhaps as she did hundreds of years ago. She would not stay that way for long, however. Ever-higher levels of urban pollution took their toll, and another cleaning project had to be undertaken between 1991 and 2000.

Over the years, my teaching career provided many excellent reasons to go to France, and Paris was nearly always the starting and ending point of the visit. One of my usual travel windows fell between Thanksgiving and Christmas. During the gray, drizzly days of late autumn, I roamed a Paris virtually devoid of tourists in search of the tucked-away treasures described in my Michelin Green Guide. One of those delightful discoveries centered on the statues of the twelve apostles standing guard around the spire of Notre-Dame.