Looking for Zen in Notre Dame

Any list of “top” tourist attractions in Paris places Notre Dame Cathedral easily in the top 5. Built between the 12th and 13th centuries Notre Dame is considered the finest and largest example of French Gothic architecture in the world. It is also one of the best known churches in the world with an estimated 13 million visitors each year (I found some variation with respect to total visitation with numbers ranging from 9 to 13 million. Since more sources cited 13 million I decided to go with that but, either way, let’s just agree that a heck of a lot of people visit Notre Dame each year!).   With this level of fame you can imagine how crowded and difficult it can be to visit Notre Dame in August, the height of tourist season here in Paris. Nonetheless, Notre Dame is on most people’s “must” see lists.

View from the left bank walkway
A portion of the frontal facade

We currently have some good friends visiting from Canada, Elaine and Kevin and, as this is their first visit to Paris, of course Notre Dame was on their list of things to see. Since we live a short walk from Notre Dame it was an easy decision their first morning here to walk over and check out the crowds and determine the odds of gaining entry without having already purchased a ticket in advance.

Unfortunately, but not surprising, the crowds were already thick around the church by 10am and the line-up to get in suggested a wait of well over 1 ½ hours – not an overly enticing way to spend a lovely summer morning. Instead, we decided to walk around the outside of the church. Personally, I very much enjoy (and in many ways prefer) the views of Notre Dame from both its backside and from its river-side. There are magnificent carvings on the building and the views of some of the gargoyles are great from the ground.   With a good zoom lens you can capture some wonderful photos. I also find the backside of the church extremely photogenic, particularly because you can frame up the cathedral and the Seine River together:

nd 3

Locks on the Pont de l’Archevêché, the
Locks on the Pont de l’Archevêché, the “Love Bridge” behind Notre Dame

In addition to all that, there is a garden area behind Notre Dame where you can sit and just take in your surroundings away from the tourist craziness our front. It is a lovely area and, over the years, I’ve sat there on many occasions either to read, take photos, write in my journal or just sit.

This, we decided, was the way to see Notre Dame! That is, until an increasing number of very well armed French guards started moving in. Our backside-view of Notre Dame photo session was cut short by these men (and one woman) carrying very large guns ushering everyone away from the church and garden and back out onto the street. I asked one guard if there was a problem. He replied, “yes, there’s a bag”.   What excitement this added to our morning stroll – our first potential, maybe, could be (but not likely) bomb threat. Out we scurried to watch the events unfold from the safety of the street. The gates were locked behind us.

DSC03141 DSC03154

To spare you the boring details of what transpired over the next 20 minutes or so, a police van was brought in, the bag was inspected, all was fine and the garden re-opened. Sorry, but honestly nothing much more exciting happened.

However, back to us….during our initial investigation of entry wait times for Notre Dame we had wandered across the front doors and seen a poster for a concert inside the church that same day: a chorale concert of Gregorian Chant and medieval music performed by “l’Ensemble Vocal de Notre Dame de Paris”. AH-HA we had discovered a way to see the inside the church without having to wait in line plus enjoy an evening musical adventure. Sold!

For those of you who have no idea of the difference between a Gregorian Chant and a Football chant let me give you a quick (and I mean quick) overview. Essentially, Gregorian Chant is a form of unaccompanied sacred vocal music typically sung by choirs of men and/or boys in churches. It developed in Western Europe throughout the 9th and 10th centuries (although there are arguments that it has Roman and Galic background) and is still considered by the Roman Catholics as the music most suitable for worship. The melodies are sung in Latin – which I consider a bonus since it’s the melodious and soothing quality of Gregorian Chant that I appreciate and not the religious underpinnings. It is certainly not to everyone’s taste but, personally, I quite enjoy Gregorian Chant. Perhaps it’s because I sang in choirs for years, participated in Madrigal groups and other similar vocal ensembles and I know how hard it is to stay in tune without instrumental accompaniment not to mention singing in a foreign language! Whatever the reason, Elaine, Kevin and Gary were all on board so we bought tickets.

That evening we showed up at Notre Dame, were shown into the church without having to wait: bonus #1. Since our seating was unassigned we were free to roam about until the concert started: bonus #2. The crowd was quiet (much, much quieter than the throngs of daytime tourists) and respectful: bonus #3. And then, precisely at 8:30pm we were transported to another world on the voices of 7 men – the REAL bonus.

The music was haunting and ethereal. It expanded to fill the sanctuary and the rafters of Notre Dame. I closed my eyes and I could feel the music take over. Meditating was easy. My mind stayed still as the music held it and carried away all extraneous thoughts, stresses and worries, replacing them with a calm that was carried on the slow moving melodies sung impeccably. One hour of total Zen:

(audio by Elaine on her iPhone)

No sounds or movements came from the audience during virtually the entire hour of the performance. No coughing, no chattering, no cellphones.  Two babies, who we’d been concerned about at the start of the concert because they were being fussy, were both in deep sleep on their mothers’ shoulders at the end of the hour. Other heads nodded off, perhaps due to boredom or fatigue you could say. But, perhaps they too were carried away by the music and had simply allowed themselves to completely relax.

At the end of the concert there was rigorous, but not raucous, clapping for quite a long time actually. Clearly there were others who had enjoyed the music as much as I.   Afterwards, we wandered back out into a stormy evening, not worried about our lack of umbrellas, still riding the calm of the last hour.

This is the way to see Notre Dame I’ve decided. I realize you don’t get to climb the towers but there are many other towers you can climb in Paris to appreciate the great views. However, if you want to have the time and opportunity to really experience the essence of this beautiful cathedral then I suggest that you check the concert schedule before you decide to visit (Sacred Music at Notre Dame). Attending a concert inside Notre Dame will provide you with a completely different perspective of this magnificent old church and, who knows, it may just be the little bit of the Zen you’ve been looking for on your holiday.


  1. Hi Tracey,
    I thoroughly enjoyed your commentary and descriptive experiences at Notre Dame….love it there. Great for people watching. Can definitely identify with the Gregorian chant having been in the Sacred Heart choir in Walkerton.


  2. St. Chapelle is another church/chapel that is great for music, and crowd avoiding, too.
    Also, on a sunny morning as the sun comes up is apparently a great time to be at Notre Dame when it opens as then the sun is shining through the windows at the front of the church.


    • It’s true about St Chapelle. Already planning to attend a concert there. Will do a few early mornings along the river – particularly when there is no wind and there is perfect reflection off of the river. There really are sooooo many photos to take here – it’s just finding ones that haven’t already been taken 1000 times already. haha


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