Special to USA TODAY
PARIS – The City of Light has temporarily lost one of its most popular landmarks due to the April fire that devastated parts of Notre Dame Cathedral. With the gothic cathedral out of commision for the next several years, visitors have a hole in their itineraries. But it’s not like there’s little else to see.
Indeed, experienced travelers know that in almost any city with attractions of global renown, closures are a fact of life. Even without the fire that damaged the medieval cathedral’s roof, spire and high altar, older structures sometimes need loving repairs after years of weather and massive foot traffic take their toll.
One of those sites, Maison Victor Hugo at the Place des Vosges, is set to reopen in March following renovations. Overlooking one of the most beautiful parks in Paris, the second-floor apartment is where Hugo and his family moved in 1832 as he enjoyed the success of his his love letter to Gothic architecture, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” published one year earlier.
He and his family moved into the apartment on the second floor of what was then the Hôtel de Rohan Gueménée, at 6 Place des Vosges, in 1832 and lived there until 1848.
Among the other experiences to try during Notre Dame’s downtime:
Explore Paris’ other churches
For the gothically-inclined, there are alternatives to Notre Dame within walking distance of the great cathedral on the Île de la Cité.
Many tourists already have discovered Sainte-Chapelle, a gorgeous and graceful Gothic gem almost in the shadow of Notre Dame.
Built in the 13th century and restored following damage sustained in the French Revolution, the “Holy Chapel” features 15 massive, stained-glass windows that depict scenes from the Old and New Testaments. The soaring windows almost make it appear that they, and not the delicate arches, are holding up the building.
One caveat: Since Sainte-Chapelle is much smaller than Notre Dame, you may face a considerable waiting line.
No crowds impede access to another Paris treasure: Église Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Located on the left bank of the Seine on the fringe of the Latin Quarter, the Romanesque Benedictine abbey sits sits on a plot of land occupied by some form of church since the 6th century. Near the altar is the partially completed 13th-century sculpture of a smiling Virgin Mary, discovered in pieces under a nearby street in 1999.
See the sights from a new vantage point
Consider approaching more familiar and busy Paris sites in different ways. For example, don’t stand in the long lines for the elevators at the Eiffel Tower. Instead, take the stairs, where there is usually no line. It’s a vigorous – and scenic – workout.
Better yet, grab a bottle of wine, a baguette and cheese and plunk down on the grass of the Champ de Mars near sunset and watch the the tower’s light show, on display for five minutes at the top of every hour after dark. (Be warned: You may have to fend off vendors trying to sell you more bottles of wine and champagne.)
An even finer vantage point to see that – with far fewer people – is from atop the Arc de Triomphe. You can take an elevator or climb the spiral staircase’s 284 steps to the top. You will be rewarded with panoramic views of Paris and beyond.
Montmartre: A living postcard
If you want to walk through a living postcard, head to quaint Montmartre, where the imposing Sacré-Coeur Basilica and surrounding area offer endless diversions along the cobblestone streets. Unfortunately, they also attract endless throngs of tourists.
Step away from the crush and into gustatory heaven at Le Relais Gascon on Rue des Abbesses and try to make your way through any one of a number of traditional salads from southwestern France – each topped with a mountain of potatoes sautéed in garlic.
Of course, the charm of Paris doesn’t require you to be anywhere in particular. It is all around, from the tiny cafes tucked away in a Latin Quarter side street to the Marché Bastille (a huge weekly street market) in the Marais neighborhood to people biking along the Seine.
The truth is, you can never truly be through with Paris.
“There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other,” Ernest Hemingway wrote in “A Moveable Feast.”
It’s a sentiment to which any visitor can attest.
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