Reading: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Download the book for free at Project Gutenberg)
Listening: Highlights from Les Miserables (I’m finishing this up in my hostel in Prague and desperately hoping the Korean girls in my room can’t tell I’m singing along.)
The first book I read was a 1950s abridgment/translation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Being an abridgment, it was a fun, quick read. I’m hoping to take a crack at the full-length again, although I’ll probably prioritize reading Les Miserables. (I tried reading it once in middle school but I didn’t quite get through it seeing as I was, you know, eleven years old.) It was a fun way to prep myself for Paris and all the Victor Hugo related sights I would see.
Notre-Dame de Paris
Now, the actual French name of the book is Notre-Dame de Paris, and the full version – which I attempted to read before my trip – focuses much more on describing the architecture than, well, anything else. Despite cutting much of Hugo’s descriptions of medieval architecture, the title The Hunchback of Notre Dame is still something of a misnomer. Quasimodo, the titular character, does not take up a significant page-time – none of these singing gargoyle friends or elaborate model-making like in the Disney version. (The Disney version also neglects Phoebus’ rape-like tendencies, Esmeralda’s repulsion from Quasimodo, and the fact that all the protagonists die in the end.)
The cathedral itself is the main character, as Hugo details the adventures off the men and women both in and near its walls. Gringoire, a poet, finds himself in a chaste marriage to the young and beautiful La Esmeralda – a marriage meant to save his life and that leads to an uncomfortable fondness for her goat Djiali (at one point he prioritizes saving Djiali over the gypsy girl). Jehan Frollo, a happy-go-lucky student, catches a peep into his older brothers’ lecherous demise as Archdeacon Claude Frollo lusts after La Esmeralda, who in turn is in love with a captain of the guards who couldn’t care less about her beyond the bedchamber. Thieves and Parisians siege Notre Dame while a king sits idly by, and the deaf, misshapen bell ringer attempts to save the one woman he ever loved.
I visited Notre Dame several times during my week in Paris. The first time was an actual visit to the cathedral itself. Unfortunately, I arrived too late in the day to go to the top – several people have told me it is a marvelous view – but I did get to tour the inside.
The cathedral is absolutely beautiful inside, with stained glass windows and high ceilings. Notre Dame is still a working cathedral, so visitors are asked to behave appropriately. Signs in numerous languages remind you to remain silent, and most of the seating areas are reserved for prayer or the queue for confession.
Despite these requests, there was still an audible murmur of multiple languages as tourists milled about and snapped photos. For every family lighting a candle in offering, another group walked past in tank tops and shorts. It made for very strange dynamic. I am used to visiting California missions, which are similarly both historical sites and active houses of worship. California missions are not nearly as popular a tourist attraction – actually, unless you’re me or the parent of a California fourth grader, I don’t think they can even be called an attraction at all – so whenever I visit one it is next to empty. One of the interesting things about visiting an empty church is how they still retain some sense of sanctity – I might be standing there mentally tut-tutting the problematic narrative presented in the laminated poster – which somehow manages to both acknowledge and gloss over the mission’s violent and oppressive history – but the location still demands some sense of passive reverence.
At selfie-bait Notre Dame – not so much.
I should, of course, acknowledge that I was equally complicit in diminishing some of the sanctity with my constant picture taking. But I at least attempted to do it in a less brusque way than some of the other visitors. (Maybe?)
My second formal visit was with the CultureFish “Must-Do Paris” walking tour. This tour was absolutely fantastic. It was led by Pierre, one of three siblings who grew up in the United States with a French mother and since moved to Paris to start a pay-what-you-can tour company. It was a good introduction to the “must-sees” of Paris and the overall history of both the city and France. Also, it was free (tip-only!)
This tour focused only on the exterior, as we made our way from the Cité metro station to the front of the Louvre. Since I was actually with other people, I could be in a picture without the awkward selfie arm.
I visited Notre Dame two other times in a less formal sense. I went one night with another Angeleno at the hostel. The cathedral was beautiful at night: lit up and imposing over the empty courtyard. Another night I wandered there with another hostel group (we were on a strict “No Google Maps” policy for the evening) and we discovered just how many rats hide in the bushes and the trash cans in front of Notre Dame. (It’s a lot.) And on a day I did not visit, I did see on the French evening news that a group of women held a naked protest in Notre Dame about a year ago, and were recently acquitted. So you know. That happened.
But back to the book. Our tour guide connected the cathedral to the book. Notre Dame had faced many trials over the years – after the revolution, angry Parisians lopped off the heads from the statues of kings lining one side – and was facing potential demolition when Hugo wrote Notre-Dame de Paris. All his opining about Parisian buildings paid off, and the city raised funds to restore and maintain the cathedral.
Although the book is fiction, according to our tour guide there was a hunchback who worked at Notre Dame around the same time Hugo penned the novel. This hunchback also had a similar name to the protagonist of Hugo’s other famous work…
This was a bit tougher, because there’s no one, obvious location for me to talk about. I read through a few blog posts at the beginning of my trip to get a sense off where some of the Les Mis locales could be, and took pictures if I happened to be by.
Warning: This section quickly turned less into a travel photologue and more a place for me to put Les Mis YouTube videos.
My my Eljornas #betterthanMarius
I did not see any actual barricades, BUT I did see a bunch off small windy roads that could easily be barricaded. According to Pierre the tour guide, Napoleon purposely expanded many of these into large avenues when rebuilding the infrastructure of Paris to 1) circumvent barricades and 2) make it easier to send the army in if any should spring up.
After Jean Valjean saves his life, Inspector Javert undergoes a major existential crisis and then throws himself into the Seine. (Alternatively, Javert saw Russell Crowe’s depiction of himself and just wanted it to stop.) According to my blog reading, there is not a specific bridge, but it’s most likely one near Notre Dame. So I just took pictures of a bunch of the bridges.
Of particular note are the ones with all the locks on them – meant to represent everlasting love (lock a padlock with your sweetie and throw it in the river) they’ve actually led to bridge collapses. Yayyy young love.
Speaking of which…
Cosette and Marius meet in a garden and true love (for them) and heartbreak (for Eponine) begins. When I looked through my pictures from the Rodin Garden, I found that I had inadvertently snapped some pics with couples in them.
There was also a statue of Hugo in the Rodin Garden (the place with my paparazzi shots of random couples). If you want to see what he looks like in statue form:
Paris After Midnight
After learning of Cosette and Marius’ love, Eponine sings one of the greatest songs ever as she wanders around Paris in the week hours of the night. As I mentioned, I wandered around a bit with other travelers in the hostel and got to experience Paris at night. I was not on my own, it wasn’t raining, and I was not bemoaning any unrequited love (and as aforementioned, let’s be real, Eljornas is totes a better catch than Marius) but I did get a few pictures of Paris in the moonlight:
Also, if Lea Salonga singing ”On My Own” isn’t enough for you, here’s Sutton Foster:
The movie version:
And – please don’t hurt me – Lea Michele (who I saw do portray Eponine at the Hollywood Bowl in 2008 before Glee was a thing)
Apparently Jean Valjean lived at some point near Place D’Italie, which is where my hostel was. No pictures, but just so you know!
Maison de Victor Hugo
Note: I use several CC BY SA pictures in this portion, so all the text for the “Maison de Victor Hugo” is similarly CC BY SA. I aim to upload a number of the photos from earlier with a CC license, but it’s just tricky to do while hosteling, and I want to make sure I’m not using ones with people’s actual faces on them, etc. So feel free to reuse my *brilliant* commentary if you so choose! (As long as you make it CC BY SA yourself) (Yayyy licensing!)
And of course, no Victor Hugo tour of France is complete without visitingMaisons de Victor Hugo. Located in Place des Vosges, the museum is in one of Hugo’s former apartments and contains artwork and objects from the great writer’s life. The museum itself is free, but after trying to bluster my way through thee all-French plaques at Museé Carnavalet that morning, I opted to spend the 5€ and get the English-language audio tour.
I did not take any photos, since a sign specifically told me not to. I later saw tourists taking pictures to their heart’s content right in front of the blasé gallery guides, so I suppose that was more of a suggestion. In any case, you will just have to deal with my descriptions, supplemented with Wikimedia images taken by more daring individuals.
After going up a few flights of stairs – lined with posters depicting Hugo’s work – we enter the actual apartment. Each room details a different time period in Hugo’s life. The first room discusses his childhood and young adulthood. His parents came from very different political persuasions – his father a republican, his mother a royalist – which likely affected Hugo’s later politics. This room also features the young love between Hugo and Adele, whom his mother did not want him to marry so they waited until after the dear Mrs. Hugo’s death.
In the second room, Hugo has blossomed into the darling of romanticism. He’s becoming a strong political figure as well. There was a bust of Hugo on one side of the room, and according to the audio guide he thanked the artist for the piece as thus:
”I will try to acknowledge it, if not repay it’- Victor Hugo
Not sure why, but I found something vaguely charming in that response.
Sadly, two of his children died young – a third not quite young but still before Hugo himself – and his wife turns out to be a piece of work. He begins an affair with an actress named Juliette.
Nineteenth century France is a tumultuous place for politics, and when the tide turns Hugo finds himself fleeing to Brussels. One room replicates the Asian-inspired sitting room of the exile home in Brussels. My favorite piece was a desk with four inkwells attached to the top. Mrs. Hugo had asked her husband and three of his literary friends to donate their inkwells for the piece, which was set to be a charity sale. When no one bid on it (the price was steep) Hugo bought it himself.
Hugo apparently was quite a DIY kind of guy, and the next room showcased his affection for repurposing vintage curios. His wife did not like this hobby but his mistress did (hence the mistress!) and this particular room recreated her dining room which Hugo had decked out in all kinds of Etsy-worthy refurbished furniture.
The last two rooms focused on his return from exile, and were comparably bland – it seemed like his life had cooled down by that point. The very last room faithfully recreated his final bedroom, all the furnishings compliments of his grandchildren.
Like any museum dedicated to a specific author, my general urging leaving the building was to go and read as much Victor Hugo as a I possibly could. I did not, however, and instead read The Fault in Our Stars, but oh well. I did end up listening to quite a bit of Les Mis – as clearly evidenced by this post – and ended up making the YouTube algorithm on my hostel computer suggest a bunch Les Mis songs…
…So I think it was all worth it 🙂