Last week I showed you what Notre-Dame Basilica looks like on the outside. Today, for the Second Sunday of Lent, I’m taking you inside, where the difference from a grey stone exterior could not be more stark.
None of the European cathedrals I’ve visited come close to the unique wonder of the interior of this basilica. It is said that the priest and architect who worked on the design were inspired by Saint-Chappelle in Paris.
This year, for Lent, I’m taking you on a tour of Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica.
For the First Sunday of Lent, here’s a photo of the basilica taken from Place d’Armes, in the heart of Vieux-Montréal. The statue in front of the basilica is of Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve, co-founder along with Jeanne Mance of the first colony of French settlers on the island of Montreal.
The first church on this site went up in 1672. The present-day building, designated a basilica in 1982 by Pope John Paul II, was built between 1824 and 1829. The two spires took an additional ten years and are modelled after Notre-Dame de Paris and Saint-Sulpice.
Notre-Dame Basilica is the first church in Canada to be built in the Gothic Revival style. The architect was an American from New York named James O’Donnell. He converted to Catholicism before his death and he is buried in the crypt.
I’ve written before about my summer in Quebec City — and how six weeks is a nice chunk of time to get to know a place. Even so, I was surprised last year during my visit to Vieux-Québec at how familiar the place was.
Still. After all these years.
I arrived from Montreal by train around midday, and the funny little man at my budget hotel offered to outline a nice walking tour for me on his map.
“Non, merci!” I said, smiling. I knew exactly where I wanted to go.
He looked up from his map, a little surprised and, I think, a little insulted. But he shrugged, handed me the map, and off I went.
Encircled by its original ramparts, Vieux-Québec (Old Quebec) is divided into an Upper Town and a Lower Town. I chose to stay in the Lower Town, just a few steps from the train station to make my arrival more convenient for me, but it turned out to be a serendipitous choice.
I was close enough to the action, so to speak, but far enough away that I had some enjoyable late evening walks back to my hotel through quiet streets.
The name “Quebec” comes from an Indigenous word meaning “where the river narrows.” That narrowing river is the mighty Saint Lawrence.
The first permanent European settlement at Quebec City was established in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain. Le Petit Champlain, the oldest quarter of Vieux-Québec, is named for him, and Rue du Petit-Champlain (shown in this next photo) is its main drag.
Vieux-Québec is filled with stone buildings dating back to the seventeen century, with their characteristic French-style roofs.
Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, in Place-Royale, is the oldest stone church in North America. It was built in 1688.
At the edge of the Upper Town, Dufferin Terrace lets you walk from the foot of the Citadelle to Chateau Frontenac, and provides a magnificent view over the Saint Lawrence River, the Lower Town, and, on a good day, the Laurentian Mountains.
A sign of the not insignificant role of the Catholic Church in Quebec’s history are the many church spires scattered throughout Vieux-Québec.
And then there’s this grand building, the Séminaire de Québec, which takes you by surprise when you round the corner. The seminary was founded in 1663, and this building declared a national historic site in 1929.
Vieux-Québec is the only walled city in Canada or the United States.
I wrote above about how familiar Vieux-Québec was for me, even after all these years. For my mother, not so much. I happened to be with her on her first time back in Quebec City, some 40 years after her arrival by immigrant ship. I remember watching her as she leaned over the railing that lines Dufferin Terrace, intently scanning the waterfront below us. I could see how much she wanted to recognize something … anything.
Finally she stepped back and shook her head. It was no good; nothing about the port looked familiar to her.
I doubt it was because she was too young to remember — a child’s memories can be quite vivid, and I suspect that her first impressions of a new country were imprinted on her mind. What it does speak to is that there are parts of Vieux-Québec that have changed over the years, after all, and a port that greeted new Canadians for more than 200 years looks quite different from the port that now greets tourists arriving by cruise ship.
Vieux-Québec was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1985. It is indeed a special place and should really be visited by every Canadian.
Six weeks, if you can. But if that’s not possible, then a couple of days will do nicely.
I may have mentioned before (just once or twice) that my favourite way to get to know a city is by walking it.
I may have also mentioned (just, erm, once or twice) that I’m a history geek. And so, getting to know Vieux-Montréal (Old Montreal) last May by walking it was a real treat for me. Like a moth to a flame, I set out on my first day for the oldest part of Montreal.
I should make it clear that when I say “oldest part,” I am referring to the part of Montreal first settled by Europeans. Long before the first Frenchman arrived on what we now call the island of Montreal, Indigenous peoples were living there. They called their settlement Hochelaga. That first Frenchman was Jacques Cartier, and he in turn named the mountain near Hochelaga Mount Royal, or, in sixteenth-century French, Mont Réal. That was in 1535.
The first French settlers, about 50 of them, arrived in 1642. They were led by Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve and Jeanne Mance, who are considered the co-founders of Montreal. Their interest was evangelical; they intended to convert the Indigenous peoples to Christianity. However, the fur trade soon became the focus of the new colony. To protect the French interests, Louis XIV sent over 1200 French soldiers. The Filles du Roi (the King’s Daughters) followed, also sent out by Louis XIV, to provide wives for all those fur traders and soldiers. And with that, it could be said, the colony of New France was off to the races.
Colonies need governors, and the building in the above photo, Château Ramezay, was the home of one of the early governors of Montreal, a chap named Claude de Ramezay. Built in 1705, it is one of Montreal’s oldest buildings and is located on Place Jacques-Cartier, the centre of Vieux-Montréal. The house was sold by his descendants, and at one time served as the Canadian headquarters of the Continental Army (that would be the army of the American colonials who fought the British during the American Revolution). It is said that Benjamin Franklin was a one-time guest in this house in 1776 when he came looking for military help from New France in the way of soldiers.
Eventually, the château was turned into a museum, which it remains today. The restored gardens behind the château are particularly lovely.
This next house, Maison du Calvet, was built in the 1700s. It looks like it was lifted right out of Brittany. Most recently, it’s been a hotel, but at one time it was the home of Pierre du Calvet, a supporter of the American Revolution. He also met with Benjamin Franklin when he came to New France.
Across the street from Maison du Calvet is this church, Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours (Our Lady of Good Help Chapel). Founded in 1655 by St. Marguerite Bourgeoys, it’s one of the oldest churches in Montreal. This building dates from 1771. The chapel became popular with the sailors who came through the port of Montreal.
Speaking of sailors, this next building is the Old Custom House, which served a significant function in the burgeoning Montreal trade. When the city was declared an official point of entry for Lower Canada in 1832, it needed some administrative buildings, and this one was completed in 1838. It has two facades; this side faces the Saint Lawrence River. The building is now part of Montreal’s Museum of Archaeology and History.
What I like about this photo is how it shows several centuries of architectural style: directly behind the customs house are the spires of Notre-Dame Basilica (completed shortly before the customs house), behind it to the right is the Aldred Building, built in the Art Deco style and finished in 1931, and behind it to the left is the nondescript bank tower that went up in the 1960s.
Marché Bonsecours (Bonsecours Market), below, was the public market of Montreal for more than 100 years after its completion in 1847. It also housed the Parliament of the Province of Canada in 1849 and served as Montreal’s City Hall from 1852 to 1878. It is said to have been modelled after the Custom House in Dublin, which speaks to the long history of the Irish in Montreal. The building is now home to restaurants and shops, banquet rooms, and offices.
Here is Montreal’s current Hôtel de Ville (City Hall). It was built in the Second Empire style between 1872 and 1878. For those of us who are familiar with Quebec history, it was from this building’s balcony that Charles de Gaulle, president of France, gave his infamous speech in 1967. He proclaimed “vive le Québec libre,” which then became a rallying cry for the Quebec separatist movement of the late twentieth century.
Thankfully, the movement did not succeed and Quebec is still part of Canada. And we are the richer for it.
Four days ago, the world was stunned by the sight of Notre-Dame Cathedral in flames, and in tears at the possibility that it might collapse. Its salvation came down to a matter of minutes as the firefighters fought to keep the fire from spreading to the wooden frames of the bell towers. Had that happened, it would have been game over. The bells would have come crashing down, taking the two towers with them.
Since then, we’ve learned that Notre-Dame has fire monitors who inspected the wooden frame that held up the roof — known as la forêt (the Forest) — three times a day. We’ve also learned that just last year the Parisian firefighters carried out training exercises in how to rescue Notre-Dame’s artwork and relics. At the height of the fire, when it was thought the Cathedral was at risk of collapse, 100 of the 500 firefighters were busy moving those works of art to safety. They were following the protocol set in place long ago: first save the people, then save the art, then save the building.
But we’ve also since learned that Notre-Dame’s wooden roof structure had no sprinklers or firewalls, which contributed to how quickly the fire spread. And there has been a years-long battle between church and state as to who should pay for the overdue and badly needed restoration work that was underway. (All cathedrals in France are owned by the French state and leased to the Catholic church.)
One doesn’t need to be a person of faith to be impressed by Notre-Dame for its architectural beauty and its historical significance. Gothic architecture originated in France and Notre-Dame was among the first of the great cathedrals to be built. Construction began in 1163 and took 200 years to complete. Stained glass and flying buttresses were new ideas back then, and Victor Hugo called the result a “vast symphony in stone.”
There is probably no symbol of France and French culture equal to Notre-Dame. It sits on the Île de la Cité, the heart of Paris, known as Lutetia some 2000 years ago when humans first settled along the Seine. The “snail” of the famous arrondissements of Paris begins directly in front of the Cathedral. Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned emperor in Notre-Dame in 1804; its bells toll at times of national significance, such as the end of Nazi occupation in 1944. Heavily damaged during the French Revolution, Notre-Dame has since survived other revolutions and uprisings as well as two world wars. That endurance is likely why, as a building, it is so close to the hearts of so many people.
That endurance is also likely why we take Notre-Dame for granted. On my last visit to Paris, I didn’t even bother to go inside. To be honest, I’ve never been much impressed by its interior. I find it dark and grimy compared to other European cathedrals and the crowds are unbearable. My nieces took one look at the long line of people snaking across the square in front and emphatically declared they were not waiting in line to see a church, even if it was Notre-Dame. I didn’t push it.
Instead, I took them around the back to show them where Notre-Dame’s real beauty lies: in its intricate exterior and its symphony of flying buttresses.
I get why people talk of Notre-Dame as if it were a sentient being. And if you think of it like that — as a living, breathing building — then this week’s fire is simply one more event in its long and sometimes turbulent life.
And therein lies hope for its future. All great cathedrals have been nearly destroyed and then restored. England’s York Minster suffered a devastating fire in 1984 — something I only learned about this week despite having visited that church several times. Its roof was rebuilt with English oak. Chartres Cathedral, just outside of Paris, lost its medieval roof in 1836. It was rebuilt with iron and copper. And because of restorations like these and others, the know-how needed to rebuild Notre-Dame exists, despite media reports that those skills are long gone.
This week happens to be Holy Week — one of the most significant weeks in the Christian calendar. Regular readers of this blog know how enamoured I am with ecclesiastical architecture, as evident by my annual Lenten series. I’m sure I am not alone. The most awe-inspiring architecture has always been built for the gods we worship. Think of the Pyramids at Giza, the temples of Angkor Wat, the Acropolis in Athens …
Think of Notre-Dame …
Today is Good Friday, the most solemn day of Holy Week that commemorates the crucifixion of Christ. As I looked up at the brand-new wooden roof of the cathedral in which I was worshipping, I found myself wondering how quickly it might burn if it were to ever catch on fire.
I pray I will never know.
I chose this photo for today, the Fifth Sunday of Lent, because I love how the different features of Amsterdam’s Oude Kerk are visible in one shot.
There are the tall pillars, of course, And the pointed Gothic arches and windows.
What’s unique to the Oude Kerk is its wooden ceiling, which miraculously survived fires that swept through Amsterdam in 1421 and again in 1452 (after which wooden buildings were banned from the city). If you look closely, you can see the remains of the paintings commissioned by wealthy patrons.
And then there are the miniature ships. The Oude Kerk is steps away from the IJ and was traditionally a port church where the seamen came to pray for safety. The little ships are a testament to that history.
For the Second Sunday of Lent, here is a photo of what is probably the best-known church in all of Amsterdam: the Westerkerk. (Westerkerk is Dutch for “western church.”) Built between 1620 and 1631 in the Dutch Renaissance style, it too, like the Noorderkerk, was built as a Protestant church and in the shape of the Greek cross, except its design consists of two crosses placed side by side. Because of this, it has a long rectangular shape similar to a Catholic basilica, but its transepts are wider than in a Catholic church, and there are two of them.
The Westerkerk is about a five-minute walk from the Noorderkerk. It too is situated on the Prinsengracht, and is right across the canal from the Jordaan neighbourhood. Like the Noorderkerk, the Westerkerk was built to fulfill the pastoral needs of that fast-growing neighbourhood, but it ended up being the church of the upper and middle classes, whereas the Noorderkerk was where the working classes tended to go.
The reason the Westerkerk is likely the best-known church in all Amsterdam? Because Anne Frank wrote in her diary how its bells used to reassure her, especially at night. The carillon chimes every quarter hour and today is the only carillon in the city to do so 24/7 (at the request of the residents of the Jordaan).
I listened to those same bells chime through the night my first week in Amsterdam, as I tossed and turned, trying to get adjusted to the time zone. I could see the tower of the Westerkerk from my bedroom window, and when you climb that tower, your guide will point out the Achterhuis (where Anne Frank and her family hid for two years during World War II) and the window from which Anne could see the church tower.
Last summer was about a lot of things, but one thing I made sure to do was take lots of photos of the dozen or so European churches I was able to visit. And now that it’s once again the Season of Lent, I am so happy I get to share those photos with you.
For today, the First Sunday of Lent, here is a photo of the Noorderkerk. (Noorderkerk is Dutch for “northern church”). This church was built in the early 1620s in the Jordaan neighbourhood, right on the Prinsengracht, the outermost canal of Amsterdam’s Canal Belt. The Jordaan was growing fast at the time, and its residents were in need of another place of worship.
The Noorderkerk was purpose-built as a Protestant church (unlike older church buildings throughout the Netherlands that were originally Catholic, but were transformed into Protestant churches after the Reformation.) As such, its shape looks quite different from the traditional long nave of a Catholic church. It was instead built in the shape of the Greek cross, with four naves of equal length, and a small tower at the centre. The idea was that the building was centred around the pulpit, a type of church design that eventually become quite common throughout Calvinist Holland.
I have a lot of affection for the Noorderkerk as it was only a ten-minute walk from where I was living, and I passed it regularly, often daily, on my walks around Amsterdam. To my regret, I didn’t have a chance to see it on the inside — the church is still in use as a congregation and the hours it is open to the public are limited. But though it might look like a quiet, sleepy church, there was always a lot going on outside. On the square surrounding the church are the twice-weekly markets: a flea market on Mondays and a food market on Saturdays. There is nothing like a weekly market to give a church square a sense of being the heart of the neighbourhood.
Which to my mind is kinda cool.
I had lunch last month with a couple of friends who were in town for the holidays. One of them grew up not far from where I was living last summer, and naturally our conversation turned to my summer in Amsterdam. We had a very nice discussion about the differences between the Netherlands and North America. Our topics? The weather, table service, and, erm, the bike culture.
I looked out the window for a moment, thinking about what else I had noticed about life in Amsterdam, and then turned back to face my Dutch-born friend.
“You know what the Dutch do really well?” I said. “Trains.” I then marvelled aloud that I was able to travel by train from Amsterdam to another town for lunch, to yet a different town for dinner, and still be back in Amsterdam by midnight.
Yes, the Dutch have an excellent and comprehensive train system. What do I mean by “comprehensive”? I mean there are 3000 kilometres of railway in a country that is scarcely 400 kilometres from one end to the other. Along that rail network are nearly 400 train stations. That’s right: 400. Few Dutch towns are without a train station.
That kind of rail network isn’t possible in a country like Canada, of course, thanks to the fact that we “have too much geography.” I know that. Yet I still couldn’t help but wonder the other week, as I schlepped by Greyhound from Calgary to Red Deer to Edmonton, how much more pleasant my journey would have been by high-speed train.
Discovering the Netherlands by train was one of the highlights of my summer and I had lots of fun photographing the dozen or so Dutch trains stations I travelled through.
I don’t have a photo of the station I used most often (that would be Amsterdam Centraal) because the building was enshrouded in scaffolding all summer long. But here’s a look at the imposing entrance to Rotterdam Centraal, a station that was rebuilt only five years ago and, like Amsterdam, is one of the country’s busiest rail stations.
Den Haag Centraal is another of the country’s busiest stations. Note the Mondrian windows at the top right.
This is Leiden Centraal, another spectacularly designed station.
Most of Holland’s train stations date back to the nineteenth century, however, like this one in Kampen. It’s one of Holland’s smallest train stations. Only one train stops here, a small two-car train that does the ten-minute journey between Kampen and Zwolle three times an hour.
This is the entrance hall to the Maastricht station. See those ticket machines? There’s one for each national rail service: Belgium, Germany, and Holland. How efficient (and multinational) is that?
And this photo is from one of my favourite stations: Haarlem. Haarlem is on the Amsterdam–Rotterdam route, the oldest railway line in the country. The current building was built in the Art Nouveau style between 1906 and 1908 and is a national heritage site.
The sign above this doorway reads “Waiting Room First Class.”
I was especially intrigued by this plaque in Delfts Blauw tile on one of the walls in the Haarlem station. It’s from 1939 and commemorates 100 years of Dutch rail service. Train buffs know that the 1840s were the tech boom of the nineteenth century — railway lines were being laid down all over the place. In Canada, too.
I don’t know how many kilometres of rail travel I did last summer, but I do know this: it is such a civilized way to travel and I loved it.
So here’s another cool feature about the Low Countries that I want to share with you.
Those would be the Begijnhofs. Until the eighteenth century, most cities and large towns throughout Holland, Belgium, and northern France had a least one begijnhof. The Beguines (the French word for begijnhof is béguinage) were lay religious orders of the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance. These women were not nuns, and the communities they lived in were not convents. They did not take vows of poverty — some of them had servants. They did not marry while they lived in community, but were free to leave at any time. They supported themselves by teaching or by working as labourers. And they lived in houses surrounded by a walled courtyard (hof is Dutch for “court”). The gates were locked at night, and the community usually included a church and sometimes an infirmary.
One of the reasons these communities came about was simply due to the demographics in Europe at that time: there were more women than men. But also, living in community like this offered these women freedom and independence and choice in how they lived — basic rights that today we all take for granted.
I was introduced to the Amsterdam Begijnhof a long time ago by my Dutch cousin. Amsterdam is full of hofjes, most of which are private, but this one — one of the city’s oldest, dating back to the fourteenth century — is open to the public.
The Begijnhof was allowed to continue to exist as a Catholic institution during Calvinist rule because the homes were private property. The Beguines lost their chapel, however, and today it is the English Reformed Church. Later, they built a “hidden church.” (For the period of time when Catholic churches were banned in Protestant Amsterdam, Catholics built their churches behind the façades of regular houses. From the outside, they look like ordinary houses, but on the inside, they look just like a church.)
One curious fact about the Begijnhof: it is at medieval street level, which is about a metre below the rest of the city. What I also find particularly curious is how its entrance backs onto the Kalverstraat, one of the city’s busiest shopping streets. The last Beguine died in 1971, but the Begijnhof continues to be occupied by about 100 women.
It was my familiarity with the Amsterdam Begijnhof that led me to explore the ones in Belgium. The Prinselijk Begijnhof Ten Wijngaerde (Princely Beguinage of the Vineyard) is located next to Brugge’s Minnewater. Dating back to the mid-thirteenth century, it is one of the best-preserved begijnhofs in the country. You enter it through this gate.
It contains a church and about 30 white painted houses.
For the last 90 years, it has been the residence of a community of Benedictine nuns.
The Oude Begijnhof in Gent, also built during the mid-thirteenth century, is no longer walled. During the French Revolution, the city acquired property rights to the Begijnhof and then, in the eighteenth century, it wanted to take it over to use as housing for labourers. The Beguines moved to a new purpose-built begijnhof in the suburbs. The houses in the original begijnhof became worn and run-down, but were eventually restored in the twentieth century.
None of the original medieval houses are still standing in any of the begijnhofs throughout Belgium and Holland, although the layout of the communities remains essentially the same. Wooden houses were rebuilt in brick or stone from the sixteenth century onward. An exception is the single wooden house in the Amsterdam Begijnhof (the oldest wooden house in the centre of Amsterdam and one of only two still standing).
What I find fascinating about the begijnhofs is the witness they bear to a long tradition of women living independently in times when few were permitted to do so. As communities, they developed an architectural style of their own, which fortunately has been preserved.
And for the tourist overwhelmed by the chaos of central Amsterdam or on a whistle-stop tour of Belgium, they are a welcome oasis from the hustle and bustle of a tourist-overrun city.