14 million visitors a year: What you need to know about Notre-Dame Cathedral

The famed Paris Notre Dame cathedral, engulfed in flames on Monday, is Europe's most-visited historic monument and emblem of France, pulling in some 12 to 14 million visitors each year. Here are some key facts about the Gothic cathedral.

14 million visitors a year: What you need to know about Notre-Dame Cathedral
Photos: AFP

The architectural gem located on the Ile de la Cite – one of two tiny natural islands in the Seine River in Paris — was at the centre of the French capital in the Middle Ages. 

Its construction began in the mid-12th century and continued for some 200 years.

During the 18th century French Revolution it was hit by many acts of vandalism, targeted as a Catholic symbol — its spire was dismantled, treasures plundered and the statues at its entrance doors destroyed.

It would go on to feature as a central character in Victor Hugo's 1831 novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and shortly afterwards a restoration project lasting two decades got under way, led by architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc.

It would survive the devastation of two world conflicts in the 20th century and famously rang its bells on August 24, 1944, announcing the liberation of Paris from German occupation at the end of the WWII.


Tourist hot-spot

Around 12 to 14 million people visit the cathedral every year, an average of more than 30,000 per day. 

A favourite for tourists, Notre Dame also attracts many couples hoping to tie the knot under its famed Gothic arches. 

Five religious services are held there every day and seven on Sundays. In total more than 2,000 take place every year.

The cathedral's nine giant bells were replaced in 2013 and its spire, which collapsed on Monday, was in the process of being renovated.

Kilometre zero

Middle Ages specialist Claude Gauvard, also the author of a book on the Gothic masterpiece that dates from the mid-12th century, told AFP there was no overstating the site's cultural resonance.

Notre-Dame “is a symbol of Paris, a symbol of peace, togetherness and concord… which occupies an exceptional site at the heart of the city.” 

It is also kilometre zero — the spot from which all distances to other cities from the French capital are measured.

“For me it is perhaps one of the most harmonious of cathedrals, symbolising at once the work of the craftsmen who built it — though through the ages it has been much loved and yet unloved.”

In need of repair

Though the French government currently spends two million euros ($2.3 million) a year for maintenance work, the conservation to-do list is growing long.

Gargoyles that have lost their heads have been fixed up with unsightly plastic tubes for water drainage. Elsewhere, an entire stone balustrade is missing, replaced by plywood; a pinnacle has crumbled and a stained-glass window's frame is in a sorry state of repair.

Terror target

In recent years Notre Dame has also been the site of tragedy. Its bells rang the day after the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper in 2015 to honour the victims.

A year later top civil and religious officials gathered at the cathedral for a mass in honour of Jacques Hamel, the French priest who had his throat slit by Islamists in the diocese of Rouen, a northern city.

In September 2016 a car packed with gas canisters was discovered near the cathedral. Three women believed to have been spurred by the Islamic State group were subsequently charged with terror offences.

And in June 2017 an Algerian shouting “This is for Syria” tried to attack a policeman with a hammer outside Notre Dame but was shot and wounded.


Notre-Dame restoration work begins as Paris cathedral on track to reopen in 2024

France's Notre-Dame cathedral is finally ready to undergo restoration work more than two years after a blaze ravaged the heritage landmark, and remains on course to reopen in 2024, authorities said Saturday, following months of painstaking work to secure the building.

Notre-Dame restoration work begins as Paris cathedral on track to reopen in 2024

The great mediaeval edifice survived the inferno on April 15th, 2019, but the spire collapsed and much of the roof was destroyed.

The focus until now had been on making the cathedral safe before restoration work could begin, which included the strenuous task of removing 40,000 pieces of scaffolding that were damaged in the blaze.

“The cathedral stands solid on its pillars, its walls are solid, everything is holding together,” said Jean-Louis Georgelin, head of the public entity tasked with rebuilding the cathedral.

Scaffolding in the interior of the building as the restoration phase begins. Photo by Thomas SAMSON / POOL / AFP

“We are determined to win this battle of 2024, to reopen our cathedral in 2024. It will be France’s honour to do so and we will do so because we are all united on this goal.”

The aim is to celebrate the first full service in the cathedral on April 16th, 2024 – five years after the fire – despite delays caused by the pandemic and the lead that spread during the blaze.

The Notre-Dame spire, a later addition to the medieval building, was completely destroyed in the blaze. Photos by AFP

Authorities will now call for tenders to select the companies to carry out the restoration work.

The cathedral’s interior walls and floors will also undergo “a thorough cleaning process” later this month.

Notre-Dame’s famous Grand Organ is already being restored, with its 8,000 pipes dismantled and sent to organ builders all over France.

It is expected to be put together again in October 2023, said Georgelin, the former head of France’s armed forces who was appointed by President Emmanuel Macron to oversee rebuilding efforts.