Note: I wrote the piece below the day after Notre Dame burned. I am sharing it again today for all travelers, real and armchair, because cultural heritage sites around the world are at great risk after almost two years of COVID. Thanks for reading.
I remember the small wooden box at one entrance to Notre Dame. Please donate (in English) to support our Cathedral. A few visitors searched their purses and pockets for a few euros to drop in. I was never clear if I was donating to support the work of the church or the preservation of the cathedral. Both were worthy goals but walking around the massive stone structure I assumed the preservation of the site was something the French state would take care of for me. I would drop in 1-5 euros depending on my solvency at the moment. I will never pass one of those donation boxes again without thinking of Notre Dame burning on April 15, 2019.
April 15, 2019
One of the magnificent lower Rose Windows of Notre Dame. This window survived the fire.
Many will remember where they were when they learned that Notre Dame was burning. Millions shared their photos, past and present, on social media while watching the drama unfold. Sharing and commenting on each other’s posts joined us as one community. A worldwide community that had been touched by a single structure, a shared history, experience or just a shared sense of awe in the accomplishments of mankind.
As the story unfolded, many of us learned of the fragility of the building. Resilient no more, we watched the spire collapse as flames lit the city of Paris. We learned that the French state had not been able to “take care of it for us.” The irony that the ongoing preservation work may have ignited the fire is obvious but belies the truth that these had been delayed until maybe too late.
The Universal Value of Cultural Heritage Sites
A message from the late King Hussein of Jordan at “Bethany Beyond the Jordan”
There are so many urgent needs in our world today, that pleas for money for buildings or historical sites may seem frivolous. But watching the world’s reaction to the burning of Notre Dame tells me that many more understand today that cultural heritage sites enrich our lives and souls.
Travelers learn this daily as they walk through Cathedral doors to experience the same awe as pilgrims did in the Middle Ages. Personally, I always envision the pews stacked to burn during the French Revolution and shortly thereafter, Josephine entering Notre Dame on Napoleon’s coronation day. These were moments in history that I could almost touch when I entered Notre Dame. They taught me the rapid flow of history and the impermanence of political movements. I digress, but only slightly.
Lessons from Our Lady of Notre Dame?
Yesterday taught me two things.
Firstly, the sharing of photos from travelers worldwide of their past visits to Notre Dame on social media was not only heartwarming, but evidence of the power of travel to unite a fractured and frightened world.
Secondly, I relearned that there is an urgent need to protect our universal cultural heritage sites. Few governments alone have the resources. Expecting someone or some government to “take care of it for me” was not only naive but irresponsible. Was yesterday the wake-up call to support a new supranational entity or to increase support for an existing one such as the World Monuments Fund?
Those of us in the travel industry should take the lead. It is through travel that I have discovered the treasures of the world. I have an obligation, beyond (but in addition to) dropping a few euros in a small wooden box, to help preserve the sites that have so enriched my life.
End of sermon, now I need to practice what I preach.