Monday Postcard from the Tour Saint-Jacques

1. If you’ve wandered through the Marais, you’ve likely seen this ornate Gothic tower looming over the skyline. When I first moved to Paris, it was closed to the public and had been since 1999: built of limestone and a salt-based mortar, the tower was falling into ruin. Luckily, a project was undertaken to repair it, and it reopened four years ago for limited public access. Visits are conducted from June 30 to October 29, and this weekend, the Country Boy and I ascended the tower for the first time.


2. Tours of the tower are run by Des Mots et Des Arts on summer and early fall weekends. Reservations are absolutely recommended, as the small groups fill up fast. For 10 euro, our guide Nicolas gave us a 50 minute tour of the tower, which begins with the history of the former church of Saint-Jacques and ends with the climb (300 steps!) to the top (don’t worry – you get two breaks).


3. The tower was once the bell tower of a Gothic church nearly the size of Notre Dame, but during the French Revolution and subsequent separation of Church and State, Saint-Jacques was dismantled and the stones sold off, like a quarry. An agreement was made to keep the bell tower still standing – we still don’t know exactly why – and in the 19th century, when Napoleon III came to power and the Gothic revival movement occurred, statues and gargoyles were added to the tower to make it look more Gothic. (One fun fact from Nicolas: there are nearly no examples of truly Gothic architecture in France, because all of it was modified in the 19th century.)


4. The view from the top of the tower is truly exceptional: here, you can see Notre Dame and the Pantheon in the background. (Notre Dame was also renovated during the 19th century Gothic revival, by the way; that spire and most of the gargoyles were added following the renewed interest in the cathedral, which many link to the publication of Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris.)


5. The tour includes a nice, long pause at the top of the tower, so you have more than enough time to take photographs. I’ll admit to being a bit scared of heights (OK, very scared – the one time I went ziplining a staff member had to come get me down), but this really wasn’t too bad. The stairs are, however, quite narrow, so if you’re severely claustrophobic, you might want to take a pass. But if, like me, you can overcome your fears, I promise: it’s well worth the trip.