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Beautiful Churches: Paris Edition

Quasimodo. Remember that guy? The hunchback of Notre Dame who fell hopelessly in love with Esmeralda, the beautiful and kind-hearted gypsy. He is the cathedral’s bell ringer and he lives in the bell tower of Notre Dame. Among his friends are the humorous gargoyles that keep watch over the city of Paris at the top of the cathedral. Aside from the Titanic, this was the more age-appropriate movie my parents took me to when I was a child. It captivated my imagination and it certainly got me infatuated with Notre-Dame de Paris. So, of course we had to visit it when we were in Paris!

Notre Dame, seen from across the Seine.

Notre Dame, seen from across the Seine.

Just like any other famous landmarks, the Notre Dame was packed with tourists and travelers alike. We had the opportunity to attend the International Mass on Sunday, which, while beautiful, was definitely the most distracting Mass I have ever been to in my life. Sure they closed off the main nave of the cathedral for the Eucharistic celebration, but that certainly did not stop people from using their flash while taking pictures around the interior of the cathedral. Disrespectful, much? That said, the church IS gorgeous and I highly recommend a visit when you are in Paris. However, it is not the only beautiful church in the city. If you have enough time, consider going into these 3 churches that are less popular, but just as stunning.

Sacre Coeur Basilica
(La Basilique du Sacre Coeur de Montmartre) 

Metro: Abbesses (Line 12), Anvers (Line 2), or Lamark Coulaincourt (Line 12)

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Although getting to its entrance requires you to climb many, many stairs, the view of the city of love from the top of the hill makes it worth the climb! Its inside smells of old, musty wood, but make no mistake, it is very majestic. Photography is not allowed inside, so I don’t have any picture to show you. But, trust me on this – go to Sacre-Coeur and you won’t regret it! FYI – For those who are not able to climb the steps, there is a cable car available to take you up to the entrance of the basilica.

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Locals and travelers chill out on the steps of the Basilica

Saint Augustin Church
(Eglise Saint-Augustin de Paris)

Metro: Saint-Augustin (Line 9)

We had no plans of going into this church. In fact, we didn’t even know it exists! We had plenty of time to kill as we were waiting for our train to depart to Lisieux from Gare St Lazare. Not ones to sit around and twiddle our thumbs, we took a gamble and started walking around the area. We ventured into a small alleyway, through a playground, and eventually came out to the side of this gorgeous church.

Front facade of St. Augustin

Front facade of the Church of St. Augustin

One of my absolute favourite saints: St. Augustine. If you don't know his story, look it up!

One of my absolute favourite saints: St. Augustine. If you don’t know his story, look it up!

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The Tabernacle

The Tabernacle

 It is certainly an off-the-beaten-path landmark, but a beautiful one at that!

Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal
(Chapelle Notre Dame de la Medaille Miraculeuse)

Metro: Sevres-Babylone (Lines 10 and 12) or Saint-Placide (Line 4)

Being the site where the Virgin Mary appeared to St. Catherine Laboure (then a Novice sister in the order of the Daughters of Charity) in 1830, this chapel is a very busy and relatively well-known pilgrimage site in France. Like the Met in New York, its humble and very simple exterior boasts nothing of the beauty inside the chapel. Because of this, It is tricky to find. So, pay attention when you are walking on Rue du Bac. You’ll know you’ve arrived when you see a statue of the Virgin with child over the entrance way.

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Why the miraculous medal,  you ask? The Virgin Mary appeared to St. Catherine imploring her to create a medal, which was distributed in 1832 during a deadly cholera epidemic that has claimed more than 20,000 lives. As the story goes, many cures were reported, along with conversions and protections after the distribution of the medals. Hence the name miraculous.

Inside the chapel

Inside the chapel

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I don’t know about you, but I get a kick out of visiting the less-famous landmarks of the city. It almost feels like I have uncovered the city’s best-kept secrets *snickers*. Do you feel the same way? Do you make it a point to visit these relatively “unknown” landmarks? Share the wealth with me!

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Vatican City: The Holy See

I’ve added a couple more tips as submitted by my awesome friend and chef/baker extra-ordinaire, Lisa. She cooks delicious food, bakes amazing pastries, AND she’s Italian. So, it’s probably a good idea to follow her tips! Also – check out her blog

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Unless you live under a rock, I’m sure you already know what’s going on in the Catholic church these days. We have a new Pope! HABEMUS PAPAM! He is Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina also known as Pope Francis.

To quickly recap: Pope (now Emeritus) Benedict XVI handed in his resignation on Feb. 11, his last day as the successor of Peter was Feb. 28. The Church was under “Sede Vacante” for about a couple of weeks until earlier today, when we found out the Cardinals have elected a new Pope! As a Catholic, I find this very fascinating; I get to witness history unfolding before my eyes! Yes, the election of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI also happened in my lifetime, but I was in high school then and I couldn’t care less about the outside world. So, in light of current events, I thought I’d share with you my tales of travel to the Vatican. I must apologize for the qualities of the photos in this post – I was a novice traveler then (in 2009) and had NO IDEA how to use my camera at all. Thankfully, I’m a little bit better now.

Geographically speaking, the Vatican (formally known as Vatican City State) is recognized as the smallest independent state in the world with an area of only 0.2 square miles and a population of roughly 800. For such a small “country”, it is quite surprising to find out there is SO.MUCH. to see!

When you go, be sure to visit:

The Vatican Museums

Dating back to the days of Pope Julius II in the early 1500s, the Vatican Museums carry an impressive collection of artwork, including sculptures, frescoes, as well as paintings. The Sistine Chapel – where Conclave took place against the backdrop of Michelangelo’s Judgement Day – is also housed within the museums. This means you cannot access the Sistine Chapel without gaining an entry into the Museums. When you are in the Sistine Chapel, don’t forget to look up and check out the fresco Michelangelo painstakingly created (rumor has it he almost broke his back from spending long hours in an obscure position to finish the ceiling!).

The Last Judgment inside the Sistine Chapel

The Last Judgment inside the Sistine Chapel

The Vatican Museums normally cost 16 Euro to enter (it’s worth every penny, trust me!), but it is free on every 4th Sunday of the month. The admission price is well-worth it and I highly recommend a visit. However, it’s a good idea not to go to the museums on Saturdays, especially during the summer (from Lisa). I imagine it would get VERY crowded and we all know crowded museums are the worst attraction you can go to. Some of my other favourite exhibitions include the Map Room and the Raphael Room with their stunning wall frescoes.

The wall frescoes inside Raphael Room

The wall frescoes inside Raphael Room

The Map Room

The Map Room

St. Peter’s Basilica

Designed by famous renaissance artists, including Michelangelo, Bramante, Bernini, and Maderno, St. Peter’s Basilica is not only one of the largest churches in the world, it is also one of the most stunning ones too! With intricate details on the walls of its numerous chapels and the beautiful statues adorning many of the aisles, be prepared to be blown-away by its grandeur and beauty!

What you see as soon as you step into the Basilica.

What you see as soon as you step into the Basilica.

In accordance with the Roman Catholic tradition, the Basilica is also the burial site of St. Peter, our first Pope as well as the first Bishop of Rome. His tomb is said to be located directly underneath the altar of the basilica. As soon as you enter its nave, check out Michelangelo’s famous Pieta, located behind the bulletproof glass in one of the first chapels on your right. Again, sorry for the blurry picture – definitely should’ve learned how to use the camera prior to the trip!

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The High Altar, located in the heart of the Basilica, is surrounded by 4 statues of St. Helena, St. Longinus, St. Andrew, and St. Veronica.

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If you’re interested, go up to the Cupola (dome) for a stunning view of the Basilica and St. Peter’s Square. Take note though – be careful  not to turn the wrong way and unknowingly exit because they won’t let you back in (from Lisa).

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The Papal Garden

The Papal Gardens

St. Peter's Square

St. Peter’s Square and the rest of Rome stretched out into the horizon.

If you choose to go up by the elevators, make sure you walk down the stairs as the stairways are adorned with plaques commemorating saints who have also visited the Cupola.

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Visit the Grotto

When you visit St. Peter’s Basilica, don’t forget to make your way to the Grotto, the burial site for many notable Catholics as well as 91 Popes, including Blessed Pope John Paul II. The Vatican offers tours into the Necropolis (or the catacomb), but you will have to reserve your tickets in advance as you need a Vatican guide to visit. See here for more information.

People watch at St. Peter’s Square

With bernini’s columns and matching fountains as well as the four-thousand year old Egyptian obelisk as your backdrop, St. Peter’s square is a great place to sit and observe the crowds once you’re done marveling inside the Basilica. Just make sure you grab a cone of gelato from one of the gelateria nearby. Trust me, nothing beats eating authentic Italian gelato under the extremely hot Rome sun while watching the antics of tourists from all over the world.

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If you want to see the Pope…

Attend his General Audience

The Pope holds a General Audience for all the faithful on Wednesday mornings (11 AM to 1 PM or so). It is absolutely free to attend, you just have to pick up your tickets at the office, 1, 2, or 3 days in advance. You can reserve them before hand or you can just show up at the bronze doors to pick them up without any reservation. Tickets may run out especially in high-season, so I say reserve your tickets to avoid disappointment.

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On the day of the audience, security gates are usually open by 8:30 AM and crowds start to arrive at around the same time. Be sure to get there early to get a good spot (i.e. those directly behind/in front of the barriers), so you can see the Pope in his (bulletproof) Popemobile up close and personal!

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General Audience with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

The actual event doesn’t start until 10:30 AM, so you should bring water and snacks with you. Rome’s temperature gets terribly high especially in the summertime! Consider bringing a book, a deck of cards, or other games as a form of entertainment. Otherwise, ogling at the Swiss Guards around you is also very entertaining.

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At the end of the audience, the Pope will bless all religious articles you have with you. So, make sure all your souvenir-shopping is done prior to this day! How cool would it be to give your souvenirs away with a note saying it has been blessed by the Pope?

Attend the Sunday Angelus

If the audience is not feasible for you, fear not! You can still see the Pope when he does his weekly Angelus from his apartment window on every Sunday at 12 noon.

Papal apartment

Papal apartment; the Pope’s window is on the top row, second from the right.

The Angelus is a prayer of the Church that has been recited for the past 700 years or so. It is a devotion that honours the Incarnation and is repeated three times each day (6 AM, 12 noon, and 6 PM) at the sound of the bell.  the  This one is very quick – he shows up, reads a reflection and the prayer, the faithful recite 3 Hail Marys, the Pope gives a blessing, and it’s done.

Last but not least,

When in Vatican, you must… 

Take a picture with a Swiss Guard

These guys are generally good-humored and are willing to pose for a quick picture with you. Just ask!

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Before you go, make sure you dress appropriately. The Vatican enforces a very strict dress code and you will not be allowed entry into the Basilica if you’re wearing shorts/skirts above the knees with your shoulders uncovered. Also, most of the attractions are considered to be holy sites for Catholics, so please be respectful in your actions and words.

Otherwise, enjoy the smallest “country” in the world!

Have you been to the Vatican? Would you take a picture with the Swiss Guards?