The fire that broke out Monday at the famed, 800-year-old Notre Dame cathedral in Paris has shaken the world, especially former tour guides most acquainted with its beauty, history and cultural impact.
Marianne Salerno, a tour guide at tourHQ, who now lives in Normandy, called the fire “a great shock.”
Salerno used to give tours of Notre Dame regularly but hasn’t been in the cathedral for a year. She recalled a beautiful rose window in the cathedral with blue and pink colors. Her fear is there will be nothing left of it.
And her concerns are real: The cathedral fire burned for hours, virtually unabated despite the efforts of hundreds of firefighters. The flames continued to glow when darkness fell.
Former tour guide Gracia Vargas learned about the news via a notification on her iPhone. Her first thought? It didn’t occur to her it would be something of this magnitude. “I honestly clicked on the link thinking it probably wouldn’t be a big deal,” she told USA TODAY. “Evidently, it is a big deal,” she added.
Vargas volunteered at Notre Dame in 2013 as a tour guide with an organization called CASA in summer, which she said was peak tourist time. Her volunteer group consisted of 12 volunteers from different countries who gave tours in different languages.
An extremely diverse set of people would come to visit the cathedral, she said. Some people would show up without knowing what the church was.
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Notre Dame is one of the most recognizable structures in Paris, second only to the Eiffel tower, Stuart Richardson, a former Paris tour guide for bike tour company Bike About, told USA TODAY.
“Victor Hugo’s ‘The Hunchback of Notre-Dame’ likely had the greatest impact on our appreciation for this particular church,” he continued. “Regardless of your nationality, you probably grew up reading this novel or watching Disney’s interpretation of the French classic. For many people, ‘The Hunchback of Notre-Dame’ inspired their love of French culture. I think this is why today’s loss hurts so much. I’d equate it to one’s first heartbreak.”
Every time Vargas goes back to Paris, the cathedral is the first place she goes. “For me it’s the center of the city, and if you look at the geography, it is literally in the center of the city.”
Richardson said that the cathedral is always in the process of being restored: “While ornate and beautifully decorated, the church would have crumbled by now if not for the endless project of renovating its skeleton.”
Vargas wonders if the cathedral will ever be the same, noting that you can already see how much has been damaged.
“The structure has been through so much. It’s been through two World Wars. … It’s survived through so many destructive phases in history that it didn’t occur to me that on a random Monday something like this could happen.”
The cathedral’s spire was engulfed in flames Monday before tumbling over. Video footage from the scene showed fire and smoke spewing from the landmark, one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations and home to priceless works of art. The flames appeared to be shooting out of the roof behind the nave of the cathedral.
Contributing: Rebecca Rosman, Brian Hester, John Bacon
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