I’ve been thinking lately about Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote “Be an opener of doors”. He probably didn’t have Paris in mind but the philosophy of my Paris life could be distilled down to that one sentence. And though I generally manage to remain loyal to it, my resolve was very much tested as I stood at the base of the 13th century bell tower of Saint-Séverin, its door left mistakenly ajar.
Over the years I’ve grown to know this church quite well and by now I guess it knows me pretty well too. I’ve always seen it as a sort of underdog monument, fighting for recognition from the shadow of Notre Dame Cathedral and the din of the Latin Quarter’s touristy alleys. It seems to be one of the easiest jewels to overlook and for that reason I try my best not to.
That day it was nearly empty except for a few flâneurs shuffling beneath the vaulted ceilings of the ambulatory. I was on lunch break between two walking tours and snapping some photos. Just before exiting I noticed the bell tower’s door, normally closed to the public, open just a crack and behind it a mounting spiral staircase.
Blood rushed to my ears and I felt an adrenaline spike in my stomach. The internal debate quickly unraveled: Should I go for it? I looked around for any authority figures or church attendants that might be poised to stop me, but I was alone.
For the more adventurous I suppose they wouldn’t hesitate, but my inner goodie-two-shoes was getting the better of me. This door isn’t meant for you. You might get caught. You could get scolded, embarrassed. What if you come back down and the door’s locked and you can’t get out?
What about the fact that you’re VERY afraid of heights?
It’s true. Once in London I climbed halfway up the narrow stairs of Saint Paul’s Cathedral only to panic and go barreling back through the crowd with wobbly knees and lots of timid I’m sorry’s. It was a pretty major defeat.
But this one was on my home turf – could I give up so fast? Isn’t Paris the city whose puzzles I’ve pledged to solve and savor at every chance? I’m a tour guide for crying out loud, and I didn’t want future visits to this church to become one big reminder of how I let nerves get in the way of a great discovery.
I managed to start climbing, slowly and quietly, wondering how high I’d go before chickening out. My focus was also on keeping my ankles rigid because those little medieval steps seemed to get smaller as they went up.
I spun up and around as my stomach weathered a cocktail of butterflies, claustrophobia, and early tinges of vertigo. I arrived at a wooden door and heard a sound that explained my unexpected tower access – an organist warming up the keyboard. Clearly he was meant to close the downstairs entrance but didn’t.
Behind the door was a nondescript sort of antechamber and beyond it the organ itself. A black attaché-case sat open on the floor – surely the musician’s – though I didn’t see him because I decided not to venture inside and risk being seen.
I could have considered the organ door and antechamber my official moment of discovery, which would have given me permission to get the hell back downstairs. The higher I’d go the more wobbly my knees would get, after all.
But what if you’re close to the bells?
I forced myself further until another door opened into bright daylight. No bells yet. A blunt gust of wind pushed me back and my fear of heights was thoroughly triggered.
Despite it being a warm sunny day I was shivering with nerves and far out of my comfort zone. But something still pushed me out onto the pathway that ran along the roof and under the flying buttresses. Either it was the gratitude of spending an intimate moment with the architecture I love, or it was the refusal of being the Paris lover who turns his back on her when she offers to take things to the next level.
Another gust of wind reminded me how uneasy I was. My hands were shaking enough that I feared dropping my phone into the street, so I slid it back in my pocket. There was still a lot of tower left above me and enough time had passed that I couldn’t stop imagining someone shutting that downstairs door and locking it from the outside.
If they do, who do I call? Do you get fined for illegally walking on church roofs? Arrested? My next tour starts in 15 minutes – would I have to stand up my clients?
I turned back toward the stairs. At this point my legs were made of tingling jello. I felt my shoulders turn back toward the ground floor, then up toward the bells, then back down again. The adventurous version of me and the prudent one were physically at odds. What finally coaxed me upward was a remembered bit of tour guide knowledge.
Doesn’t Saint-Séverin have the oldest bell in Paris?
A bell from 1412 actually…so clearly I couldn’t abort the mission now! I closed the door behind me and pulled my jello legs up into the belfry. (Please excuse any photo blurriness from here on out – I was pretty shaky)
This is when I started feeling the true payoff – it felt like a movie set. Medieval oak beams jutted in all directions creating a quiet wooden web. Still no bells, though I saw the hole in the floor that they’d been lifted through as well as iron ladders leading to levels above.
Looking up at those ladders made my chest tighten.
First the claustrophobic stairs and now thin metal ladders? I don’t hear the organ…what if he finished and locked that door? Are these wet spaghetti legs even strong enough to get me UP a ladder?
I didn’t have much courage left in the tank and again tried to convince myself I’d been adventurous enough for one day. But I was so close to that famous hunk of metal from 1412, and as someone who spends most of his days desperately trying to time travel I had to finish the quest.
Up the first ladder I went and finally…bells!
My fear of heights and of getting trapped temporarily faded. Although I was seven or eight stories above Paris I might as well have been a thousand miles out into space, just me and these glorious green beauties hovering above the rest of the world.
One more ladder to go. You can finish this.
I’d finally made it to the top. Out of the two bells, the one to my left seemed to be the oldest and therefore the oldest in Paris. I have few regrets from my time up there but one is that I didn’t get a closer photo of the text engraved on it, which likely details its construction.
I did however manage to document the triumph by recording a video with my rather shaky hands.
I‘d managed to conquer the fear that got the better of me in London, and I felt like I’d earned every moment of that quiet meeting with the bells of Saint-Séverin. I finally exhaled in a way that made me wonder if I‘d been holding my breath the whole way up.
I descended down the ladders and made my ankles rigid again for the spiral steps. I went back past the flying buttresses and the organ‘s antechamber. When I reached the door at the bottom I found it unlocked just as I’d left it.
Slipping back into the public area of the church unseen, I looked up at the stained glass of the nave and said a sort of silent thank you, either to the church or maybe to the braver half of myself that managed to get my body to the bells. Then I went outside and continued my workday.
I learned later that the 1412 bell has a name: Macée. I wonder how many other secret visitors Macée has had over the last 600 years, and if some of them had to struggle like me to get up there. I wonder if on a different day, in a less courageous mood, I wouldn’t have been an opener of doors.
I’m content knowing that whenever I see the tower of Saint-Séverin I’ll be reminded that on that day, I was.
1) For Patreon members, you can access additional videos I made while documenting this experience via this link. If you’d like to become a Patreon member to support my projects and receive exclusive Paris content, you can learn more over here.
2) Tune in live today at 5pm Paris time as I live-stream a free guided tour of this church to my Facebook page.