My Secret Hello to the Oldest Bell in Paris

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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. 

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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?

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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)

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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

39 comments

  • Corey I have no words for how you described this experience. Magnificent! Amazing! What a truly life-changing experience for you. I love this church & I am so thrilled to be a part of your adventure to discover these historic bells. Thank you for pushing through. Thank you for always being willing to share these experiences so we can catch a glimpse of hidden treasures in Paris. I’m so excited for your walk today in this glorious church! Merci!

  • Amazing photos. Also one of my favorite churches. You were very brave!

  • Corey,
    These comments echo my own tboughts! Thank you for being brave so I don’t have to.
    It’s in those quiet moments (in Paris, in London, in Portland, Maine where I am!) where you can really feel the past and realize there’s no such thing as the past!

    I’ve been up the Duomo, an amazing experience and up in St. Paul’s and Noted Dame, but I think my climbing days are behind me: blame age, as well as two bouts of cancer and very high doses of chemo and radiation that have left me with vertigo and dizziness (not the same thing, as I learn!).

    So, young upstart, continue on your quest to show us the million little facets of Paris, and reap the reward of increased self-knowledge, decreased fear, and the ever expanding respect of those of us in this evanescent cyberworld who have been lucky enough to grab into your coattails and take your wild ride! Thanks a big bunch!

  • Amazing. Definitely a step back in history!!! How wonderful. Thanks for braving the heights!!

  • I have been waiting patiently for this post since you mentioned it last week on the FB live walking tour. It didn’t disappoint. I could feel your heart beating wildly as I read each word. What an adventure! I’m afraid the massive deposits of bird poop would have been my stopping point. Thanks for moving past both our phobias.

    As much as I enjoy your live tours, your blog posts are still my favorite. This is where you and I “met” and this is where I was able to learn about the Paris I had dreamed about since I was a little girl. I’m still learning with this one. Please, please, PLEASE don’t give up these occasional posts. Your prose is much loved by this fan.

  • Thanks for this post and pictures so others could share this wonderful, “private” tour that would never have otherwise been seen.

  • Oh my, what a “trip”! The sirens in the background of the video just added to the suspense of “getting caught”! “Oh, the places you will go”! Dr Seuss

  • Bonjour Corey! I echo Linda’s sentiment (and others’ as well, I am certain:) Please keep writing on your blog! I know first-hand the time commitment it requires, yet your writing skills are in full display here, from the moment you start ascending the old stairs to the moment you reach the big prize, overcoming your fears: Macée the bell and her friend. You create suspense along the way, providing many details, so we can all picture the scene. And you overcame your fear of heights to capture these magical Parisian moments! Quasimodo would be proud. I have missed your blogposts (even the “How I saw Paris this Week” series I used to share on my blog.) Hopefully you will figure out a way of writing more if life ever slows down — which it might, incidentally, once Mayor Hidalgo hears of this story; visits your blog; and has you brought in for questioning with inspector Clouseau. ;-) Tip: Just speak English if that happens and pretend you don’t understand! A bientôt. Your friend, French Girl in Seattle

    • Corey does have a gift, doesn’t he? Hopefully, he’ll take our advice, though I know his life is beyond hectic right now.

  • OMG, thank you, my fear of both height and claustrophobia would never allow me the adventure that you just brought me on. Reading your blog was a wonderful second best though. I love your blogs and of course, I love Paris. Look forward to meeting you when I’m next visiting. I hope in the summer. Keep on opening doors and allowing us to peek in with you. Bravo. Adrienne

  • Oh mu gosh! That was brave. The stairs were one hurdle but those ladders looked crazy. Thanks so much Corey.

  • Love your photos and your transcript of this amazing discovery. How I wish I could do the same, but you have made this presentation so realistic., believing that I was taking every step with you and experiencing this adventure through your eyes. Thank you.

  • Thank you for this adventure, Corey! How amazing that you were able to stumble upon this rare opportunity – so thankful that you found the courage to make it to the top and share it will all of us – the next best thing to being there myself! Keep opening those doors!

  • What a story! Corey, You are a great writer. You had me on the edge of my chair. You really captured the suspense and excitement that a sense of wonder can generate in those blessed with that gift. And you are so adept at instilling it in others. Thank you. Wow.

  • On my gosh!! You are so awesome! I loved your story and envy your adventure!! Thank you for taking the risk!!!!

  • Goosebumps all the way! Wow. I was delighted to see your post this morning, I too miss your weekly blog, and also understand. Thanks for a wonderful post, and way to go on the bravery!

    Margaret

  • Being afraid of heights, I can relate fully to your experience. What an amazing opportunity. Thanks for sharing it with us

  • Thank you Corey. I enjoyed every moment of this climb. Love your Saturday videos and look forward to them every week. Your are a fabulous tour guide and your description of everything you see is fantastic beyond words.

  • Thank you, Corey, for daring to go where I don’t think I could have! What an amazing experience you had! And your words describe all of the feelings and views so well!

  • Corey, this was wonderful and I feel your fear. As a fellow sufferer of claustrophobia and also having a fear of heights I know how brave you were to venture up there but it was so worth it as it was a fear conquered in this instance. Thank you so much for being so daring that we can benefit from it by seeing this wonderful bell and the view from there. I could hear the reticence in your voice but true to form you gave an amazing account of yourself in your commentary. Bravo!

  • OMGosh…. All I could think about, towards the end of your video at the top of the belfry, were that the sirens we could hear was a sign they were coming for you! Hahahahaha! Glad you made it out to live another day of freedom!! :oP

  • Great post-Corey. I was afraid and excited for you the entire time. I think what would have stopped me is the fear of that door being slammed shut and locked before getting back down. I have such claustrophobia. Then again, you could have yelled to someone down on the street but I’m not quite sure they would have heard you. I could also feel your excitement so I knew that you would be o.k. Thanks so much for sharing.

  • Wow Corey this is amazing!!!! You are so brave to do this !!! I get you and I can see the love you have for paris I can see it in your posts and I can feel it in your Saturday live videos !! I know how it feels because I to feel the same paris owns my heart as it owns yours Corey you rock you bring paris to life through your videos and I can’t thank you enough!!! Please continue to blog Corey really enjoyed reading your blog I felt I was right there with you every step !!!! You’re our hero merci Corey loved your blog and photos amazing truly epic you brought us a piece of history that we would have never seen if not for your bravery !!!! Thank you Corey for bringing paris home xo

  • Corey, what an adventure!!!! Your writing had me right there with you. I love a great adventure,one that scares you to death but you cannot stop. I love you for your curiosity, you were a bit of Tom Sawyer today.
    The photos are breathtaking as always! Love it and you!!

  • Corey those are some fabulous photo shots up that tower you could write a book just alone on it …. such history today….

  • Ah Corey I have so missed your posts. Our first meeting was via your blog. My tummy is still jumping and spinning with butterflies. Every step you took I was holding my breathe nearly turning blue. I would have run and missed the bells. I was thinking I hope you have your phone…or you might have to throw something down at the maddening crowd below.

  • THis was an amazing and awesome experience for me as I was right there with you as you conquered your fear of heights and trepidation to make it to the bell. I enjoyed this so much and the photos are fantastic! Thank you for sharing this with us.

  • Corey;
    This was a tremendously interesting and risky adventure on your part. My wife and I were actually in suspense as we pulled through the pictures. No other Paris blog or tour guide can replicate these pictures. I cannot believe you went up the ladder! Perhaps this is a new angle for Paris tours—off limits 13th century church tours. If you took a group on a tour like this, they would have to sign a liability waiver. In any case, enormously enjoyable. I wonder if the French will ever invest in retoring Saint Severin. I recall that it is huge. Be well and keep posting.

    Kindest regards,

    Jeffrey Nydick and Melinda LeCount

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