Quasimodo would be overjoyed. Notre Dame Cathedral has had its lighting improved, a new viewing platform erected to appreciate its Gothic facade, its organ renovated and is about to have new bells made for a year-long 850th anniversary celebration that kicks off next week.
The graceful and inspiring Catholic church that has dominated Paris since the 12th century, survived the Hundred Years War, the French Revolution and two World Wars is being readied for an invasion of camera-wielding birthday visitors. Nestled on an island in the Seine river, Notre Dame is a beloved religious, cultural and historical site in the City of Light that has no shortage of breathtaking showpieces.
"For 850 years this cathedral has been a symbol of beauty, truth and goodness which attracts generations to the water," said Monsignor Patrick Jacquin, rector and archpriest of Notre Dame, speaking beneath it on the bank of the Seine.
With its graceful flying buttresses, imposing facade and famous bells - immortalised in Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame by the ungainly bell-ringer Quasimodo - the church has enthralled visitors since the first stone was laid in 1163 in the presence of Pope Alexander III. From Dec. 12 through Nov. 24, 2013, Notre Dame expects to welcome up to 20 million pilgrims, tourists and others for its celebration - a step up from its average of 14 million per year.
On the vast plaza outside the cathedral, visitors will be able to follow a walkway that leads to an elevated viewing area from which the face of Notre Dame can be better appreciated, before entering the cathedral itself. A series of concerts and religious and cultural colloquiums are planned throughout the year, and architectural and other renovations have been timed to the anniversary.
Already complete is an upgrade of the lighting system within the gloomy, grey cathedral, whose stained glass windows let through little light, as well as the first stage of a renovation of the mighty organ, some of whose parts date from the early 18th century. The cathedral has raised 6.5 million euros ($8.44 million) from private donors for the ongoing projects. The cathedral has required constant upkeep throughout the centuries, as structures lean, facades blacken and gargoyles crumble.
During the French Revolution, Notre Dame was plundered and the heads of the kingly statues lining the facade beheaded. "Much beauty as it may retain in its old age, it is not easy to repress a sigh, or restrain our anger, when we mark the countless defacements and mutilations to which men and Time have subjected that venerable monument," wrote Hugo about Notre Dame in his famous novel.
"Upon the face of this old queen of the French cathedrals, beside each wrinkle we find a scar." The most impressive undertaking for the cathedral - where France's protestant King Henry IV converted to Catholicism, Napoleon crowned himself emperor and Joan of Arc was beatified - is the creation of eight new bells to replace the four in place since the mid-19th century.
"Notre Dame, which is France's greatest church, don't forget, has never had a bell which did justice to the building," said Paul Bergamo of Normandy-based bellmakers Cornille Havard, charged with making the new bells. "It took a great event, in the form of the 850th anniversary, to be able to put such a project in place," he told Reuters TV. The bells, which are in the process of being poured, will be displayed at Notre Dame in February before being rung for the first time in March.
"Making bells for Notre Dame hasn't occurred for hundreds of years so it will really be a historic moment that has garnered particular interest around the world," said Jean-Francois Lemercier, secretary general of Association Notre Dame 2013.
This week, workers were putting the finishing touches on the temporary structures in the plaza to prepare for the opening of the celebration, when the Archbishop of Paris, Andre Vingt-Trois, will lead a procession of about 100 clergy into Notre Dame for an evening mass.
Despite the barricaded worksite, tourists and others continued to file into the Gothic masterpiece, and a woman at the reception desk said she wasn't fazed by the prospect of an extra crush next week. "Oh, crowds are something we're used to," she said with a wink.