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Memorial Day 2019: 5 Affordable & Authentic Experiences

By Robert Firpo-Cappiello, Maya Stanton, Liza Weisstuch
May 10, 2019
Portsmouth, NH, lighthouse
Alwoodphoto/Dreamstime
From the New England coast to the Wild West, it’s not too late to book one of these easy, unexpected getaways for your holiday weekend.

Memorial Day weekend (May 25 - 27) serves as the unofficial start of summer. Never mind that the holiday is a few weeks in advance of the June 21 solstice and that many school-age kids face one more month of school. The three-day weekend still provides a taste of summer delights to come.

While many folks will spend the weekend grilling, shopping, or hitting up local hot spots, some will choose to hit the road. In fact, AAA predicts that nearly 42 million Americans plan to travel for Memorial Day 2019. Keeping in mind that the purpose of the holiday is to honor those who have given their lives in defense of the United States (its original designation was Decoration Day, dating back to the end of the Civil War, when Americans decorated the graves of those who had given what President Abraham Lincoln famously called "the last full measure of devotion" to their country), the Budget Travel editors have rounded up travel experiences that go well beyond the well-trod tourist path. Here, five exceptionally affordable getaways that are a relatively easy escape from urban areas and that also offer unique history, culture, and natural beauty—plus insider tips for getting the most out of your visit.

1. Portsmouth, New Hampshire

New England history and culture in a charming, walkable city

Why you’ll love it: Walking the brick sidewalks of Portsmouth, NH, can feel like stepping back into Colonial days, a fitting way to commemorate the holiday. As the third-oldest city in the U.S., the seaport certainly boasts ample history, from hands-on experiences at Strawberry Banke Museum to the Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion to waterside Prescott Park, and the charming North Church. Even some of the eateries here will, in addition to serving you tasty fare, surround you with New England history, including a repurposed ferry terminal that is now now the popular seafood restaurant Old Ferry Landing, and a 19th-century ships chandlery-turned-bistro, Black Trumpet.

Insider tip: Seek out Riverrun Books (32 Daniel Street), an exceptionally inspiring and well-stocked independent bookstore that regularly hosts author readings and other events.

Memorial Day weekend festivities: See—and smell!—the Lilac Festival at the historic Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion the morning of May 25.

An easy escape from: Boston (a one-hour drive), Providence (less than a two-hour drive), or Hartford, CT (less than a two-and-a-half-hour drive).

Why it’s a bargain: Hotels from $121; Airbnb for two from $65.

2. Beacon, New York

Artisans and makers in the Hudson River Valley

Why you’ll love it: Whether you arrive in town via car or train, the sweeping views of the Hudson River will be your first glimpse of what Beacon has to offer. Before departing the waterfront for Main Street’s unique shops and food, you must experience the Dia:Beacon museum with its world-class collection of modern and contemporary art by masters such as painter/sculptor Frank Stella and "light-sculptor" Dan Flavin. Grab a pint at Hudson Valley Brewery before (or after) you make your way up the town’s main thoroughfare (Beacon’s Main Street literally ascends a gentle hill) to admire the work of local artists and “makers” who have transformed Beacon’s centuries-old manufacturing legacy into a decidedly chic, imaginative contemporary scene. No chain stores or outlets here, just one-of-a-kind and often surprising hand-crafted gifts and food, including the knitters at Loopy Mango boutique, the baking geniuses at Glazed Over Donuts, the mixologists at the Roundhouse, and an array of other shops and eateries. Keep an eye out for painter Rick Price’s murals on the exterior of the public library and both the exterior and interior of Tito Santana Taqueria (yum!). Beacon is also a stone’s throw (well, a short drive) from other Hudson River Valley hot spots such as Minnewaska State Park across the river in Ulster County, and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park. It's no wonder that Beacon earned the title "Coolest Small Town in America 2018."

Insider tip: Zora Dora Micro Batch’s low-key exterior on Main Street is the gateway to incredible handcrafted gourmet paletas (popsicles), offering an evolving array of flavors including a mind-blowingly delicious pineapple, sea salt, and red pepper paleta you must taste to believe. Zora Dora earned a spot on Budget Travel’s list of the best ice cream shops in the U.S.

Memorial Day weekend festivities: The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, in nearby Hyde Park, will host commemorative events all weekend long, including an exhibition devoted to the 75th anniversary of the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion.

Easy escape from: New York City (about a 90-minute drive; 90-minute train ride from Grand Central Terminal, with adult fares starting at $35 round-trip for an off-peak ticket bought at the station—it’ll cost you a few dollars more if you buy your ticket on the train) or Albany, NY (about a 90-minute drive).

Why it’s a bargain: Hotels in neighboring communities from $79; Airbnb for two in Beacon from $67.

3. Orange Beach, Alabama

A Gulf Shore beach town that also offers wild escapes

A visit to Orange Beach (and its neighbor Gulf Shores) allows travelers to essentially enjoy two long weekends in one: The first vacation consists of the justly popular attractions that have been drawing Southerners here for generations, including the 30+ miles of Gulf of Mexico waterfront along the coast of what locals refer to as “Pleasure Island” with white-sand beaches, waterparks, zip lines, and fishing. The second vacation—which you can enjoy at exactly the same time—consists of a lesser-known and decidedly wilder side of the Gulf Coast, including the Backcountry Trail through Gulf State Park, 25 miles of trails ideal for cycling, running, or just strolling; and Graham Creek Nature Preserve in nearby Foley, boasting nearly 500 acres of habitat for kayaking or canoeing. And, this being the Gulf Coast, you’ll have access to fresh seafood favorites like shrimp and grits and a variety of platters that have kept travelers returning to Orange Beach and its neighboring communities for years.

Insider tip: Go beyond the beach with a half-hour drive west to Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge for kayaking and canoeing amidst migratory songbirds and sea turtles, and sign up for one of the excellent educational guided tours. (Important: Locals gently remind you to pack insect repellent and sunscreen and sun-protective clothing to ensure a comfortable and safe adventure in Bon Secour.)

Memorial Day weekend festivities: Run in the Paradise Island 5K on May 26, hear country star Thomas Rhett at the Wharf Amphitheater on May 26, and “ooh” and “aah” at the fireworks at Sparks After Dark at the Wharf the evening of May 27.

An easy escape from: Mobile (about a one-hour drive) or New Orleans (about a three-hour drive).

Why it’s a bargain: Hotels under $200; Airbnb rentals for two from $111.

4. Rapid City, South Dakota

A vibrant urban community in the midst of the Wild West

Why you’ll love it: While South Dakota is renowned for wild spaces such as Badlands National Park and Custer State Park and for jaw-dropping feats of monument carving at Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Monument, many U.S. travelers don’t realize that Rapid City, nicknamed the “Gateway to the Black Hills,” can serve not only as a home base for exploring those famous spots but also as a vibrant urban destination in its own right, home to a variety of live music venues and arts and cultural institutions and festivals. Spend some time on the charming town square, drop by The Journey Museum & Learning Center for interactive exhibits, the Dahl Arts Center for cultural exhibits and free “art adventures," and get up close and personal with Rapid City’s ancient past at APEX Gallery, on the campus of South Dakota School of Mining & Technology, with its fine collection of fossils and minerals. And, of course, you shouldn’t miss the aforementioned wild spaces and monuments, which can all be happily squeezed into your three-day weekend in Rapid City: Mount Rushmore is about a half-hour drive, Crazy Horse Monument is less than an hour, Custer State Park is about a half-hour, and Badlands is less than an hour.

Insider tip: Off the city’s main square, look for Art Alley, an informal community art gallery with cool murals devoted to the region’s history and culture.

Memorial Day weekend festivities: Visit the May 25 - 27 open house at the Crazy Horse Monument to honor veterans and those who gave their lives in defense of the U.S.

An easy escape from: Minneapolis (a 90-minute flight from under $300 round trip) or Chicago (a two-and-a-half-hour flight for under $350); Rapid City is not an easy driving distance from any major urban area.

Why it’s a bargain: Hotels from well under $100; Airbnb for two from well under $100.

5. Morro Bay, California

A genuine fishing village that welcomes newbies like family

Why you’ll love it: Morro Bay is first and foremost an authentic seaside community on the central coast of California. While it’s been a popular vacation spot for central coast residents for generations, the town has managed not to evolve into what experienced travelers would diplomatically refer to as “a little touristy.” We’d love to encourage discerning weekenders from the Bay Area and Southern California (and beyond) to discover Morro Bay’s welcoming locals and under-the-radar delights while appreciating its authenticity. Morro Bay will happily accommodate a variety of travel tastes: Want to chill on a beach and do practically nothing? There’s a beach for that. Want to learn to surf? Lessons are available. How about exploring a gorgeous lesser-known state park, kayaking the town’s eponymous bay, or pedaling your family in a rented surrey around the charming downtown? Gear rentals are an easy walk from comfortable lodging such as the Landing at Morro Bay (with views of the bay and iconic Morro Rock from many rooms) and the super-fresh seafood at Tognazzini’s Dockside Restaurant (stop by the fish market behind the restaurant for Instagrammable tableaus).

Insider tip: The immensely delicious breakfast burritos at Frankie & Lola’s combine an old-timey diner aesthetic with Mexican chorizo and cheese and are so big they can serve as both an ample morning meal and a hearty snack or lunch whilst exploring the coast.

Memorial Day weekend festivities: Visit Art in the Park, May 25 - 27, at Morro Bay Boulevard and Harbor Street.

An easy escape from: San Jose (about a three-hour drive) or Los Angeles (about a three-and-a-half-hour drive); the fact that Morro Bay is not a super-short drive from any major urban area is part of what makes it Morro Bay.

Why it’s a steal: Hotels under $150, some starting under $100; Airbnb rentals for two from $79.

(All lodging estimates were accurate when we published this story, but as Memorial Day gets closer, hotel rates and Airbnb inventory will likely change.)

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Inspiration

3 Affordable Weekend Escapes for Spring

If hopping in your car and hitting the highway is your idea of a perfect weekend, we suggest you start with these easy escapes that offer a sweet blend of natural beauty, culture, and cuisine. 1. EXPLORE HISTORY IN NORTHEASTERN PENNSYLVANIA An easy escape from the New York and Philadelphia metro areas, Lackawanna County, in Northeastern Pennsylvania, combines the natural beauty of lakes and mountains with unique museums celebrating American history: Kids of all ages will love Steamtown National Historic Site (above), where you can see steam-powered trains going back to the 19th century and even take a guided train tour; the Anthracite Heritage Museum traces the history of coal mining in the area - my kids discovered that it’s way more fun than that might sound, with “living history” exhibits you can walk right into. Coney Island Lunch in downtown Scranton is a friendly old-timey lunch counter with superb comfort food. We loved our stay at the friendly and affordable Holiday Inn Express in Dickson City, PA. Learn more about Lackawanna County at visitnepa.org. 2. HAVE A MUSICAL WEEKEND ON THE MISSISSIPPI BLUES TRAIL The Mississippi Blues Trail attracts visitors from all over the world, but it’s especially accessible for road trippers in the Deep South. Stops along the trail include historic Clarksdale, the BB King Museum, the Mississippi Grammy Museum, and restored juke joints, such as Club Ebony, where blues music is still king. Musical Mississippi also boasts the grave of the great bluesman Robert Johnson and the birthplace of Elvis Presley, in Tupelo. Learn more about Mississippi at visitmississippi.org. 3. GET WILD ON THE VENTURA COUNTY COAST, CALIFORNIA When Los Angelenos need a break from their big, beautiful city, they head just a few miles up the coast to the Ventura County Coast. The star here is Channel Islands National Park for ferry tours and kayaking the gentle inlets - plus bragging rights when you get back home! The whole Ventura County coastal region is buzzing with up-and-coming wineries, innovative restaurants, beautiful missions, and of course miles of sunny California beaches. Learn more about the Ventura County Coast at venturacountycoast.com.

Inspiration

Look Up: 8 of Canada’s Best Stargazing Destinations

With vast expanses of sky untainted by artificial light, many parts of Canada offer stellar opportunities for stargazing. The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (rasc.ca) has recognized nearly two dozen locations as Dark-Sky Preserves—and this year is the 50th anniversary of the July 1969 moon landing, so it’s as fitting a time as any to look up and contemplate the cosmos. As if warm summer nights aren’t reason enough to indulge in an extended gazing session, meteor showers provide even more incentive to head outside. The Perseids are an annual favorite, and this year's celestial show runs July 17 through August 26, peaking August 12 and 13. Check out these eight destinations for unbeatable views of the night sky. 1. Terra Nova National Park: Newfoundland (Courtesy Dave Saunders/Ochre Hill) One of Canada’s newly established Dark-Sky Preserves—just designated in 2018—Terra Nova National Park offers plenty to do from sunup to sundown. By day, wander the park’s trails, take a two-mile stroll around the pond, sign up for a guided hike, or take a dunk in Sandy Pond. Kids will love the visitor center, where they can check out the touch tank and get up close and personal with creatures of the sea. When the sun sets, find a good place to gawk at the constellations. Pack a flashlight and take a hike to Ochre Hill, a fantastic vantage point that was once a fire-watch station. Sandy Point is the darkest place in the park, known for the best views of the night sky. 2. Jasper National Park: Alberta “Power Down. Look Up” is the tagline for Jasper’s annual Dark Sky Festival in October (jasperdarksky.travel), when stargazers can attend photography workshops and talks during the day and gaze into the cosmos at night, with special events such as star sessions atop the Jasper SkyTram. But even if you don’t visit during the festival, there’s plenty to do here: While the sun is out, hike the trails, look for wildlife, or enjoy the region's culinary delights on a Jasper Food Tour (jasperfoodtours.com). Then, turn your attention to the stars at one of this Dark Sky Preserve's scenic spots, like Medicine Lake, Pyramid Lake, Lake Annette, Maligne Canyon, and more. 3. Banff National Park: Alberta Known for its rugged scenery and mountain culture, Banff is paradise for outdoorsy types. Spend the days hiking, biking, and paddle-boarding in Banff National Park, keeping an eye out for some of the park's famous wildlife, including, but not limited to, grizzly bears and bighorn sheep. Lake Minnewanka and Two Jack Lake provide scuba-diving opportunities, and the town of Banff itself has an array of shopping and spa possibilities. Lake Louise and Moraine Lake are short scenic getaways, with Lake Louise around 34 miles away, and Moraine Lake about 12 miles further. Hike, paddle-board, or simply soak in the vistas, and at night, sit back and watch the Milky Way’s virtuoso performance. 4. Gros Morne National Park and L'Anse aux Meadows: Newfoundland Active travelers will delight in this national park's bounty of outdoor pursuits, from hikes through the Tablelands and scenic boat tours of the freshwater-glacier-carved fjords to whale-watching excursions through Iceberg Alley to the north. Set out to Trout River's Eastern Point Trail for gorgeous clifftop views or explore L'Anse aux Meadows, the 1,000-year-old UNESCO World Heritage site where Vikings once lived, then treat yourself to a traditional Jiggs dinner, a classic boiled or Sunday dinner served in some area restaurants, or take the Taste of Gros Morne food tour (tasteofgosmoren.com) to sample the local cuisine before the night's activities. 5. Grasslands National Park: Saskatchewan It may be the country’s darkest preserve, but explore Grasslands National Park by day and you could spot black-footed ferrets, golden eagles, short-horned lizards, and black-tailed prairie dogs, to say nothing of the plains bison, a near-threatened species that was reintroduced in 2005. Soak in the views of badlands and grasslands by car on a cruise along the seasonal Badlands Parkway, or take the Ecotour scenic drive to learn about the heritage and history of the area. Go for a hike, embark on a rugged overnight backpacking adventure, or get in some exercise canoeing, kayaking, or cycling. When you need a rest, be on the lookout for the six “red chair” locations throughout the park. Each of these oversize Adirondack chairs provides a spectacular perch where you can savor the parks' tranquility. When the day’s activities are done, just train your eyes to the sky. 6. Wood Buffalo National Park: Northwest Territories You’d be hard-pressed to find a better destination for stargazing than Wood Buffalo National Park: Clocking in at more than 17,200 square miles, it's Canada's largest national park and the largest Dark Sky Preserve on earth. Each August, the park celebrates its designation with a Dark Sky Festival featuring workshops, guest speakers, and events. The cold, clear winter months frequently deliver spectacular views of the aurora borealis, while fall offers a slightly warmer peek at the Northern Lights. Back on the ground, there's abundant fishing, boating, canoeing, and hiking throughout the park, from the short, easy Karstland loop to rigorous and challenging backcountry routes. 7. Point Pelee National Park: Ontario Looking up is always a good idea in Point Pelee National Park, dubbed a Wetland of International Significance by UNESCO in 1987. Birdwatchers, take note: Some 390 avian species have been spotted here, and spring and fall are the best times to catch a glimpse of the migratory creatures as they travel through the area. Wander along the Centennial Bike and Hike Trail, or hop in a canoe or kayak to paddle among the freshwater marshes that make up two-thirds of the park. At night, of course, you won't want to look anywhere but the sky. The park is open until midnight on certain new moon nights, giving visitors ample time to take in the celestial show. 8. Waterton Lakes National Park: Alberta Hugging the Canadian border north of Montana, Waterton Lakes National Park and Glacier National Park comprise the first trans-boundary International Dark Sky Park. While you're waiting for nightfall, grab a fishing license and spend some time by the water, or explore the area on foot or by bike. After sunset, lean back and gaze at the stars from locations like Cameron Bay, which is walkable from town, and the Bison Paddock Overlook, where a short walk will bring you to a promontory facing the valley. (Pro tip: Bring your flashlight. Also, be aware that the 2017 Kenow Wildfire affected a large area of the park, so plan ahead and check for closures before you come.)

Inspiration

Locals Know Best: Madison, Wisconsin

Hannah Flood moved to Madison in 2015 to anchor the morning newscast at NBC15 WMTV, the local NBC affiliate. (Ms. Flood now works for KMSP in Twin Cities, MN) It didn’t take long for her to feel at home—which is especially convenient considering that a newscaster's job depends on knowing the people and places around the city. In the beginning, recommendations from co-workers came at her at lightening speed. But now she’s become so familiar with the area that she can offer her own in return. We checked in to hear her tips on how to make the most of your time in Wisconsin's vibrant capital city. Good Eats In addition to University of Wisconsin's huge student population (nearly 30,000), Madison is home to Epic, a massive medical software company, so there’s a steady influx of young people, and where professionals with disposable income go, a hip dining scene follows. In many urban hubs, “farm to table” and “hyper-local” designations are worn as badges of pride. In Madison, it’s practically a necessity, what with Wisconsin being a huge agricultural state. It's a “super-foodie city,” Hannah assures—almost anywhere you go to eat, staff will tell you that the cheese is from a creamery 30 minutes down the road, and the beef is from a farm not much farther. Hanna's many favorites run the gamut. When the night calls for a high-end yet still casual meal, Graze, a modern restaurant near the capitol building, answers. The chef, Tory Miller, broke onto the national culinary scene when he appeared on Iron Chef Showdown, winning out against Food Network star Bobby Flay. At Graze, his dishes are Korean-inspired but, this being Wisconsin, cheese curds make a few cameos on the menu. Cheese curds also show up at Lucille, a sweeping warehouse-chic eatery retrofitted into an old bank and known for its craft cocktails and wood-fired pizza. The deep-dish and thin-crust options are both fine, but the absolute necessity is the pan nachos. Yes, cooked like a deep-dish pizza, with Wisconsin cheese. If you’re looking for an ultra-casual meal, check out the Plaza Tavern off of State Street, a main thoroughfare. With leather booths, old-school arcade games, and a frenetic open kitchen, it looks as though it’s been untouched since the 1970s, says Hannah. “It’s very Wisconsin,” she asserts. The spot is known for its burgers, slathered in creamy Plaza sauce. (The owner allegedly keeps the recipe locked up in a safe-deposit box). Then there are the supper clubs, Wisconsin’s answer to the steakhouse. They were a new discovery for Hannah when she moved here and, she suggests, something any guest visiting the region should explore. One of her favorites is the Tornado Steak House, a true classic with a speakeasy element to it: If you didn't know to look for it, you might miss the discreet entrance, despite it being on a busy street. Like the Plaza Tavern, it looks like it’s been unchanged by time. “The first time I took my boyfriend there, he seriously said he felt like a mobster,” she says. And pro tip: After 9 p.m., menu prices are slashed. A sirloin, for instance, is less than $15. A City of Neighborhoods (everylymadison.com) Madison’s geography is distinctive: It’s situated on an isthmus between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona, and there are four lakes located downtown. The capitol building is in the center, and all the neighborhoods radiate out from there. Locals refer to Madison as the most liberal place between Berkeley and Brooklyn, and that long legacy is perhaps best personified by the moment, in the late '60s, when the city erupted in protest against Dow Chemical, maker of napalm gas. The neighborhood known as Willy Street, on the near east side of downtown, perhaps best typifies that free-spirited past. (Hannah describes it as “artsy, eccentric, and granola.”) Home to many young creative types and families with small children, it’s a vibrant destination for nightlife. Start with pre-dinner cocktails at Gib's Bar, a converted old house that's so cozy it reminds Hannah of hanging out in a friend's living room, then dinner at Texas Tubb’s Taco Palace. Wrap the night across the street at Alchemy, a low-key joint with a dependable calendar of local bands. Across town, the Monroe neighborhood embodies a different vibe. Situated near Camp Randall Stadium, home of the university’s football team, its winding streets are lined with longstanding houses, architectural eye candy. The area’s businesses are a little more “uptown,” so to speak, than Willy Street. The Everly, for one, serves California-style fresh meals, a far cry from the region's classic meat-and-potatoes fare. Small independent businesses abound. Hannah suggests visiting Zip-Dang, a husband-and-wife-run shop specializing in funky prints, many of which are inspired by the husband’s obsession with Wisconsin folklore. And don’t leave the neighborhood without stopping by Bloom Bakeshop for cupcakes. The presence of all these cute newer shops, however, doesn’t mean the neighborhood has abandoned its history. Mickies Dairy Bar is a relic that Hannah adoringly describes as a hole-in-the-wall. Diners committed to the eatery’s milkshakes, malts,and classic breakfasts dependably form lines out the door on weekends. Day-Tripping (Ralf Broskvar/Dreamstime) There is plenty to keep a visitor busy throughout a long weekend—or more—in Madison, but it’d be a faux pas to travel here and not explore the surrounds. One place Hannah always insists her out-of-town friends see is Devil’s Lake State Park—by her estimation, the most beautiful thing the state has to offer. The lakeside park, rimmed by colossal cliffs, offers paddle-boarding and hiking trails for all skill levels. It’s best known, however, for Devil’s Doorway, a colossal boulder precariously balanced on a cliff. There are two roads that lead there from Madison, each of which delivers its own rewards. Route 113 runs through Lodi, a sweet little enclave with a downtown worth stopping for, not least because of Buttercream Bakery, a local favorite. But Hannah prefers the 40-mile drive along Route 12, which cuts through Prairie du Sauk, where there is an eagle-watching center nearby. For more information on Madison, WI visit their site.

Inspiration

5 Things You Don’t Know About… Notre-Dame de Paris

The April 15, 2019, fire at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris kept people around the world riveted, mourning the loss of the church’s 19th-century spire and medieval roof and the damage from smoke and flames to the interior. But the world was also relieved that the structure was ultimately spared, important works of art and religious relics (including what many worshippers revere as the Crown of Thorns worn by Jesus during his crucifixion) were heroically rescued from the fire, and there was no loss of life. Although some people were surprised to find themselves so captivated by the crisis in the City of Light, in many respects, the worldwide focus on the cathedral was actually just a larger-scale version of the veneration the architectural wonder has enjoyed through most of its existence. After all, during the Middle Ages, cathedrals were specifically built to serve as the center of a community, drawing people not only for religious services but also for news, art, and music. Since its first stone was laid, in 1163, Notre-Dame has been doing just that, playing host to coronations (most famously that of Napoleon Bonaparte, who crowned himself Emperor Napoleon I in 1804), royal weddings (including that of Mary, Queen of Scots to her first husband, Francis, the Dauphin of France), and funeral masses for French leaders such as Charles de Gaulle and François Mitterand. Notre-Dame has also seen its share of mayhem and destruction, some of it brought about by its own king in the early 18th century (more about that below), some the result of anti-monarchy and anti-church rabble-rousing during the French Revolution, and some due to enemy shelling during World War I. We decided to take a deep dive into the history of Notre-Dame de Paris. Here, five lesser-known pieces of the cathedral’s history we hope will increase your fascination with and appreciation of what some have called the “beating heart of Paris.” 1. The Paris of 1163 Was a Very Different Kind of Town (Msalena/Dreamstime) Notre-Dame’s first stone was laid in 1163. Louis VII was king of France, and Pope Alexander III was believed to have been in attendance. (By some accounts, the Pontiff himself laid the first stone, though we suspect that tale is perhaps discounting how heavy a cathedral stone can be.) For some historical perspective: Across the English Channel, Thomas Becket was Archbishop of Canterbury and would soon find himself in conflict with England’s King Henry II and eventually lose his life. Although it’s not possible to know what the population of Paris was in 1163, an official census of households in 1328 suggests that the population when the original cathedral structure was completed in 1345 (yes, it took a long time to build a cathedral back then) may have been somewhere around 250,000. Today, the population of Paris is around 2,152,000. 2. The Sun King May Have Been Notre-Dame’s Public Enemy No. 1 Although war, plague, and revolution took their toll on Notre-Dame, the most destructive force in its history up until the fire of April 15 may have been King Louis XIV (1638-1715), the self-described Sun King whom Beatles fans may recognize as the inspiration for the inscrutably gorgeous song that appears on side two of Abbey Road. Louis XIV mandated what he termed a “restoration” of the cathedral to bring it in line with changing tastes (“taste” here being, unfortunately, only a figure of speech). What ensued was pretty much an act of vandalism, pulling down sculptures, replacing 12th- and 13th-century stained glass windows with clear glass, and demolishing a pillar in order to allow carriages to pass through the central doorway. In short, the Sun King needed a "no" man. 3. The Cathedral Was Ransacked During the French Revolution (Ivan Soto/Dreamstime) Sure, some good things resulted from the French Revolution (1787-99), including the eventual abolition of a tyrannical monarchy. But in addition to a period during which beheadings were all the rage, remembered affectionately as the Reign of Terror, some of the hiccups along the way included a ransacking of Notre-Dame, which was considered a symbol of the Ancien Régime. Sculptures were destroyed, lead was taken to make bullets, and many of the cathedral’s bronze bells were melted down to make cannons. 4. It’s Totally Okay That When You Think “Notre-Dame” You Think “Quasimodo” As we followed the news of the Notre-Dame fire, most of us couldn’t help recalling images and incidents from the novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and its many stage and film adaptations. And that’s totally fine: Originally published in 1831 as Notre-Dame de Paris, Victor Hugo’s novel about the hunchback bell-ringer Quasimodo and his love for the gypsy Esmeralda was such a hit with readers that it actually inspired a fundraising campaign to repair the damage wrought by the Revolution and years of wear and tear. The restoration officially began in 1844 and took nearly 20 years. One could make the case that Hugo’s novel is responsible for the modern-day cathedral that so captivates us. 5. Most of Notre-Dame’s Bells Are New If you’ve read The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, you’ll recall that the cathedral bells deafen young Quasimodo. It so happens that the 1856 bells that replaced the ones melted down during the French Revolution were considered quite noisy in their own right—discordant and substandard. As the cathedral’s 850th anniversary, in 2013, approached, new bells were commissioned and artisans studied church archives in an attempt to replicate the size and pitch of the originals. The new set of bells was installed in early 2013 and first rang out on Palm Sunday, in perfect harmony with the biggest, and only remaining original, the 1686 bell nicknamed Emmanuel.

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