Frogmore House and the Royal Baby

Frogmore House
Frogmore House
Photo Courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

As an avid royalist, I was excited for today’s announcement of the name of the new royal baby.  Archie Harrison and his parents, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, have made their new home at Frogmore Cottage on the grounds of the Frogmore Estate in Windsor Great Park (where Windsor Castle is located).  Built in 1801 and very recently renovated, other notable people who have made Frogmore Cottage their home are Abdul Karim, the secretary and “munshi” of Queen Victoria (think the movie “Victoria & Abdul”) and a Grand Duchess of Russia who escaped the Russian Revolution.

Frogmore Gardens
Frogmore Gardens
Photo Courtesy of Andrew Lawson and the Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

While the public obviously can’t visit the Sussexes’ home, you can get an exclusive tour of the 17th century Frogmore House and Gardens.   More on that in a moment; let’s talk a little about the house first.  In 1792, King George III purchased Frogmore as a countryside home for his wife, Queen Charlotte, and their daughters.   The Queen enjoyed simple and remote settings, away from the public eye, so in 1801, she built Frogmore House, currently used as a home for the Sussexes. 

Frogmore Gardens
Frogmore Gardens
Photo Courtesy of Derry Moore and the Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

In 1840, Queen Victoria gave Frogmore House to her mother, the Duchess of Kent.  After her mother’s death, Victoria frequently visited the house, enjoying it as a place of peace and quiet, and used it as the setting for intimate family functions.  In the 20th century, Queen Mary, wife of King George V and grandmother to Queen Elizabeth II, redecorated Frogmore with souvenirs and mementos of the royal family, treating it as a kind of royal museum.  Continuing in that tradition, in 1997, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, remodeled one of the rooms to contain sentimental items from the decommissioned Royal Yacht Britannia.  Most recently, in 2018, Frogmore House was used for the wedding reception of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. 

You can join the ranks of the few members of the public who have toured Frogmore House and Gardens.  They are only open on three Charity Days (usually in May) per year.  Tickets must be booked at the Royal Collection Trust’s websiteSo what are you waiting for?  Go and get your tickets now!  Frogmore is one of only three British royal residences that I haven’t been to, but if I ever visit the UK in May, I’m definitely reserving a place a on the tour!

Bridge in Frogmore Gardens
Frogmore Gardens
Photo Courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Christmas in Massachusetts: My Favorite Holiday Destinations & Traditions

Although I’m still recovering from back surgery and won’t be participating in any of my annual holiday outings, I’d like to share some of my favorite seasonal activities so that you might make them part of your traditions as well.  Let me show you a festive Christmas in Massachusetts!

Christmas by Candlelight at Old Sturbridge Village

Christmas Massachusetts Old Sturbridge Village

Courtesy of Old Sturbridge Village

Christmas Massachusetts Old Sturbridge Village

Courtesy of Old Sturbridge Village

Christmas Massachusetts Old Sturbridge Village

Courtesy of Old Sturbridge Village

Christmas Massachusetts Old Sturbridge Village

Courtesy of Old Sturbridge Village

Nothing evokes the simple pleasures of an old-fashioned holiday like Christmas by Candlelight at Old Sturbridge Village.  As you meander around the early 19th century village, each beautifully decorated building features a different activity or holiday tradition to experience.   You can hand craft an ornament in

the tin shop, take a ride in a horse-drawn sleigh while singing carols, listen to Christmas stories or live music, cozy up to the bonfire, marvel at the incredible entries into the gingerbread house competition, enjoy a scrumptious open-hearth baked holiday treat and a cup of warm apple cider, and much more!  I’ve been to Christmas by Candlelight many times, and my favorite part is interacting with the costumed interpreters to learn more about the activities that they’re doing and about holiday traditions in the past. I highly encourage you to make Christmas by Candlelight at Old Sturbridge Village part of your family’s holiday tradition. It will always be part of mine.

Christmas by Candlelight runs Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings from late November through December.  For more information and to purchase tickets, visit their website by clicking here.

The Enchanted Village at Jordan’s Furniture

Christmas Massachusetts Enchanted VillageWhen I was younger, I fondly remember my mother taking me on a Christmas Massachusetts Enchanted Villagespecial trip into Boston to see the Enchanted Village in what used to be the Jordan Marsh department store in Downtown Crossing.  Since the store was sold to Macy’s, the Enchanted Village has changed hands several times, but it’s found a permanent home at Jordan’s Furniture in Avon, Christmas Massachusetts Enchanted VillageMassachusetts. Adults and children alike will delight in the quaint Christmas village Christmas Massachusetts Enchanted Villagefilled with animatronic children, adults, teddy bears, and other animals participating in holiday rituals and traditions.  Before leaving the village, don’t forget to indulge in a delicious blueberry muffin, made from the original Jordan Marsh recipe!  While in the store, you can also take several spins around the 4,000 square foot skating rink, featuring holiday music and dramatic lighting effects. After all that, if you’re still in the holiday spirit (like I would be!) check out Jordan Furniture’s Motion Odyssey Movie (MOM) featuring the Polar Express in a way that you’ve never seen it before . . 4-D!  There’s so much to do at Jordan’s Furniture in Avon that you could make a day trip out of it!  All of the activities at the store are open from mid-November to the 1st of January.  Click here for further details, hours, and pricing information.

Two Decked-Out Dwellings

Christmas Massachusetts Everyone knows that neighborhood house whose residents go all out in Christmas Massachusetts decorating their home for the holiday season.  Each year, I’ve always made it a tradition to drive around and discover new holiday light displays and experience old favorites.  In Danvers, Massachusetts, there are two houses on Arthur Christmas Massachusetts Street that you simply cannot miss! The homes use more than 90,000 lights and over 1,000 lit up figurines and Christmas Massachusetts characters to create an awe-inspiring holiday extravaganza, including, my favorite part, the waterfall display.  While there, be sure to make a donation to Children’s Hospital, who buses in their child patients to see the spectacle for themselves and experience some of the holiday spirit. Do you have a favorite decorated home that makes Christmas in Massachusetts extra special?  Leave the the street address and city or town in the comment section below. I’d love to hear about them!

THE Festival of Trees

Christmas Massachusetts Metheun Festival of Trees

If you love Christmas trees as much as I do, then a visit to the Festival of Trees in Christmas Massachusetts Metheun Festival of TreesMethuen, Massachusetts, is a must during the holiday season!  The festival has been going on for over 25 years and features almost 250 trees and wreaths, that have been donated by various community organizations, businesses, and families.  Each tree is decorated based upon a theme chosen by the individual or group donating it.  While I enjoy simply marveling at all of the intricate decorations and imaginative themes, children can complete a fun scavenger hunt to win a prize, and visitors can purchase raffle tickets and place them into boxes next to the trees or wreaths of their choice in the hopes of winning them.  The Festival of Christmas Massachusetts Metheun Festival of TreesTrees is attended by over 30,000 visitors from across 14 different states, and all of the proceeds provide funding for heritage and restoration projects of historic structures in the greater Merrimack Christmas Massachusetts Metheun Festival of TreesValley. So what are you waiting for?!  Go to see the largest collection of decorated trees in Massachusetts and, at the same time, support a worthy cause, which is what the holiday spirit is truly about.  The Festival of Trees is open from mid-November through early December.  For more information click here to visit their website.

The Christmas Village at Yankee Candle

Christmas Massachusetts Yankee CandleAlthough it’s open all year round, one of my favorite holiday destinations is the Christmas Village at the Yankee Candle Flagship Store in South Deerfield, Massachusetts.  While the village is located entirely within the store, to get there, you’ll have to pass through the Bavarian Forest room where, if you wait a minute or two, you will experience snowfall, no matter what the season or temperature outside.  Emerging from the forest, you would think you stepped into a 14th century Bavarian town that’s been decked out for Christmas. You’ll need a minute or two just to look around and take it all in, trust me.  Each of the quaint shops contains a differentChristmas Massachusetts Yankee Candle theme of over 100,000 holiday ornaments for sale.  Explore the village to get inspiration for your own holiday, and I dare you to leave without picking out an ornament or decoration to purchase.  Looking to create a village of your own?  Yankee has an entire room full of incredible holiday village scene displays to inspire you to design one or just to marvel at.  What’s a medieval village without a castle?  Cross over the moat via the drawbridge and enter the Nutcracker Castle Christmas Massachusetts Yankee Candlewhere you’ll find a variety of German-themed ornaments, nutcrackers (including a 6 ft. tall one!), and a set of thrones that are perfect for selfies.  Next, move on to Santa’s workshop, which contains a plethora of toys for sale to delight children of all ages.  If all of the holiday shopping has made you work up an appetite, Yankee has plenty of tempting choices in its New England Market, including Christmas Massachusetts Yankee CandlePopcornopolis, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, Yankee Candy, homemade fudge, and an Au Bon Pain restaurant.  After you’ve refueled, explore the rest of the enormous flagship store which includes the Candle Emporium, with over 200,000 candles in 200 fragrances, the General Store featuring baking mixes and delicious foods, the kitchen shop, the gift boutique, the home store, and the garden shop.  For me, one of the most intriguing parts of the store is the Candle Museum where you can learn about and see how candles were made in the past and the present.  Speaking of making candles, at Yankee you can create your own custom candle with no experience required.  Just choose your shape and color, and an assistant will guide you through the process. If you’re looking for an even more personal experience, you can even make a wax mold of your own hand!  The Yankee Candle Flagship Store in South Deerfield is a fun experience at any time of year but feels even more festive during the holiday season.  For more information about hours and activities, visit their website by clicking here.

A Christmas Festival of Lights

Christmas Massachusetts Christmas Lights LaSalette Shrine

Courtesy of LaSalette Shrine

I absolutely love Christmas light displays!  My absolute favorite place Christmas Massachusetts Christmas Lights LaSalette Shrineto see them is the Christmas Festival of Lights at the LaSalette Shrine in Attleboro, Massachusetts.  This immense holiday display features over 300,000 lights spread across 10 acres!  While the displays have a religious Christmas Massachusetts Christmas Lights LaSalette Shrinetheme, even if you’re not a believer you’ll be thoroughly amazed by this holiday light exhibition.  Be sure to dress warm because the light display is located outside, but don’t worry because hot apple cider, fried dough, make-your-own s’mores and other warm and tasty treats are available for purchase on site. While there, you can also visit the International Creche Museum which features hundreds of different nativity scenes created by artists from all over the world.  Best of all, the light display and creche museum are totally free!   The Christmas Festival of Lights is on display from late November to early January.  For more information visit their website.

The Largest Christmas Store in New England

Christmas Massachusetts Christmas PlaceMy last, but not least, favorite Christmas in Massachusetts destination is a place where you can shop ‘til youChristmas Massachusetts Christmas Place drop for holiday decor. The Christmas Place in Abington, Massachusetts, is the largest Christmas store in all of New England.  If you’re looking for a particular ornament they have aisles and aisles, carefully arranged by theme, full of them. Need garland, tinsel, ribbons, tree skirts or toppers? The Christmas Place has more than you can ever imagine.  They even have a room full of 85 different styles of Christmas trees and an entire lighting department with a huge variety of holiday lights, in countless different styles, to decorate them.  For the outside of your home, the store carries over 150 different types of holiday figures.  Know someone that has a Christmas Massachusetts Christmas PlaceChristmas Village?  The Christmas Place carries over 200 different Department 56 houses and buildings, and even if you’re not looking to buy them, you can admire the holiday village scenes located throughout the store. Speaking of scenes, the Christmas Place has one of the largest Playmobil displays in the country.  Don’t forget to check it out near the entrance of the store.  So if you are looking for some holiday decorations, need a special gift for someone who is crazy about Christmas, or just love to browse like I do, head to the Christmas Place!  And don’t forget to take a selfie with the enormous Nutcracker outside the entrance.

Locations for a Festive Christmas in Massachusetts

Click on a link to be taken to specific driving directions.

Old Sturbridge Village is located at 1 Old Sturbridge Village Rd in Sturbridge, MA.

The Enchanted Village is located at Jordan’s Furniture at 100 Stockwell Dr in Avon, MA.

The “Two Decked Out Dwellings” are located at 3 and 5 Arthur St. in Danvers, Ma.

The Yankee Candle Flagship Store is located at 25 Greenfield Rd, South Deerfield, MA.

The Christmas Festival of Lights is located at the LaSalette Shrine on 947 Park St, Attleboro, MA.

The Christmas Place is located at 1500 Bedford St, Abington, MA.

Pittsburgh: My Top Six Things to Do in the Steel City

My first trip to Pittsburgh was a surprise, and when presented with tickets at the airport that stated our destination, my initial reaction was “Pittsburgh?!?”.  Now having visited the Steel City, I adore it.  Located at the confluence of the Ohio, Alleghany, and Monogahela Rivers, and dominated by Mt. Washington in the south, the setting of the city of Pittsburgh, is, in itself, spectacular.  Let me introduce you to six destinations in and around the city that you and your family will love to explore.


The Place Where Pittsburgh Began


Do you recognize the soldier on the right?

Pittsburgh Point State Park is located where the Ohio, Alleghany, and Monogahela Rivers meet and where the oldest structure in Pittsburgh is located.  The first thing to do is snap a selfie in front of the gigantic fountain, like we did, with incredible views of the city behind you.  Once you’re done, head on over to the adjacent Fort Pitt Museum.  The area now known as Pittsburgh was originally under French control, and Fort Duquesne was constructed on this site to protect the confluence of the Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela Rivers.  In 1755, the British unsuccessfully tried to take the fort, and in the process, the commanding general was killed.  His aide-de-camp, George Washington, was left to coordinate the British retreat.  Yes, the George Washington, who actually received his first military experience in the British army. After all, he was British at the time! The French eventually realized they were outnumbered and destroyed the fort.  From 1759 to 1761, the British Pittsburgh constructed a new fort and called it Fort Pitt. Named by General Forbes and General Washington (the latter got a promotion), “Pittsburgh” actually means the “city of Pitt”, who was the British p


Can you see Heinz Field, home of the Steelers and Panthers, in the background?

rime minister at the time.  In 1777, after the American Revolutionary War, the new U.S. Army took over Fort Pitt as its western headquarters. However, by 1792, the fort had deteriorated, and therefore, was abandoned. Local citizens used its remnants to construct homes, and the army built a new fort in what is now downtown Pittsburgh.  The only part of Fort Pitt that remains is a small brick blockhouse, constructed in 1764, that is the oldest structure in Western Pennsylvania. However, visitors can enjoy the large Fort Pitt Museum, which features interactive, family friendly exhibits about the fort, the Seven Years War, and life on the Western frontier in the 18th century.  Check out their website for living history events, guided tours, and even brewery nights!


The Best View in Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh By night or by day, the view of the city of Pittsburgh from Mt. Washington is extraordinary.  In fact, the view of the city from Mt. Washington wasPittsburgh named by USA Weekend as the “most beautiful vista in America” and the “best urban vista”.  Although you can drive up the small mountain (which is really a hill), my favorite way to make the ascent is to take the Duquesne Incline.  The incline is similar to a funicular and dates all the way back to 1877. However, don’t worry; it was refurbished in 1964 and redesigned to bring tourists up to an observation deck at the top.  The original Duquesne Incline was steam powered and was one of four transports built to haul freight, horses, wagons, and passengers up to the residential area at the top of what was then called Coal Hill, which was otherwise inaccessible.  Today, the Duquesne Incline is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city because it allows tourists to experience a piece of history and to see the incredible views of the “Golden Triangle” of downtown Pittsburgh.

Where You Can See Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Famous Ketchup

Pittsburgh “Won’t you be my neighbor?”  We all grew up with the heartwarming Pittsburgh show “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood”, and during my visit to Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, I was overjoyed to take in the largest collection of items from the beloved TV program.  The exhibit includes the set of Mister Rogers’ entryway and living room, King Friday XIII’s Castle, the Great Oak Tree, Mr. McFeely’s ‘Speedy Delivery’ tricycle, a variety of items from the ‘Neighborhood of Make Believe’, and, most exciting for me, the trolley!   You might be asking yourself why this exhibit is located in Pittsburgh? Although the show was originally broadcast for three seasons in Canada, Fred Rogers moved it to WQED in Pittsburgh and began to produce and distribute the show from the Steel City. “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” began airing in 1968 and ran for 895 episodes, with the final ones on the air in 2001.  At the height of its popularity, 80% of households tuned in to watch Fred Rogers! Even today, his messages ofPittsburgh kindness, patience, honesty, and the love of learning continue to resonate and are, perhaps, Pittsburgh more important than ever.

However, there’s a lot more to see at the Heinz History Center than just Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood!  Perhaps, the most obvious exhibit to check out is the namesake of the museum.  Did you know that the H. J. Heinz Company began in a suburb of Pittsburgh when eight year old Henry John Heinz began selling produce from his mother’s garden?  The company was founded in 1869, and although Heinz is most known for its ketchup, its first product was actually John Heinz’s mother’s recipe for horseradish, which was produced in their basement.  The company went bankrupt in 1875, but a year later, Heinz founded a new company and focused on the production of ketchup and, later, “57 varieties” (actually 60) of other products. The Heinz History Center in downtown Pittsburgh has a fascinating permanent exhibit about the history of the company and its products, as well as the largest collection of Heinz artifacts in its archives.  The entrance to the exhibit features a 11 foot tall ketchup bottle made up of more than 400 individual bottles! Alongside this gigantic condiment are 100 historical bottles that show how Heinz products and their packaging have evolved over time. I was fascinated to learn so much that I never knew about the company. Henry John Heinz pioneered the tePittsburgh chnological and sanitation procedures to prevent bacterial contamination of foods and lobbied Congress to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906.  Heinz was praised as a humanitarian and a model employer who was truly concerned for the safety and well being of his employees. He provided them with free medical care, recreational facilities such as swimming pools and gyms, and educational opportunities such as libraries, concerts, and lectures. During the Great Depression, Heinz helped to boost employment and improve the nutrition of families with the production of ready to eat soups and baby food, and during World War II, Heinz took a leading role in providing the blockaded United Kingdom with food.  After the war, the company acquired the well known Ore Ida and Star Kist Tuna brands, and in the exhibit, you can see a life-size costume of Charlie the Tuna. How fun! Today, Heinz sells over 5,700 different products in over 200 countries around the globe! The world headquarters of Heinz has been in Pittsburgh since 1890, and the company’s familiar black logo is the keystone, the same as the motto of Pennsylvania (the Keystone State). However, the Heinz History Center focuses on all 250 years of Pittsburgh’s history, not just the company itself.  Check out their website to see all of the exhibits on display.


Amusement Rides and History in One Location

I’m usually not one for rides, but Kennywood is one of only two amusement parks in the United States that have been Pittsburgh designated a National Historic Landmark.   As a history buff with a husband who likes adrenaline rushes, how could we not visit?! The park first opened in 1898, at the end of a trolley line which transported visitors from nearby Pittsburgh and its suburbs.  By 1901, Kennywood had its first roller coaster and a carousel, casino, swimming pool, bandstand, and dance pavilion. Today, the park features two wooden roller coasters (Jack Rabbit and Racer) built in 1920 and 1927, as well as several modern coasters.  Kennywood also contains many rides that date back to the very beginnings of its history. They include the Merry Go Round (1927), the Whip (1919), the Turtle (1927), and the Auto Race (1930). One of the most curious and nostalgic attractions is Noah’s Ark (1936), which allows visitors to walk into a dark, moving ark that recreates Noah’s supposed attempt to bring animals aboard.  Old-time special effects are included, of course! My favorite ride was the Kangaroo (1962), in which visitors ride in cars that move along a track. When the cars go over the single, steep hill, they bounce off, simulating a flying sensation and giving the ride its name. The leap of the Kangaroo was enough of a thrill for me, while my adventure-seeking husband enjoyed the more exhilarating rides and coasters.  Kennywood is a treat for the entire family, whether you’re a history buff like me or a thrill-seeker like my husband.  Now, on to something more artistic . . .


Architectural Brilliance in a Setting of Natural Splendor

Pittsburgh Designed in 1935 by Frank Lloyd Wright, Fallingwater is an architecturally stunningPittsburgh and aesthetically pleasing home set above a naturally occurring waterfall in rural Pennsylvania, fairly close to the city of Pittsburgh.  Knowing that I love history and peaking into the homes of others (legally, of course!), my husband surprised me by taking me there. The home is built over the waterfall, to allow its former occupants, the Kaufmann family, and its current visitors to enjoy the views.  Touring the residence is an absolute delight because it’s designed organically so that the house not only naturally blends in with the forest landscape but also smoothly incorporates elements of the outside on the inside of the home. It’s no wonder that Smithsonian Magazine put Fallingwater on its “Life List of 28 Places to Visit Before You Die” and that the American Institute of Architects named it the “best all-time work of American Architecture” in 2007.  With praise like that, how can you not visit?!  Ok, let’s get “moving” to our final destination.


Ride and Learn About Historic Trolleys Near Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh ‘All Aboard!’ for a ride on a historic trolley at the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum.  We boarded the trolley from a vintage interurban trolley-line waiting station that was moved to the museum and restored to give riders an authentic experience of the 1880’s. Upon hearing the whistle and the conductor calling, Greg and I climbed aboard one of the museum’s restored electric streetcars for a four mile round trip journey.  Part of the ride included a stop at the Trolley Display Building where the Pittsburgh tour guide took us through a fascinating look at a selection of the 45 different cars in the museum’s collection. What makes a streetcar different from a trolley? How can you tell the difference between a city car, a suburban car, and an interurban car? How did the design and function of trolleys change over time?  You’ll find out the answers to these questions and more while viewing historic trolleys from Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. Next, it was back on board for the remainder of the journey, which finished at the Visitor Center. There, we watched a short video introducing the era of trolleys and wandered through various exhibits about how trolleys improved the daily lives of everyday people, how trolleys work, and why the trolley era ended.  There are also find some interactive parts of the museum specifically designed for children. Whether you’re an actual child, a child at heart, or just someone who’s looking to experience a piece of the past, the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum makes for a thoroughly enjoyable half-day trip from Pittsburgh.



Click in the name of any of the locations below to be taken to more specific directions.

Point State Park and the Fort Pitt Museum are located at 601 Commonwealth Place in Pittsburgh.

Parking for the Duquesne Incline is located on West Carson Street in Pittsburgh.  Click on the name for specific directions.

The Heinz History Center is located at1212 Smallman Street in Pittsburgh.

Kennywood Park is located at 4800 Kennywood Boulevard in West Mifflin, PA.

Fallingwater is located at 1491 Mill Run Road in Mill Run, PA.

The Pennsylvania Trolley Museum is located at 1 Museum Road in Washington, PA.



The Royall House and the Only Slave Quarters in the Northern U.S.

When you hear about the history of enslaved Africans in the United States, you likely think about the lives of slaves on plantations in the American south. However, did you know that a slave-owning estate existed right outside of Boston, Massachusetts? The Isaac Royall House is the only historic home in the northern United States with surviving Royall Houseseparate slave quarters.   While slavery was legal in Massachusetts until 1781, it was uncommon for a family to own more than one or two slaves. So how did the Royall family come to have 27 enslaved people on their estate in rural Medford? In 1736, after the possibility emerged of a slave revolt in Antigua, Isaac Royall, Sr., who was a sugar cane plantation owner there, moved his family and 27 enslaved Africans to a 636-acre estate and home that he purchased in Medford, which was then known as West Cambridge.   Upon his death in 1739, his son, Isaac Royal, Jr., inherited the Royall House and estate. To show off the family’s fortune, he proceeded to double the size of the house, create the two beautiful facades that you see today, and remodel the interior to turn the former farmhouse into an opulent Georgian mansion. Throughout the tour of the Royall House, I was amazed by the incredible wooden paneling and intricately carved, decorated archways, which are considered the best surviving examples from the period.   The historian in me was impressed that historic inventories of the home have been used to lavishly furnish the mansion with period appropriate antiques and artifacts so that visitors can see each room as it would have actually appeared during the time period.

Royall House

The brick structure is the “out kitchen”, or summer kitchen, while the attached wooden structure, on the right, is the slave quarters.

As part of his continued renovations of the Royall House, in around 1760, Isaac Royall, Jr., also expanded the “out kitchen”, or summer kitchen, building to create the two-floored slave quarters that remain today.  Having 27 enslaved Africans made the Royalls the largest slave-owning family in Massachusetts.  Unlike the plantations of the antebellum south, the estate was not a cash crop farm.  Instead, Isaac Royall, Jr., continued to grow the family’s wealth through the slave trade, the operation of his sugar cane plantation in Antigua, and the ownership and leasing of property throughout Massachusetts.  In fact, the town of Royalston, Massachusetts, is named after him since he founded it by a land grant in 1765.

Royall House

The intricately-carved Georgian arches are considered to be the best existing examples in the country.

On the over 600-acre Royall House and Estate, the enslaved people performed various duties including farming (to produce food for the family and workers only), cooking, cleaning, and serving in the household. Not all of the slaves would have resided in the building referred to as the slave quarters; many would have lived and slept wherever they worked, such as in the kitchen, in the barns, or in work rooms in the main house.   Possessing so many slaves, allowed the Royalls to have a sumptuous lifestyle, but their luck changed with the events leading up to the American Royall HouseRevolutionary War.

The Royall Family were Loyalists, meaning that their loyalties lay with Britain, not with the American patriots who desired independence.  As a result, several days before the Battles of Lexington and Concord (that began the American Revolution), the Royall Family fled their Medford home to Boston.   Since Boston and the surrounding area was a hotbed of patriot activity and anti-British sentiment, Royalists were harassed and attacked; so many feared for their lives. So, like many other Royalists, the Royall family boarded a ship bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia, where they knew they would be safe, since Canada was part of the British Empire. The Royalls never returned to their Medford estate, and for a while, the Royall House lay abandoned.  Little is known about the fate of the enslaved people. Likely, they would have remained on the estate, as any traveling Africans would have raised suspicions among the local community.

Royall House

The Marble Chamber, or master bedroom, supposedly used by George Washington

During the early months of the American Revolutionary War, officers of the Continental Army used the the Royall House as a type of headquarters, and General George Washington supposedly interrogated several British Royall Housesoldiers in the master bedroom, known as the Marble Chamber.   After the war, Washington’s secretary lived in the mansion, and, later, it became a boarding house. The estate was eventually returned to the heirs of the Royall family who sold it in 1806.  A significant portion of the profit was donated to Harvard University to fund the creation of Harvard Law School.  In fact, the seal of Harvard Law School bears three shafts of wheat that were copied from from the Royall Family Crest in order to commemorate their endowment of the school.  However, in 2015, protests from Harvard students and members of the local community erupted over the use of a slave-owning family’s crest on the school’s seal.   The university formed a committee to evaluate the issue, and Harvard Law School decided to retire the use of the shield.

Royall House

Rear view of the slave quarters and summer kitchen

After its sale to a series of other families, the former Royall House continued to be occupied until 1861, when the last owner died without an heir, causing the property to gradually fall into disrepair.   However, in 1908, the Daughters of the American Revolution raised the necessary funds to renovate the home and open it as a museum.  Later, in 1962, the Royal House Association formed and began operating the museum, offering public tours, events, and educational programs for school children.

The Royall House is such a unique historic home, and I thoroughly enjoyed my tour.  Learning about the history of the home was absolutely fascinating and seeing the original lavish interiors, which have been carefully curated with sumptuous period furnishings, was a feast for the eyes.  I highly encourage you and your family to visit the Royall House and Slave Quarters to learn about the rich history of the family who lived on the estate and about the little-known lives of enslaved Africans in the northern part of the United States.

Stevens-Coolidge Place: Spectacular Colonial Revival Gardens and Mansion

Stevens-Coolidge PlaceThe Stevens-Coolidge Place (formerly known as Ashdale Farm) is a historic home and Stevens-Coolidge Placegardens located in North Andover, Massachusetts. The extensive gardens are always free and open to the public. However, the house is available to tour only on open house days and special events. Check their website for details about their many special events throughout the year.

Even if the home is not open for tours, I highly recommend visiting just to see the extensive gardens. They include a Stevens-Coolidge Placeperennial garden with geometric beds and countless varieties of plants, a French Garden and Stevens-Coolidge PlaceSerpentine Wall (modeled after one designed by Thomas Jefferson), a cutting garden (where you can pay a small fee to pick-your-own flower bouquet to take home), a rose garden, a vegetable and flower garden, and a greenhouse complex. Meander through the spectacular gardens, bring a picnic, choose a quaint spot, and settle in for a few hours of relaxation.

Stevens-Coolidge Place

While the property belonged to the Stevens family since 1729, the most current Stevens-Coolidge Placeresidents were Helen Stevens Coolidge and her husband John Gardner Coolidge, who was a diplomat and a descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Isabella Stuart Gardner.  Between 1914 and 1918, they hired an architect to remodel the two adjoined farmhouses and gardens into a Colonial Revival estate, which the couple used as a second home.  When her husband died in 1936, Helen Steven Coolidge continued to live in the home until her death in 1962.  She granted the entire estate, the home, and all of the contents to the Trustees of Reservations.  The tour guide told me Stevens-Coolidge Placethat all of the family’s belongings remain in the house, from the china in the cupboards, to the clothes inStevens-Coolidge Place the closets, to every item that was in the all of the drawers in house (which are still in them!).  As a historian, I know how rare it is for a home to remain intact just as if the owners had left, so the Stevens-Coolidge Place is really special.  In addition, the Coolidges were world travelers, and many of the furniture and Stevens-Coolidge Placeitems that you will see in the home have been accumulated from all over the world.  I strongly encourage you to check out their website to visit on a day when a house tour is available.  Whether you’re interested in antiques and collectibles, fascinated by family histories, or just curious about how people lived in the past, you’ll be amazed by all that the Stevens–Coolidge Place has to offer.

For more information about other things to do in Massachusetts, check out our other blogs posts and head on over to this great list!

Location of the Stevens-Coolidge Place

The Stevens-Coolidge Place is located at 137 Andover St. in North Andover, Massachusetts.  If you’re familiar with the area, the estate is located near the intersection of state routes 133 and 125 and very close to route 495.  For driving directions, click on the map below.Stevens-Coolidge Place

Versailles: Seeing the Entire Estate as a (F)ree (I)ndependent (T)raveler

Versailles is one of the largest and most spectacular tourist destinations that I’ve ever been to.  Most people take a tour bus out of Paris, see the chateau, walk around the gardens immediately outside, and then head back to Paris.  However, those people see only a fraction of what Versailles has to offer.  Let me show you not only highlights of the most incredible and lesser known parts of Versailles but also how to avoid the crowds, when to go, how long to stay, how to get there on your own, and how to make the most of your visit.  Those are essential parts of (f)ree and (i)ndependent (t)ravel and make you F.I.T. to Embark!

Planning: What to Know Before You Go

Versailles is, perhaps, the most crowded tourist destination that I’ve ever been to, so you’re going to need a few tips to avoid as much of the crowds and as many of the lines as possible.  First and foremost, buy a ticket before you go to Versailles. A Paris Museum Pass covers the cost of admission, except for the gardens on spectacle days. Otherwise, go the Chateau de Versailles website and buy a “passport with timed entry” ticket, which gives you access to the entire Versaillesestate and entry to the chateau within a half an hour of the time selected.  Choose a time that’s as early in the morning as possible, as the chateau is least crowded then. VersaillesIf you can’t see the chateau in the early morning, choose later afternoon instead. Be aware that all visitors must pass through a security check that often has a long line. The only way to not go through security is to book a guided tour on the website. Whatever ticket you choose, be sure to print it out before leaving for Versailles.  Second, know which day of the week to go. Sundays, Tuesdays, and Saturdays are the most crowded, so avoid those days if possible. Thursdays and Fridays are best. Third, plan to spend the entire day at Versailles since there’s a lot to see. Don’t be one of those people who only sees the chateau and leaves; you’ll be missing so much! I recommend seeing the chateau in the morning, enjoying lunch at one of the restaurants or cafes along the Grand Canal, and then spending the afternoon touring the gardens, the Grand and Petit Trianons, and the Queen’s Hamlet.  Don’t miss the Queen’s (Marie Antoinette’s) Hamlet, which was my favorite part!  Fourth, if you don’t bring a guidebook with you that describes the various parts of the estate, I recommend purchasing one, with descriptions, in one of Versailles’ many gift shops. Knowing what you’re seeing makes the experience so much more enjoyable.   Speaking of that, let me tell you a little bit about why Versailles exists.

Historical Background of Versailles

You might be surprised to learn that, much like today, any member of the public could visit the Palace of Versailles and even see the King as he moved through the state apartments or went to chapel; the public could even walk into his bedchamber, as long as he wasn’t there.  The entire purpose of Versailles was to prove that all people in France, from the lowliest peasant to the highest-ranking noble, owed everything to the king and that the monarch lived in utter VersaillesVersaillesmagnificence and grandeur due to his absolute power. King Louis XIV, who built Versailles, needed a hold over the nobles and a way to keep them at court, instead of on their own estates or in Paris where they could intrigue and plot against him.  So, in 1682, he moved the royal court and the government to Versailles, which was still under construction at the time. In addition, he made his own private life into a series of ceremonies and rituals to not only keep the nobles busy but also to force them into competition for higher rank and status, assigned by the king himself, of course. Even the French government was based at the Palace of Versailles, with an entire wing built to house the king’s ministers.  The king met, daily, with a different council of the government in the Council Chamber, and he held official audiences, while sitting on an eight foot high silver throne, in the Apollo Drawing Room. Like the sun shining as the center of the universe, the Palace of Versailles served, from 1682 to 1722, as the center of French social, courtly, and governmental life, with the sun king, Louis XIV, at its epicenter, radiating his power and prestige to all those who visited.

Now that you know a little bit about Versailles in general, let me show the highlights of the most incredible and lesser known parts of the chateau and estate.

The Hall of Mirrors

Versailles Hall of MirrorsThe Hall of Mirrors is the most famous room in the Palace of Versailles.  At the time that it was built, mirrors were an expensive luxury, and the best glasswork came from Venice.  By constructing a room with 357 mirrors, King Louis XIV was showing off his enormous wealth and also that French manufacturing could rival that of the Venetian state.  Originally, the hall Versailles Hall of Mirrorswas filled with pieces made of solid silver, including tables, candelabras, and huge vases that held orange trees, which were another luxury of the time.  Imagine how the Hall of Mirrors would have appeared in the evening with the silver furnishings and mirrors reflecting the light of hundreds of candles. It must have been truly amazing!  Unfortunately, the solid silver fixtures were melted down in 1689 to meet the costs of war, but they were replaced by gold Versailles Hall of Mirrorsgilt ones in 1770. Although the hall was used daily as a passageway to and from the king’s apartments and as a place where courtiers could gather to watch the king process to chapel, Louis XIV also used the Hall of Mirrors for his most important and lavish entertainments, such as masked balls, royal weddings, and diplomatic receptions.  Even the paintings on the ceiling were meant to show off France’s might. The artwork portrays Louis XIV’s military campaigns against Holland and its allies and against the Spanish-controlled Netherlands in the War of Devolution. In the center of the ceiling, we see the Sun King turning away from games and pleasures and towards a crown of immortality offered to him by the goddess Glory and the god Mars. The painting is called “The King Governing Alone”. The title is another not so subtle hint that Louis XIV rules as the absolute monarch of France.   Today, the Hall of Mirrors doesn’t just celebrate the former military might of the kings of France, but the room also is a testament to peace. On June 28, 1919, the peace treaty that ended World War I was signed in the Hall of Mirrors. The Treaty of Versailles is still commemorated in Veterans Days and Armistice Days all around the world. In addition, the Hall of Mirrors continues to be used by the French government to welcome important guests from all around the world, including, most famously, John and Jackie Kennedy in 1961 and Queen Elizabeth II in 1957.

The King’s State Bedchamber

The magnificent bed of the Kings of France is located in the King’s State Bedchamber at Versailles, but, believe it or not, many of the kings never actually slept in it!  They had smaller, more private bedrooms. Instead, the King’s State Bedchamber was used for public (yes, I said pubic!) rituals of getting out of bed and going to bed, called the Lever and the Coucher.Versailles  Depending on how high one’s status was or how much one paid to obtain that status, a noble would be allowed into one of many parts, or entry points, into the Lever ceremony. The Grande Entrée allowed nobles to be present when the king arose from bed and changed into his morning clothes.   Those in attendance could arrange, ahead of time, to make a quick, but rehearsed, request to the king as he arose. After the king said his morning prayers, the Première Entrée began. During this part of the ceremony, the king got dressed and shaved. Again, depending on one’s status, there were five different times during the ceremony that nobles were admitted.   After this, the king went into his cabinet where he informed others what he wanted to do that day and where people of privilege could have discussions with and make requests of the monarch. When the king left his cabinet and proceeded into the Grande Galerie, the Grand Lever began. While the king walked to chapel, he would talk briefly to people along the way and even accept some petitions.   During one of the Grand Lever ceremonies, a particular noble approached King Louis XIV to ask for a favor. The king ignored him and loudly remarked “we never see him”. In other words, the king refused to even speak with the gentleman because he had not spent enough time at Versailles. Remember that all of these ceremonies were designed to keep the nobles preoccupied with their status and to force them to remain at Versailles, rather than at their own estates where they could plot for political power.  To us, these ritual seem strange, but King Louis XIV must have been doing something right because look at the power and wealth that he possessed! That kind of life must have been nice. However, I don’t know about you, but I prefer to get up and go to bed in private.

The Fountains and Water Parterres

Designed by landscape architect André Le Nôtre and covering almost 2,000 acres, the magnificent gardens are reason Versailles enough to visit the Palace of Versailles!  The extensive gardens begin on the terraces behind the chateau, where the water parterres, or two large pools, reflect the opulent facade of the Hall of Mirrors.  If the reflection wasn’t beautiful enough, the water parterres are surrounded by marvelous sculptures, made of marble, lead, stone and bronze, including four nymphs and four children from mythology and allegories.  The largest statues represent the rivers of France, including the Loire and Loiret (pictured in this photo), Rhône and Saône, Seine and Marne, and Garonne and Dordogne, as symbols of the kingdom. The water parterres lead to formal symmetrical gardens, known as the north and south parterres, and to the incredible Fountain of Latona.

Choosing Apollo as an emblem to represent himself throughout Versailles, King Louis XIV wanted a fountain that would tell the story of the sun god’s childhood. The resulting fountain features Latona (also known as Leto in Greek), who was Versailles Latona Fountainthe mother of the god Apollo and the goddess Diana.  According to the myth, Latona wandered the earth after giving birth to her divine twins. She came across a pond in Lycia, which is located in modern day Turkey, and needed to quench her thirst. The local peasants in the area refused to allow the goddess to drink, and therefore, they stirred up the mud in the bottom of the pool.  Latona became enraged, and for their inhospitality and her revenge, turned them all into frogs, forcing them to swim forever in the muddy waters of ponds. Modeled on this myth, the Latona Fountain is built in tiers, with peasants in the midst of their transformation from human to amphibian on the first tier, golden frogs spouting water on the second tier, and a marble sculpture, cast in gilded lead, of Latona and her children on the very top.  Unfortunately, the day we visited Versailles, the fountains were not turned on. However, even without the streams of water, the Latona Fountain is a glorious piece of art.

Versailles Fountain of Apollo

The most obvious of those symbols linking King Louis XIV and the sun god is the magnificent Fountain of Apollo. Cast in lead and gilded in gold, the god emerges from the waves, in his horse-drawn golden chariot, thereby causing the sun to rise with him.  Apollo is surrounded by tritons (fish-tailed sea gods), sea monsters, and, usually, huge jets of war, which were, unfortunately, not turned on the day we visited. Nevertheless, the Fountain of Apollo is still an incredible site and an element of symbolism that links the hope of a prosperous new reign to the rising of the sun.

The Grand Trianon

Versailles Grand TrianonThe Grand Trianon is a palace, set within the gardens of Versailles, that Versailles Grand Trianonwas designed so that King Louis XIV and his family could escape the formalities of court life at the Chateau.  Imagine building a smaller house in your background to escape the business of everyday life in your house. Now you understand!  The Grand Trianon is best known for its gorgeous gardens, which in the time of Louis XIV, were planted in pots that Versailles Grand Trianonwere buried in the ground so that the flowers could be changed daily.  I don’t know about you, but I’d love to come out of my house to a new garden every day! The interiors of the Grand Versailles Grand TrianonTrianon were redecorated by Napoleon, and thanks to restoration authorized by Charles de Gaulle in 1965, the palace remains much the same as the French emperor would have experienced it.

The French Pavilion and Petit Trianon

Versailles French PavilionQueen Marie Antoinette loved fun and frivolity, and she hosted summertime balls and concerts in the beautiful French Pavilion.  The structure might appear small in the photo, but the building contains a salon, antechamber, boudoir, lavatory, a small room used to prepare coffee (which was all the rage at the time), and a stove room.  Much bigger than what we would think of as a pavilion!  And if there wasn’t enough space, the Queen had tents and wooden cabins erected around it in the French gardens.  At the time, the surrounding gardens were considered the most beautiful and widely-stocked in all of Europe.  They contained not only ornate, geometrically-shaped flower beds and orchards of fruit trees but also greenhouses to raise exotic products such as pineapples, coffee, and oranges. The French gardens even Versailles Petit Trianoncontained a menagerie and a birdhouse. Imagine having a zoo in your own backyard!  The gardens surround a “small” palace, known as the Petit Trianon, which was built by King Louis XV as a place where he and his mistress could escape from the court life of the other two (yes, two!) palaces at Versailles. Unfortunately, he died just after moving in, and King Louis XVI gave the Petit Trianon as a wedding gift to his bride Marie Antoinette, who lived in a small suite of rooms at the palace.  The Queen loved privacy, and her bedroom featured two mirrors that could be pulled down through the ceiling, from the floor above, to completely cover the windows. That’s what I call royal black-out drapes! However, if you think that’s extravagant, wait to see what I have next for you.

The Queen’s Hamlet

No, what you’re seeing is not a fairy tale village from the French countryside.  The lakeside retreat is entirely contained Versailles Queen's Hamletwithin the gardens at Versailles and was used by Queen Marie Antoinette as a place to hold small gathering and to relax, away from the ceremonies and intrigues of the palace.  Modeled on the style of cottages in Normandy and built between 1783 and 1785, the little village is known as the Queen’s Hamlet. Arranged in a crescent around a man-made lake, the hamlet contains twelve structures including a windmill, boudoir, billiard room, barn, working dairy, model dairy, fisherman’s cottage, guard tower (that looks like a lighthouse), working farm, stove room, pigeon loft, and Queen’s house. While the chateau and gardens are crowded, we had the Queen’s Hamlet almost all to ourselves because most tourists don’t venture this far. If you go to Versailles, don’t miss our favorite part of the estate: the Queen’s Hamlet.

Contrary to popular belief, Queen Marie Antoinette did not pretend to be a farmer nor dress her sheep up in bows at the Versailles Queen's Hamlet FarmQueen’s Hamlet.  The farm was actually a functional one that was designed as a place were the royal children could receive an education about agriculture and animal husbandry.   The Queen appointed a farmer, Valy Bussard, to manage the fields, vineyards, orchards, and Versailles Queen's Hamlet Farmvegetable gardens, which grew produce that was consumed by the royal family and their guests.   She also charged the farmer to experiment with various agricultural techniques and to favor the raising of Swiss animals, which is why the farm was sometimes called the “Swiss Hamlet”. Spending a great deal of time at Versailles in insolation from the people caused a great deal of resentment among the populace.  The lower classes were also angry that, during a time of economic hardship, the the royal family spent so much money on building the hamlet and on courtly life at the palace. Rumors spread that the Queen played as a farmer, which many saw as a mockery of agricultural life, and Versailles Queen's Hamlet Farmthat she met with her lovers at the hamlet.  While none of these rumors are true, they worsened the Queen’s image in the eyes of the people. We all know the unfortunate end of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, and like them, the hamlet also suffered. Age and bad weather damaged the buildings, most of which were eventually torn down. In the early 1800’s and again in the 1900’s, restoration attempts were made, but in 2006, the farm had to be completely restored to its original appearance and function.  Today, it includes a farmhouse, barn, stables, pig stye, hen house, and a variety of animals, which are looked after by the Foundation for Animal Welfare. While at the farm, I had the chance to meet some of these furry friends.

Versailles Queen's Hamlet Marlborough Tower

Although this fairy tale-like building appears to be a lighthouse, it’s actually the Marlborough Tower.  Named after a song that was famous and sung to the young dauphin (crown prince of France) by his nanny, the tower served no real purpose except for the storing of fishing equipment, causing it to be sometimes referred to as the “Fishing Tower”.  It was attached to a cottage in which the fisherman lived and to a working dairy which supplied guests with milk, cheese, and cream, which were made in the working dairy from cows on the estate.

Versailles Queen's Hamlet Guard House

Although Queen Marie Antoinette used the buildings in the village to host parties and small gatherings, she also went to the hamlet to relax and get away from the politics and intrigues of the palace.  Due to the importance of the hostess and her guests, a guard was necessary to provide security. Since the Queen insisted the royal architect design all buildings to appear as if from the countryside of Normandy, the guard house is this quaint cottage with a lovely front garden and arbor.  I wouldn’t mind taking up residence, but I couldn’t provide much security!

The Temple of Love

Versailles Temple of Love

The dreamy Temple of Love sits on a tiny island in a stream inside the English Gardens at Versailles.  At the center, a copy of the sculpture called “Cupid Fashioning His Bow from Hercules’ Club” stands below a domed roof supported by twelve Corinthian columns.   The structure is not actually a real temple but rather a garden folly, a building constructed for decoration in a garden. Some might say that love is itself a folly, but, whether you are a romantic or not, one can’t help but be charmed by this most enchanting part of the gardens at Versailles.

Getting to Versailles On Your Own

Many people take a tourist bus to Versailles, but the best way to get there is by train.   Going on your own is extremely Versailles Temple of Loveeasy and allows you to spend as much time at the chateau and estate as you want.

Versailles is about a 35 minute train ride from Paris, but I would leave yourself an hour of travel time just to be on the safe side.   Trains for Versailles leave from any of the following stations: Invalides, Musee de Orsay, Champ de Mars, Gare d’Austerlitz, St. Michel, and Pont de l’Alma.  At the station of your choice, go to any ticket machine and buy a round trip ticket for the RER-C train to “Versailles Chateau”.  The costs includes the trip from that particular station to the RER train station.  Once you’re at the RER station, get on any train listed as “Versailles Chateau”.  While aboard, you can relax without having to be aware of when to get off.  All trains listed as “Versailles Chateau” have the palace as their final stop.

When you arrive, exit the station and follow the signs and the flow of traffic to the palace.  It’s about a ten minute walk.

To head back to Paris, catch any train because all of them will stop at the RER station in Paris.

I sincerely hope you enjoy your visit to Versailles and that these tips and descriptions help you to see the palace, gardens, and estate all on your own.  Bon voyage!

Notre Dame: Understanding Big Architecture, Finding Little Known Relics, Avoiding Large Crowds

Notre Dame in Paris is one of the world’s most famous and recognizable cathedrals.   Everyone goes to see it, but most don’t know what to look for.  Allow me to guide you through understanding the big architecture, finding the little known relics, and avoiding the large crowds at the cathedral.


Let’s start with that you can’t miss: the monumental architecture.  It’s best observed from the outside of the cathedral.  We are going to start, not at the front like you expected, but rather on the side and back of the cathedral.  So make your way to the side or back, find a comfortable place to sit, and let me guide you through the basics of an integral part of medieval architecture: flying buttresses.  It sounds like a funny word, but flying buttresses are one of the most important advances in constructing immense building, like cathedrals.  In fact, Notre Dame was among the first buildings in the world to use the flying buttress. However, the designs for Notre Dame did not originally include these support structures around the choir and the nave.  As construction began, the walls became thinner as the cathedral grew higher and as architects incorporated huge, stained glass windows. As the walls pushed outward from the weight of the roof, stress fractures began to appear, and therefore, the the architects were forced to includes support structures around the outside walls.  They are known as flying buttresses, which transfer the massive amount of weight from the roof along arches, or “flyers”, into massive piers that are built to convey the force of the weight into the ground. These incredible feats of medieval engineering are meant to support (or buttress) the cathedral from collapsing. In addition many statues were placed around the outside of the cathedral to act as supports to the columns.  These sculptures originally were brightly painted, but the color has worn off over time. As with most historical buildings, their appearance today is very different from how people of the past saw them.


Notre Dame

Speaking of sculptures, it’s time to get up and work our way around to the front of the cathedral in order to take a look at some amazing statuary.  To many visitors, the most striking features about Notre Dame are the ornate portals of the west facade, or main entrance, of the church.  The elaborate decoration of each doorway relates biblical stories that helped illiterate medieval peasants learn about their religion.  The central and largest doorway is referred to as the Portal of the Last Judgement.  Above the doorway are three horizontal rows of sculptures. The lowest level shows the resurrection of the dead, while the one above it depicts St. Michael weighing their souls. In the same frieze, you can see some souls going to heaven (on the left), while others are condemned to hell (on the right) by the devil himself, who appears in the frieze. Can you find him?  On the uppermost level, Christ is enthroned in heaven, surrounded by reminders that his crucifixion made the resurrection of the dead possible. He appears with wounds on his hands and his feet, while angels next to him hold the spear that pierced his body, the nails used to pin him to the cross, and the cross itself. Surrounding Christ is a heavenly court of angels, prophets, martyrs, and patriarchs carved upon five arches.  All those who pass through the doorways are reminded only only of Christ’s sacrifice, but also of the need to avoid sin, no matter who you are. At the bottom of the fifth arch, the devil appears again; this time he is crushing the souls of a rich man, a bishop, and a king. Similarly, the left portal presents worshipers with models of heavenly grace and reminders of the punishments for bad behavior. The left doorway is called the Portal of the Virgin because the levels of sculpture above the doorway depict the death of the Virgin Mary, and above that, Mary being crowned and seated upon a throne in heaven, next to her son.  Between the two left-hand doors, we see Mary, again, holding her infant son Jesus. If you look just below, you’ll notice a familiar relief of Adam and Eve, who is being tempted by the serpent, thereby reminding worshipers not to be enticed by sin. To the left of the doorway, look for four figures, one of which is holding his own head.  Can you see him in my photo?  You may recognize him as St. Denis, Paris’ first bishop and patron saint who was beheaded by the Romans. To read more about him, see my post about Sacré-Cœur.  Now, let’s consider Notre Dame’s far right-handside doorway, which is called the Portal of St. Anne. Immediately above the doorway, we see the marriage of St. Joachim and St. Anne, who were the parents of the Virgin Mary.   In the level above that, sculptures depict the Nativity (when Mary gave birth to Jesus), the Epiphany (when the three wise men visited the holy family after Jesus’ birth) and the Annunciation of Mary (when she went to heaven). You might be wondering why there is so much emphasis on Mary.  Well, after all, Notre Dame is dedicated to “our lady” the Virgin Mary. What I believe is the most interesting story of the cathedral’s facade belongs to the horizontal row of 28 sculptures located above the huge arches of the three doorways. Today, these are known as the Kings of Judah, each of which was a king of the ancient land and, supposedly, a descendant of Mary and Jesus. However, during the most radical period of the French Revolution, these sculptures were mistaken for kings of France.  Fueled by anti-royal hatred, revolutionaries decapitated the sculptures and took them away. The cathedral was rededicated to the “Cult of Reason and the Supreme Being”, and, inside, many statues of Mary were replaced by the Goddess of Liberty. However, according to local legend, a school teacher and sympathetic royalist gathered up the severed heads and buried them in her backyard. They must have been hidden well because they weren’t re-discovered until 1977, when reconstruction was being done on a bank in the area. However, if you’re standing in front of Notre Dame, you still won’t see the heads. After their discovery, the royal heads were donated to the Musée de Cluny, located just a few blocks away, where you can still see them today.


Another surprising and little known fact about Notre Dame is that it holds three of the the holiest artifacts in Christianity.  The Treasury of Notre Dame contains a reliquary, which includes the supposed Crown of Thorns, a piece of the True Cross, and one of the Holy Nails.  In 1238, Emperor Baldwin II of Constantinople offered the Crown of Thorns to King Louis IX of France, in order to obtain the latter’s support for the weakening Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire.  The Crown of Thorns was supposedly worn by Jesus Christ at his crucifixion. While Sainte-Chapelle was originally constructed in order to hold this holy relic, after the French Revolution, it was deposited, in 1801, into a crystal reliquary in Notre Dame.  The church also purportedly contains a piece of the cross on which Jesus was crucified. The 24cm wood fragment was originally kept in the Treasury of Sainte-Chapelle, but in 1805, after the French Revolution, it was preserved in a crystal case and moved to Notre Dame.  Finally, Notre Dame contains an alleged nail that the Romans used to pierce Jesus’ body during his crucifixion. Originally entrusted to the Treasury of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the Patriarch of that city gave it to Emperor Charlemagne, in 799, and he entrusted it to the Abbey of Saint-Denis.  During the French Revolution, the government seized the holy artifact but, in 1824, returned it to Notre Dame, where it’s kept in a nail-shaped crystal reliquary adorned with a head that is gilded in silver. Unfortunately, Notre Dame’s Reliquary is not open to the public. However, if you’d like to see any or all of these holy relics, they are presented to the public at special masses held on the first Friday of every month and on each Friday during Lent, both at 3:00.


Interested in seeing the interior of Notre Dame or attending a mass to be in the presence of its holy relics?  So are millions of other people each year.  You need to know when to go and how to avoid the crowds.  Since admission is free, the line to be admitted to the cathedral is often extraordinarily long due to security.  Crowds are the worst from mid-morning to mid-afternoon.  If possible avoid seeing Notre Dame on weekends or on Tuesday (when the Louvre is closed).  The best times to visit are early in the morning or late in the afternoon.  The cathedral opens at 7:45AM, so I would suggest arriving as early as possible.   Alternatively, you could try seeing the cathedral in the late afternoon, since it closes at 6:45pm.  We arrived early in the morning and had to stand in a short line to be admitted.  Even though I’ve only covered the outside of Notre Dame in this post, the inside is definitely worth the wait.  After all, you don’t want to go home from Paris being the only person who didn’t go inside Notre Dame, do you?

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