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?

Sacré-Cœur: the Sacred Heart and the Best Views of Paris


Sacré-Cœur (officially the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris) stands atop the highest point, the hill named Montmartre, in the city of Paris.  Many people believe that the basilica is older than it actually is. However, construction began in 1875 and was completed in 1914. The church is built as a dedication to the 58,000 soldiers who lost their Sacré-Cœurlives during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, and as an act of repentance for the sins that many believed caused France to suffer misfortunes and lose that war.  Funds for Sacré-Cœur’s construction came entirely from private donors, who paid for elements as small as a single brick or as large as a giant column. The church was designed by an architect who actually beat out 77 others in a competition but didn’t live long enough to see its completion.  Built in a Romano-Byzantine style, the creamy whiteness of the basilica comes from the fact that it was constructed out of travertine stone that contains a high degree of calcite which essentially bleaches the structure in wet weather.   Following its construction, the church was designated as a basilica, or a pilgrimage destination. Today, over 11 million people still visit Sacré-Cœur each year, some for religious reasons and Sacré-Cœurothers just as tourists. Entrance to the the inside of the basilica is free and absolutely worth a visit.  For me, the highlight of the church’s interior is the extraordinary mosaic, named “Christ in Glory”, in the apse. The mosaic is one of the largest in the world and features a 60 ft. tall Jesus surrounded by the Virgin Mary, Saint Michael, Joan of Arc, the Holy Trinity, a host of other saints, a pope offering the Sacred Heart of Jesus to the entire world, and representations of events from French history.  Another site worth seeing is the Grand Organ, which is considered to be one of the most remarkable in Paris and, such, was designated a national monument. To hear the organ in all of its glory, attend mass on Fridays at 3pm or Sundays at 11:00am, 6:00pm, 10:00pm, or for Vespers on Sundays at 4:00pm.


While at Sacré-Cœur, you also need to take in the extraordinary views from this highest point in Paris.  You have two choices: (1) For a fee, climb the 300 steps to the top of the dome, which is the second tallest structure in Paris, to see the surrounding countryside for over 60 kilometers, or (2) Take in the free views from the steps of the outside of the basilica, where you’ll see tourists taking photos and selfies, people trying to identify the various monuments and buildings of the Paris skyline, and lovers holding hands and stealing kisses.  Either way, you’re have remarkable city views.  And if you come at sunset, you’ll have an even grander treat.


view from the dome

Since Sacré-Cœur and its city views are such popular tourist destinations, the location and the basilica can get extremely crowded.  The best times to visit are on weekdays or before 9:30am on weekends. Sundays are the busiest day of the week, so I would advise avoiding that day altogether, unless you’re attending mass.

To get to Sacré-Cœur, the closest metro stops are Anvers, Abbesses, or Pigalle.  Once there, if you’d like to avoid climbing the hill, you can take the funicular, which costs one metro ticket and is located near the Anvers metro stop.  Alternatively, there’s a city bus, called the Montmartrobus, that starts next to the Place de Pigalle metro station (along Boulevard de Clichy) and has a stop close the basilica.  For more information about the bus, click here.

The Church of Saint-Sulpice: A Sanctuary Full of Mystery and Science

Saint-SulpiceThe beautiful Church of Saint-Sulpice is only slightly smaller than Notre Dame, making Saint-Sulpiceit Paris’ second church.  You may recognize the church from the novel and movie The DaVinci Code.  In these works of fiction, the church is described as having been built over an ancient temple and containing the secret coded letters “P” and “S”, supposedly indicating the mysterious group known as the Priory of Sion.  The novel and film also claim that the sanctuary features a rose line leading to an obelisk that reveals the location of the Holy Grail.  All of this is fun to think about, and these intriguing details even drew me to visit the church.  However, I’m sorry to break it to you; these are all inventions of the author.

The current Church of Saint-Sulpice was built, beginning in 1641, over a pre-existing Romanesque church, not an ancient temple. The “P” and “S” letters in the stained glass windows refer to St. Peter and St. Sulpice, to whom the church is dedicated.  Finally, the supposed rose line is actually a brass meridian line leading to a marble obelisk, which was installed in 1727. This clever system, Saint-SulpiceSaint-Sulpicethat was set up by a hired English clock maker, allows a ray of light, from an upper window, to pass through a lens and then hit precise points on an obelisk only on the days of the winter solstice and both equinoxes.  This intriguing arrangement was used by church priests to calculate the date of Easter each year.  So while the Church of Saint-Sulpice may not help you to find the Holy Grail, a visit will introduce you to many intriguing features inside, including two magnificent organs, the astronomical devices described above, a unique and highly symbolic statue of the Virgin Mary, and the supposed Shroud of Turin.


Saint-SulpiceMany visitors to the Church of Saint-Sulpice are interested in seeing the Shroud of Turin.  The Shroud is a piece of linen cloth that allegedly contains the image of Jesus Christ.  After his crucifixion, Jesus was supposedly wrapped in this shroud and buried in a tomb.  However, as far back as 1390, a local bishop wrote that the shroud was a fake and that a local artist confessed to creating the forgery.  In 1988, three radiocarbon dating procedures confirmed that the Shroud of Turin dates back to somewhere between 1260 and 1390, proving that the artifact is, indeed, a fake.  What I have to tell you next is, likely, even more disappointing.  The actual, supposed Shroud of Turin is located in the Cathedral of Turin in Italy.  What you’re seeing in the Church of Saint-Sulpice are actually photographs of the shroud.  Despite the controversy surrounding it, taking a look at the photographs of the shroud on display and learning about its history is definitely interesting and worth your time.


Saint-SulpiceFor me, the most impressive part of my visit to Saint-Sulpice wasn’t unraveling the truth behind the mysteries of the DaVinci Code or the Shroud of Turin, but rather seeing a breathtakingly beautiful and symbolic statue of the Virgin Mary which stands inside the Lady Chapel of the church.  Designed by Jean-Baptiste Pigalle and sculpted out of white marble, this evocative statue features Mary holding a baby Jesus with a burst of sunlight behind them.  If you look carefully at the photo, you’ll notice some interesting symbolism. Mary is standing on an orb, and a snake lays trampled beneath her feet. You can also see dramatically sculpted clouds flowing down to a small sacrificial lamb.  What does all this symbolism mean? The sculpture is reminding the faithful that Mary’s son, Jesus, volunteered himself to be the sacrificial lamb for all humanity. By doing so, Christians believe he brought about an end to permanent death and provided his followers with the resurrection of the soul.  Statues like this one are not only beautiful to look at but also provide a symbolic message that’s enjoyable for travelers to decode.  For me, learning the truth behind the mysteries of the artifacts in the church and decoding the symbolism embedded in its art makes travel more meaningful and memorable.


Location of the Church of Saint-Sulpice

The Church of Saint-Sulpice is located at 2 Rue Palatine in Paris.  The nearest metro stop is called Saint-Sulpice.  Before going Saint-Sulpiceinside, admire the gorgeous fountains, take a selfie or two, and enjoy a moment in the serene setting.

For specific directions to the church, click on the map below.

After visiting Saint-Sulpice, consider exploring the nearby Luxembourg Gardens, which are full of not only beautiful flowers and landscapes but also an amazing array of fun activities for the entire family.  For more information see my post “The Luxembourg Gardens: The Favorite Outdoor Living Space of Parisians”.




The Luxembourg Gardens: The Favorite Outdoor Living Space of Parisians

Originally part of the palace that was buiLuxembourg Gardenslt for Marie de Medici in the early 1600’s, the Luxembourg Gardens are, today, the outdoor living room and playground for Parisians and their families.  The 25 hectare (62 acre) gardens features many activities for the entire family.   One of my favorite parts was a huge basin of water surrounded by gorgeous flower beds and statues of the queens of France, saints, and copies of Classical sculptures.  Children can rent miniature remote-controlled boats that they then sail across the basin. I really wanted to try them out, but it seemed more like an activity for the Luxembourg Gardenslittle ones.  Oh well!   For the nature and flower lover, there are both English and French style gardens and a geometric forest in between the two.  The greenhouse, which is surrounded by

Luxembourg Gardens

Parisians playing lawn bowling in the gardens.

a rose garden, contains a collection of orchids, and the apiary allows people to learn about beekeeping. Families flock over to the southwest corner of the gardens where an orchard of fruit trees is the setting for a marionette theater.  Children will also love the vintage carousel, playground, slides, and pony rides. The gardens also contain areas to play tennis, lawn bowling, chess, and bridge. After all the activities, take a break at the gazebo where free concerts are held or enjoy a glass of wine and a snack in the small cafe with plentiful outdoor seating.  You can also take a stroll through the orangerie of the former palace which showcases art, photographs, and sculptures. There really is something for everyone at the Luxembourg Gardens, and as we walked around, we got a sense that Parisians love them as much as we did.



Luxembourg Gardens

Even on a cloudy day, the gardens are a delight!

Even if you’re not a fan of history or architecture, you can’t help be impressed by the incredible Luxembourg Palace that dominates the gardens.  Since 1958, the palace has been the home of the French Senate.  However, the Luxembourg Palace was originally built, beginning inLuxembourg Gardens 1615, to be a residence for Marie de Medici, dowager queen and mother of King Louis XIII.  Marie was from Florence and had the architect design her new home based on the style of the Pitti Palace, in her home city. During the French Revolution, the palace had a short life as a museum, and with the rise of Napoleon, the French Senate began to meet in the building for the first time in 1804.  At this time, the interiors were redesigned so, unfortunately, nothing inside remains of Marie de Medici’s layout or furnishings. During the Second World War, the Luxembourg Palace was occupied by a commander of the Luftwaffe, the Nazi Air Force.  After the war, the Paris Peace Conference was held in the building, and upon the declaration of the Fifth French Republic in 1958, the French Senate began meeting there again.  Today, visitors can tour the Luxembourg Palace on Mondays and Fridays when the Senate is not in session.


One of my favorite locations in the Luxembourg Gardens is the gorgeous Medici Fountain.  The fountain was built around 1630 for Marie de Medici, dowager queen and mother to King Louis XIII, as part of the gardens surrounding the Luxembourg GardensLuxembourg Palace.  After the fountain fell into disrepair, it was moved 30 meters, in the 1860’s, to its current location to make room for a street. Since the fountain no longer stood against a wall, the Leda Fountain, Luxembourg Gardensa different architectural features which was in danger of being demolished, was moved from another location in Paris and placed behind the Medici Fountain.  The Medici Fountain also underwent other remodeling at the time. The original statues of nymphs were replaced by two sculptures representing the Rhône and Seine Rivers. Statues of a faun and a huntress were also added, and a sculpture of Venus was removed. Two replica Greek masks were included to symbolize tragedy and comedy.  The relief of the original Medici coat of arms was restored, and the water basin was changed from a simple one with a single fountain to a long one which is now surrounded by beautiful flowers and shaded by trees. The restored Medici Fountain is a lovely place to sit and rest after walking through the extensive Luxembourg Gardens.  It would also be a romantic setting for a Parisian date. The fountain is one of many treasures that we found through the marvelous gardens.


The Luxembourg Gardens

The Luxembourg Gardens are located in the 6th arrondissement of Paris.  The gardens have many metro stops aroudn them.  On the north side of the gardens, the closest stops are Odeon and Saint-Sulpice.  Click on the map below to get specific directions.



Les Invalides: Napoleon’s Spectacular Tomb and French Army Museum

Les InvalidesLes Invalides, also known as the Hotel Nationale des Invalides (The National Les InvalidesResidence of the Invalids), is a complex housing museums and monuments about the military history of France in a former hospital and retirement home for veterans.  The original structure was completed in 1676 as a home and hospital for retired and wounded veterans. Les Invalides continued to serve soldiers until the early 20th century when the veterans were dispersed into smaller facilities and military history museums were installed.  Today, Les Invalides houses the fascinating Museum of the Armies of France, a museum of military models, and a museum of contemporary French history. However, the main reason most people visit Les Invalides is to see the magnificent tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte. The French emperor is buried underneath the spectacular dome of the Cathedral of St.-Louis des Invalides.  Members of Napoleon’s Les InvalidesLes Invalidesfamily, generals who served under him, and other heroes of French military history are also buried in the church and its crypt. Even if you’re not as interested in Napoleonic history as I am, you should visit the cathedral just to see the breathtaking architecture. The magnificent Dome des Invalides rises above the tomb of Napoleon.  The dome is 351 feet (107 meters), making it one of the tallest monuments in the city of Paris.  Inside the dome, the Baroque painting, by Charles de La Fosse, creates an illusion of a three-dimensional space, which is, in this case, the heavens.  In the scene, you can see an angel holding a crown of triumph. Along one side of the dome, St. Louis (King Louis IX of France, who was canonized by the Catholic Church) hands a sword to Jesus Christ, who points towards the sky and is accompanied by the Virgin Mary.  All of these symbols of triumph are clearly meant to celebrate the victories of Napoleon, who lays entombed below.


Les InvalidesAfter your visit to the church, meander through the intriguing galleries of Les Invalidesthe Army Museum which cover French military history from the Middle Ages through World War II.  Some of the highlights for me were the sword of the Marquis de Lafayette, who helped the United States of America win independence, Napoleon’s stuffed horse, campaign tent and gear, and one of his famous bicorne hats, and the exhibit on World War II, including tanks, planes, and an enigma machine, which was used to crack the Nazi codes. A visit to Les Invalides is a must for any architecture or history buff. Best of all, if you have purchased a Paris Museum Pass, both the cathedral and tombs are covered.


Location of Les Invalides

The Hotel des Invalides, which includes Napoleon’s tomb and the Museum of the Armies of France, is located at the Places des Invalides in Paris.  The closest Metro stops are Ecole Militaire or Varenne.  Click on the map below for specific directions.

Consider visiting Les Invalides during the day and then seeing the Eiffel Tower lit up at night in the nearby Place du Trocadero.  For more information about seeing the Eiffel Tower during the day and at night, see my post “The Eiffel Tower: Avoiding Lines, Viewing Levels, and Seeing It at Night”.






The Eiffel Tower: Avoiding Lines, Viewing Levels, and Seeing It at Night

Eiffel Tower

View from the Tower

Eiffel TowerThe Eiffel Tower . . . when most people are asked to close their eyes and think of an image of Paris, it’s what they’ll imagine.  To be honest, before going to Paris, I had never been a huge fan of the immense tower of steel. However, as we ascended the tower, I was impressed by the incredible feats of engineering it took to build such a gigantic structure and the breathtaking views of Paris from the various observation levels.  The best views are definitely from the second level. There you can actually make out the grand monuments of the city. Level One also has incredible views, a multimedia presentation about the tower’s construction and upkeep, and, usually, an ice rink in winter! The first level also has a glass floor where you can look straight down from an 18 story building.  I wasn’t brave enough to do it, given my fear of heights.  On this floor, there are also touch screen exhibits for visitors to explore a variety of topics.  Unfortunately, we were there on a cloudy day, but even then, the views were incredible!


Eiffel Tower

View of the Seine River from the Tower

Given that the Eiffel Tower is such a huge tourist destination, you have to expect large crowds and long lines.  Here are some of my tips to make the experience a little less stressful:

(1) First and foremost, purchase your tickets and reserve an entry time online at this site.  Do not go to tower without reserving an entry time. Tickets go on sale three months ahead of time and sell out fast. So plan ahead and be sure of your date because tickets are non-refundable.

(2) Print your tickets and bring then with you.

(3) There is heightened security around the tower, and, therefore, you’ll have to pass through security checks. Bags will be searched, and large bags are not allowed inside. Be sure to plan enough time to get through security.

(4) The entrances are located at the base of each of the tower’s four pillars.  Once inside, you’ll have to wait for your entry time.  About ten minutes before your entry time, head for the line marked “Visitors with Reservations”.  After getting your ticket scanned, you’ll still have to wait in line for an elevator.

Eiffel Tower

View of the Tower at Night from the Place du Trocadero

(5) Budget a few hours for getting through security, waiting in lines, and enjoying your sightseeing experience.

(6) Even if you don’t want to go up the tower, seeing it at night is an absolute must. Here are my recommendations . . .

Eiffel Tower

I enjoyed going up the tower, but my favorite Eiffel Tower experience was seeing it at night.  The absolute best place for evening viewing is from the Place du Trocadero, which, conveniently, has its own metro stop.  The place is really happening at night. You’ll encounter food stands, souvenir vendors, street performers, and Parisians enjoying an evening out with their own alcohol and picnics.  If you didn’t bring our own adult beverage, there are, believe it or not, wandering vendors that will sell them to you.  Arrive at dusk, find a spot and enjoy the show. The Eiffel Tower sparkles every five minutes on the hour, so plan your visit accordingly.  With my fiance next to me and the tower sparkling, I then truly understood why Paris is the city of romance.


Location of the Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower is located on the Champ de Mars at 5 Avenue Anatole France in Paris.  The tower is a 10 minute walk from either the Bir-Hakeim or Trocadero stops on the Metro.  Alternatively, you can take buses #69 or #87 to Avenue Joseph Bouvard in the Champs de Mars.  From any of those locations, just head to the tower, which will be towering above you.

To see the Eiffel Tower lit up at night, go to the Place du Trocadero at the Trocadero metro stop.  Then follow the crowds.

To see all of these locations, click on the map below.  Select the markers on the map to get directions to each location.

Hadrian’s Wall: The Extraordinary Remains of Roman Life in Britain

Hadrian's Wall I’m on Hadrian’s Wall to defend Roman Britain from the barbarians in the north! Hadrian's Wall Actually, I’m at Housesteads Fort on Hadrian’s Wall, which was built, starting in 122 A.D., to protect northern Britain, which was part of the Roman Empire, from attacks by the Picts and other tribes living in what is now Scotland.  Along the wall, there were forts, garrisoned by both cavalry and infantry units, and surrounded by communities, every 5 miles. Turrets and milecastles, with smaller garrisons, guarded the areas of the wall in between the forts. Around 410 A.D., the Romans abandoned Britain, but archaeological evidence shows that native Britons continued to garrison the wall through the 5th century.  Over the next few centuries, the wall fell into disrepair, Hadrian's Walland many of the stones were taken away to build other structures. Today, visitors can hike almost the entire length of the wall, can explore the Hadrian's Wallexcavated remains of several Roman forts, and can see fascinating collections of artifacts that reveal how Romans, soldiers from all throughout the Empire, and local people lived together, socialized, traded, and intermarried in the forts and communities along the wall.


Housesteads Roman Fort is the most complete of all the forts along Hadrian’s Wall.  Construction began on the fort in 124 AD, only two years after the beginning of the Hadrian's Wallbuilding of Hadrian’s Wall.  The original name of the fort was Vercovicium, which means “place of the effective fighters”.  Today, visitors begin the self-guided tour in the excellent museum which gives a necessary and interesting overview of the layout of the fort, the various stages of construction, the use of the site over time, and the daily lives of the soldiers and families garrisoned there.  Next, venture out into the remains of the fort.  A wonderful guidebook, which I highly recommend purchasing, will explain the nature and purpose of each building.  There are also signs placed throughout the Roman ruins to help you understand what you’re seeing and see what the buildings once looked like.  Here are some of the remains that are interesting to explore:

  • the bakery where bread was produced for the soldiers and their families
  • the granaries (photo upper right) in which wheat was stored; be sure to read about the intriguing system that was used to keep the wheat dry and protected from vermin
  • the barracks (photo upper left) where the soldiers and their unit commanders lived; the soldiers were not native to Britain but rather came from provinces all across the Roman Empire including northern Africa, Germany, France, Belgium, Hadrian's Walland Italy; globalization isn’t only a modern concept!
  • the bathhouse in which soldiers could not only clean themselves but also socialize and relax
  • the hospital where soldiers were treated for sickness and injuries with medicine that was surprisingly advanced for the time
  • the principia, or headquarters, which served as a basilica in which justice was provided and orders were given, a shrine to the gods and to the Roman emperor, and a strongroom to hold valuables
  • the praetorium, or commanding officer’s house
  • the latrines, or restrooms, (photo to the right) which are the most well-preserved Roman latrines in Britain
  • the walls, ramparts, and gates
  • the civilian settlement where approximately 500 local people lived, worked, traded with, and intermarried with the Romans

Hadrian's WallWhen you’re finished touring the remains of the fort, I highly recommend taking a Hadrian's Walllong walk along Hadrian’s Wall.  Doing so will allow you to see the amazing feats of engineering it took to construct this defensive structure across the different terrains in northern England.  In addition, you’ll experience some breathtaking landscapes which I’m sure you’ll want to take photos of, like I did.  All alone, way out along the wall, you can contemplate what life was like here in the past when Romans and native Britons lived together, socialized, traded, shared ideas and customs, and even intermarried.  If I close my eyes now, I can still see the amazing landscapes along the wall.  It’s an experience that you’ll never forget.


Location of Houseteads Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall

Houseteads Roman Fort is located at Haydon Bridge outside the town of Hexham in the country of Northumbria, England.  For specific driving directions, click on the map below.   If you don’t have a car, from the beginning of April to the end of September, the Hadrian’s Wall Bus (AD122) can get you to any of the forts, Roman sites, and museums along the wall, including Housesteads.  This website provides detailed information about locations and timetables.


« Older Entries Recent Entries »