We disembarked from the metro at the Pigalle station and emerged into the sunshine and bustle of Boulevard de Clichy. Several blocks up the street stood the iconic red windmill of the Moulin Rouge and a few of the most famous cabarets in Paris, but my friend quickly led me away from these up Boulevard de Rochechouart.
“When people first arrive in Paris, they all immediately go to visit the Eiffel Tower,” Justin told me. “Then they wait in line forever to get on the elevator to the top, then glance over the city for a second before they start to feel claustrophobic from all of the other tourists. I can’t stand it. When I feel like looking out over Paris, this is the place to go.”
He pointed northward where, peeking through one of the side streets, I got a glimpse of a massive white church—the Sacre Coeur.
It was a Friday in late May, and the lower region of Montmartre was thick with tourists.
As we made our way up a small street toward the hill atop which stood Sacre Coeur, we stopped for a falafel and watched English-speaking people buy souvenir coffee mugs and tshirts. There was an older American couple in the falafel line arguing over whether or not they were going to make the walk up to the church.
The man declared, “There are too many stairs! Besides—we have churches back in Boston.” His wife acquiesced and they paid for their food, then moved on.
Justin ordered our food in passable French, then turned to me: “I try not to speak English when I’m around arguing Americans. They always end up asking for advice they won’t take.”
Once we had our food, we made our way further up the hill and entered the park that sprawls out below Sacre Coeur. It’s a grassy expanse at the base of which stands a carousel and dozens of street vendors trying to hawk pirated movies and compact discs. Up the hill through the grass runs a twin set of staircases (which some of you will recognize from the film Amélie). The obstinate American was right—there were a lot of stairs. But if Amélie could make the trek, so could I.
We made our way up one of the staircases, which near the top of the hill cut inward to join its mirror. There we found an audience of perhaps forty or so people sitting on the steps listening to an accordionist who was occasionally approached by listeners who tossed coins in his open case.
At the top of the steps loomed Sacre Coeur, a massive construction of white stone which looked out over Paris from the highest point in the city. The view from this vantage is nothing short of incredible. All of the city is spread out below, and looking out over it all, it becomes abundantly clear why so many writers have expressed their admiration for the rooftops of Paris.
After looking out at the city for a while, Justin and I wandered into the church, which was heavy with the hushed awe of its visitors. We walked through it for a few minutes, but it being a Friday the chamber was packed, so we made our way out.
We walked around to the left of the church and found that it had been graffitied with pink spray paint in large letters—Viva la Revolution.
“The church was built to commemorate the people who died in the Revolution,” Justin explained.
Later I found out that my friend was incorrect on that point. Quite the opposite, the church was constructed to pay a national penance for the “excesses” of the Paris Commune. Standing atop the most notoriously rebellious neighborhood in Paris, Sacre Coeur was meant to symbolize the conservative moral order of France. But today, it is simply a large, beautiful church that offers a great view.
Behind there’s the Place du Tertre, a small square which is packed with booths and displays where artists sell landscapes and paint people’s portraits. Around the square is a ring of small bars and restaurants. Justin led me into one of these and ordered us a round of aperitifs.
“So this is all Montmartre?” I asked once we’d found seats. “I like this neighborhood.”
Justin took a drink and smiled. “Just wait until you see it at night…”
photo 1 by Talita Ribeiro [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr
photo 2 by James Mitchell [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr
photo 3 by Andrea Schaffer [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr
photo 4 by Fergal Carr [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr