Montmartre, Montmartre, where the throngs and the songs continue
Montmartre, Montmartre, where Paris (Paree) on a spree gets in you
Montmartre, MontmartreCan Can
While not home to the most recognizable sights in Paris, Montmartre is perhaps the most famous neighborhood, heavily represented in popular culture for more than a century. It is the traditional home of taverns and brothels, cafes and theatres, cobblestone streets and steep staircases. And topping it all, the stunning basilica of Sacre Coeur.
Montmartre is a “local” neighborhood. You’ll find few – if any – hotels here. Most tourists stick to Sacre Coeur and its long staircases (or funicular). They will see the basilica, admire the view, and then move on into other parts of Paris. (They might come back to try to see a show at the Moulin Rouge, which caters to tourists obsessed with the various films the theatre has played setting for.) For me, this means a chance to wander the hill nearly alone, sharing my views with few other travelers, and having a street side cafe pretty much to myself. In a city like Paris, where throngs of tourists fill so many corners, this is a rare moment of bliss.
Montmartre has not always been part of Paris. It is a hill, and was outside of the city until 1860, topped by a church. In 1872, the Belle Epoque officially began (although the impressionists who promulgated it had been doing their thing since the 1860s), and artists found rents in Montmartre cheaper, probably largely due to the neighborhood’s being home to brothels and nightclubs. Over the next forty years, painters like Renoir, Van Gogh, Matisse, Degas, and Toulouse-Lautrec would call Montmartre home. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec specifically would become part of the neighborhood’s soul, and was said to rarely leave.
Nightclubs were part of the draw, and artists would gather both at those and the many cafes. The Moulin Rouge opened in 1889 (and is where the dance cancan was said to have been invented, hence the song opening this article, which has been stuck in my head for pretty much my entire time here). However, it was the earlier Le Chat Noir (literally the black cat) that launched the mystique of Montmartre as the home for Paris’ less socially accepted forms of entertainment.
Today, the neighborhood is still known for its theatres, and small ones can be found all over. I even stumbled across one tiny theatre only accessible from one of the steep staircases that serves as an alternative to the windy streets for moving up and down the hill of Montmartre.
For most visitors, the reason to come to Montmartre is its literal crown. Sitting at the top of the hill, seen from all over Paris, is the basilica of Sacre Coeur (sacred heart). The site was chosen for its visibility; the neighborhood itself was unimportant. Construction began in 1875, and the basilica was completed in 1914, though the official dedication waited until 1919 due to World War One.
The domes of Sacre Coeur are what sets it apart, taken from the Byzantine style. One central dome, 273 feet high, is surrounded by four smaller domes. Behind sits a bell tower, just higher at 275 feet, which holds the largest bell in France. The entire church is done in limestone, which gleams white in the sun (or lights at night) though is more gray at closer look. Bronze statues of Saint Louis and Joan of Arc welcome visitors into the front entrance, which overlooks the city of Paris.
(It is worth the walk up the 300 stairs just for the view. Alternatively there is a funicular, as well as a bus that reaches the top.)
The interior is light and airy, with the altar dominated by a huge mosaic, “Christ in Majesty.” Containing 25,000 gilded tile pieces, the work, which was completed in 1923, is one of the largest mosaics in the world, at 475 square meters. Side chapels are adorned with gold leaf, and stained glass watches over nearly every surface flat enough to hold it.
Sacre Coeur held its first mass in 1885, well before the completion of the church – let alone its dedication – and the adoration of the blessed sacrament has continued here perpetually (as in every hour) ever since. As a result, the central seating areas are blocked off for worshippers, and tourists are asked not to take photos from those sections of the church.
If you do visit Sacre Coeur, and if your physical condition allows, do yourself the favor of meandering down the hill aimlessly. Find streets that wind downward, or staircases that do the same, and enjoy the solitude that Montmartre offers. The further you get from the basilica’s main staircases and funicular, the more you’ll find yourself in a glimpse of “real” Paris. Find a cute shop or art gallery, sit at a cafe, and wander the streets of this incredible – and historic – neighborhood.
If you love Paris but hate the throngs of tourists covering every inch, a day spent in Montmartre will change your state of mind, bringing you back to what Paris once was. Yes, the basilica of Sacre Coeur will be crowded, but the beauty of your visit, and the solitude of your downward stroll, will make up for it.
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