Friday, September 11, 2009

A Day at Montmartre and Sacre Coeur

Today, Heidi and Stephen's final day, was spent at Montmartre visiting not only the Sacré-Cœur Basilica but the surrounding area.

Montmartre, located in the 18th arrondisement to the north, is the highest point in Paris at 425 feet and offers a wonderful view back across the city to the south. All of the significant landmarks are visible -- Notre Dame, Pantheon, Montparnasse (unforunately), Napoleon's Tomb, Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe -- plus the modern business buildings on the outskirts of Paris including La Defense to the west.

Getting there requires 2 metro line changes. First we take RER B south to Denfert-Rochereau (1st stop), then Line 4 west to Montparnasse-Bienvenue (3rd station), and finally Line 12 north to Abbesses (10th station). Kind of a pain but there's no easier way.

The Abbesses station, however, is historic:

Abbesses is one of the few deep stations of Paris métro, at 36 metres (118 feet)[1] below ground, as it is located on western side of the butte (hill) of Montmartre. Access to the platforms is usually by elevators, but they can be accessed by decorated stairs.

The station's entrance, designed by Hector Guimard (1867–1942), is one of only two original Guimard entrances left in Paris. (The other is located at Porte Dauphine.) The entrance was originally used for the Hôtel de Ville metro station, but transferred to its current location in 1970.

We wondered when we exited the train at the Abbesses stattion why so many people were waiting for an elevator rather than take the stairs. We soon discovered why. While the stairs have wonderfully painted walls, it's a lot of steps to get to the top.

This is the picture of the entrance, with the glass canopy:

Once we re-oriented ourselves, which is always necessary when you pop out of a strange new metro station in an unfamiliar area, we were able to start walking to the base of Sacre Coeur.

There is a funicular that will take you to the top, but we walked up the many steps. This picture, taken from the top of Notre Dame several days ago 4 miles away (and thus a little fuzzy), shows the terraces in front of the church that must be ascended, which actually begin a little below the tops of the building in the picture.

The church itself is actually relatively new, having been constructed in the late 1800s after the Franco-Prussian War:

The purpose of making a church dedicated to the Sacred Heart, with its origins in the aftermath of the French Revolution among ultra-Catholics and legitimist royalists, developed more widely in France after the Franco-Prussian War and the ensuing uprising of the Paris Commune of 1870-71. Though today it is asserted to be dedicated in honor of the 58,000 who lost their lives during the war, the decree of the Assemblée nationale, 24 July 1873, responding to a request by the archbishop of Paris by voting its construction, specifies that it is to "expiate the crimes of the communards."

I will leave it to interested readers to check out the Wikipedia link and official site for more details on the history, construction, and role of the church.

While Notre Dame is more important in most respects (as well as being larger), Sacre Coeur occupies the most prominent spot in all of Paris. The church rises magnificently among the local apartments and neighborhoods (see picture below, also taken from Notre Dame) in an area known as a "centre of free-wheeling and decadent entertainment at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century" as well as a den of artists and bohemians (many buried in the nearby Montmartre Cemetery), although most of that is in the past now too. Downhill to the southwest is the red-light district of Pigalle and the travel guides also warn of more frequent petty crimes, such as pick-pocketing and harrassment by immigrants seeking to pawn cheap goods.

Pictures or video are not allowed inside the church, which seems to more strictly emphasize decorum than other churches we have been in.

We wanted to ascend to the top of the dome (actually it is not the very top -- it is along the rim at the base of the dome).

5 Euros earns you the privilege of ascending 300 steps in a dizzying, narrow, spiral upwards. There is no elevator so your quads will be feeling it at the top. (Actually, there is an intermediate horizontal section that crosses outside across the back of the roof to the next spiral staircase which takes you to the top.

When you reach the top, you are rewarded with a balcony that encircles the base of the dome, allowing for panoramic views in any direction. In particular, you can see to the north, a view not normally accessible from other high viewpoints such as the Eiffel Tower or Montparnasse (yes, you can see north but those towers are situated many miles south of Sacre Coeur). Furthermore, this is the best point north of the city to look back over all of Paris and literally see every significant building with one 180 degree sweeep.

Unfortunately, while the day was beautiful, the light was too bright which combined with Paris smog, creates a hazy, rather than crisp view, which is apparent in the photographs, none of which are worth showing. We were there at noon and I suspect that early morning or evening would make for more spectacular views.

Note also the soot or grime on the walls in the picture above. We noticed that Sacre Coeur for some reason was dramatically dirtier than the other churches (or any other building for that matter).

We descended a different spiral staircase and proceeded west from the back left side of the basilica to the more artistic section of Monmartre along cobblestone street (Rue de Chevalier de la Barre) only to be greeted by several artists seeking to sketch your portrait for, I believe, 30 Euros.

This picture is looking back at the side of Sacre Coeur from Rue de Chevalier de la Barre. Heidi is actually in this picture so if you want to play Where's Waldo?..... (hint: you will at least need to click on the picture to enlarge)

And this is one of the portrait artists, although normally the subject is a woman.

You can easily see that this area caters entirely to tourists, with all the gift shops and street artists and the attempt to recreate the bohemian atmosphere of years long gone. But it is still fun. In fact, Stephen wished he had come on Monday and may have spent his whole week here!

After a left on Rue de Mont-Cenis and then a right on Rue Norvins, which brings you immediately to Place due Tertre, a small square at the heart of artistic Montmartre. The square is lined with restaurants but in the middle are artists under umbrellas with canvas and paintbrush ready, both displaying their existing inventory of paintings and working on something new.

Contrasting with my previous memory from 6 years ago, it seemed to me that half the courtyard was filled with restaurant tables where artists once painted.

We stopped at Au Cadet de Gascogne and obtained an outside table looking into the square (where the restaurant also had seating as you can see by the sign):

We were served by a wonderful waiter, Stephen, who actually didn't seem so wonderful at first but we cheered him up. The "formula" (set menu for fixed price) of the day called for salad mixte, poulet frites or steak frites, and creme caramel or ice cream for dessert. It wasn't clear to me weather "poulet frites" and "steak frites" meant "fried chicken" and "fried steak" or "roasted chicken with fries" and "steak with fries." As it turns out, it is the latter.

Stephen illustrated the difference by writing on our placemat, which I have pictured below:

This says that "poulet frites" does not equal "poulet fris." The latter is fried chicken. The former is roasted chicken with fries, which is what I wanted and got. Nice to know. In fact, I believe we all ordered "poulet frites" but Stephen (our Stephen, not the waiter), who order beef burgundy and claimed it was the best "pot roast" he had ever had.

I had two 50cl glasses of Grimbergen. I'm really getting the hang of this beer thing now. All in all, the price at the restaurant was quite affordable by Paris standards and I would recommend it.

Stephen then agreed to pose for a picture at the end of our meal. He claims the bandage on his hand was from punching a customer who had walked out on a 80 EUR tab who he happened to run into near his home that same evening. I suspect it was a hint. :)

In any case, it was a wonderful afternoon.

Amanda and I returned while Stephen and Heidi wanted to explore on their own for their last evening, not arriving home till 12:30a!

1 comment:

  1. Hello! :)
    Just to let you know, there is a much easier way to get to the Montmartre area! Take the Bus 80 in the direction of Jules Joffrin and get off at the very last stop (Mairie du 18eme - Jules Joffrin). At the stop, you will find the smaller buses that take you right in front of the Sacre Coeur called the 'montmartrobus'.
    And there you have it! :)