Where can you get a lovely view of Paris? From the Eiffel Tower, is one obvious answer (another landmark you can climb is the Arc de Triomphe). But there is another viewpoint that you do not have to pay to go up, where you can sit and enjoy for as long as you wish (perhaps with a bottle of wine). And that is on the steps of the Sacré-Cœur.
The Sacré-Cœur is a church on top of the hill of Montmartre. It is the second most visited church in Paris, after the Notre Dame, but it is not nearly as ancient—it is visited less for its historical significance and more because after climbing to reach it you are greeted with a striking view of its white domes and greenish bronze statues, and after that a great view of Paris and the neighbourhood of Montmartre behind you.
It was actually only finished in 1914. It’s quite interesting to me that monumental churches were still built long after the radical forces of revolutionary France reduced the power of the Roman Catholic Church in France. But it does go to show that simplified narratives of history never quite capture what actually happened in the past: the Roman Catholic Church still played a big role in French society. In fact, the building of the Sacré-Cœur needed both government support to secure the location, and individual donations from Christians to fund the construction, in order to be built.
Its location on the butte of Montmartre is a place that, for most of Paris’ history, stood just outside of the city limits of Paris. This also explains why the neighbourhood of Montmartre retains its own unique character in the city. Despite being outside Paris, this hill was inhabited for centuries, and the hilltop was known as the place St Denis was beheaded as a martyr. After one of France’s numerous political upheavals in the 1800s, one of the archbishops had a vision of building a church on Montmartre to remember the martyrs and to beckon the people to find protection in the reign of the heart of Christ.
It is a striking building—five white domes topping the hill, with numerous steps before it threading the hill to reach its feet. Its location means it is visible from many streets and alleys of Paris—you can turn a corner and run into another view of it in the distance. It stays strikingly white, made of a specific white limestone that actually interacts with rainwater in order to stay white. While it is very popular with tourists, the look of it is controversial as many Parisian landmarks are: some think it looks like big dollops of meringue on top of Montmartre.
Apparently at one point, opponents to this church even proposed obstructing the view of it with a twin of the Statue of Liberty being given to the U.S! The idea was to symbolize that the separation of church and state that existed in the U.S. should be imitated in France. Obviously this idea did not succeed—it certainly would’ve spoiled the view!
My personal experience of the Sacré-Cœur is as a sanctuary. When I went to visit Paris by myself, I found myself in the awkward scheduling situation of flying overnight, and arriving in Paris several hours before I could check into my AirBnB. I left the airport exhausted from the flight, but with nowhere to go for several hours. So I went to Montmartre, since my AirBnB was in that neighbourhood there anyway. And then I went into the church to rest with my suitcase in the cool quietness while I waited.
In Canada, the churches frequently are locked to visitors when not in use for services, but not in Paris, and the fact there was somewhere in the city I could sit and feel relatively secure while I waited was a relief. Even if you are not in need of a quiet space to rest and wait, the interior is worth taking a look at.
If you want to hear more about Montmartre, stay tuned for a future episode! Make sure you follow this blog so you don’t miss the next landmark.
My novella set in Paris, Paris in Clichés, can be found here.
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