Within the regular bounds of Paris, there are few places from which a high-rise look is available. The Eiffel Tower is a classic high rise spot to view the city, as is the Montparnasse Tower, but there is one spot that is undeniably a bit more refined, a bit more authentic; that place is Montmartre. The hill is the closest thing there is to a mountain in Paris, so it’s not surprising that it holds one of the best views of the city, but what might be a little more surprising is just how lovely the mountain of the martyr actually is.
The Sacré Coeur
The most famous thing that Montmartre is known for is for the Sacré Coeur Basilica (Sacred Heart in English), a massive cathedral built on the hill in the late 19th century. The cathedral is relatively young, considering the Notre Dame de Paris was built in the 12th century, but it clearly shows in its architecture. The Sacré Coeur is a multi-tiered masterpiece with six domed peaks sticking up out of it. On either side of the three-arched entrance is an equestrian statue, one of Joan of Arc, and the other of King Saint Louis IX.
The Sacré Coeur is a completely unforgettable sight to behold. The cathedral is magnificent both inside and out, and the building itself strikes me as particularly unique. The white brick that is so apparent from the outside is almost shocking to come across, and the gold that floats around the interior decorations is not only gorgeous, but tasteful instead of purely luxurious. The cathedral sticks up over almost everything else in the area, and its presence is known by everyone there in a sort of pleasing and reassuring way.
There is assuredly another aspect of being at this cathedral that makes it so unforgettable, and that’s the view. The entirety of Montmartre is known for the view, but the Sacré Coeur is located in the prime spot to be able to take advantage of it. In front of the cathedral lies two plazas; one directly in front, a wide staircase that goes down a couple of flights, and the second one below. These plazas make excellent stages for street performers of all kinds, be they dancers, singers, or small bands. It also serves as a sort of marketplace for street vendors, who sell little light up statues and keychains to tourists.
This spot, in my opinion, serves as a summary for what Paris is about today. The cathedral emerging overtop everything reminds you the roots from which western culture was born, and that the influence of the church will never truly fade. The plaza in front, however, shows you more of what day to day life is all about in Paris. There is a bit of fun going on, maybe some music or a nice show, but there is also the humble recognition that Paris is a place that attracts lots of tourists, and that in one way or another Paris must profit (thus, the street vendors). The view of the city reminds you that you are taking part in something huge, but then you look at the crowd around you, and feel like you can also be part of a single small moment. It is a profound feeling to just stand and enjoy the view, and is completely unparalleled by anything I’ve ever experienced elsewhere.
Place du Tertre
If you go around the cathedral and take the very natural and attractive roads back to it, you will come across the Place du Tertre. Meaning Plaza of the Hill in English, this little plaza makes you understand the reason people stay in Paris. The plaza is home to bunches of little stands selling crêpes and waffles, gift shops selling berets and scarves, and restaurants that let you sit in the garden and enjoy a nice croque monsieur.
Of course, the plaza would not be what it is if it were merely a collection of gift shops and crêpe stands; what would Paris itself be if not for that? The plaza and the surrounding streets are also home to artists galore. Some want to paint your portrait, some want to paint the scenery, but all of them are there because they are pursuing a legitimate path in art. Some of the greatest painters of all time lived in or around the plaza, with names like Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso, and Renoir being among the tenants of the past.
The plaza is, in a word, lovely. It’s difficult to describe one thing that makes it better than any other plaza in Paris, but that’s just the problem, because there isn’t one thing that makes it better. The smell of fresh croissants wafts just a little bit stronger through the streets, the lights glow just a little bit warmer under the canopies, and the people seem just a little bit happier to be existing at all when being there. There isn’t one massive thing that makes the Place du Tertre such a lovely location; there are a million little things that just remind you of all the good things in the world.
Montmartre is truly one of the best places to visit if you’re in Paris, and even if you have a limited amount of time for it, find the time to go to these two places. You can make it through them both in a couple of hours, but you will come out decades happier. Keep in mind that it is certainly a tourist area, so keep an eye out for pickpockets and you might have to shoo away some very determined painters who have decided you to be the subject of their next painting (of course, assuming you’ll buy it), but it is completely worth it to enjoy yourself with a nice café and a warm crêpe, and just imagine for a moment that there is nothing wrong with the world.
(NOTE: Photos taken by Ben Patterson were taken on the same day at the same time as I was there. Sometimes it pays to have a friend who takes more pictures than you do, and I learned that lesson on this visit to Montmartre.)
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