sacré-coeur à la seine

Paris is known best as the city of light, La Ville-Lumière. But more intimately, it is a city of intricate layers and constant motion. Underneath the city snakes a complex web of metro lines, crossing each other and delving beneath the seine and emerging from the ground to skim the surface before tunneling below again. The flow of people ebbs and flows as they push their way in and out of crowded metros, brushing past each other in constant motion in and out of the mouths of metro stations. On the surface, cars and motorcycles and people weave in and out between rows of buildings wedged together like books and stacked like layer cakes. People working and living and eating and sleeping placed carefully on top of each other. And then there are the places that escape the trapped motion of the surface, and allow you to feel the movement of free air, close to the pink wisps of cloud sliding from one horizon to the other, and look down at the crazy expanse of city that glows back at you. You can follow the seine winding through the collage of buildings, each side connected by arched bridges, as pigeons rise from the gutters to the rooftops. Sacre Coeur on the hill of Montmartre is one of my favorite places to escape the surface and look down at it all. Ever since I was fourteen or fifteen, I wanted to visit Montmartre. I read a book about two lovers who painted their wall with a mural of Montmartre in its prime, when Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse, Renoir, Dalí and a host of other famed 19th century artists gathered at the top of the hill painting scenes from Paris. I listened to La Bohéme and wished that I could visit a Montmartre that no longer exists. For me sometimes the reality of a place does not make so much of a difference – I am so drawn by history and fantasy and romance that Montmartre was destined to be a place I loved, even if it was overrun by tourists and gypsies selling Eiffel tower trinkets and cheap purses. Like the rest of the city, Montmartre is layered, and you have to dig deeper to find the good layers. When I visited in the summer, I wandered the little alleyways and ended up eating a traditional Parisienne dinner of pigeonette and a whipped champagne dessert. This time, we stopped at a street vendor and bought a bag of candy to eat while we climbed the hill. It was a holiday weekend, so Sacre Coeur was packed with French tourists, and we decided to go straight to climb the dome. This is perhaps my absolute favorite thing to do in Paris. The church itself is over 100 years old, which by European standards is quite young, but the dome involves a climb up 300 stone steps in a cramped, dank staircase. When you finally break out into the open air, you are nearly traversing the roof of the Basilica. You climb a bit more onto the very top, and voila - 360 degree panoramic views of the city of Paris. It really does feel like the “sacred heart of Paris” (which is what Sacre Coeur means). Somehow the light is a different color as it reflects off the multifaceted layers of the city. You look as far as you can see and there is Paris, at your feet, at your fingertips, a breath away from you. If you lean forward over the carved stone ledge all you can see is Paris below you, like you are floating above it. After we climbed the dome, we took the metro to Notre Dame. There was a flower and animal market right across the seine from Notre Dame, with cages full of colorful birds, boxes of chinchillas and rabbits, and rows of colorful flowers and garden ornaments. This steadfast market culture is something I love about Paris – no matter how cold it is, the markets go on, and the people flock to them. We wandered through the crooked alleyways in Notre Dame’s shadow and bought a bottle of wine, which we drank with our legs dangling over the edge of the seine as the sun set and turned the water silver. The famed Parisian lights flickered on, saving us from the darkness and letting the city live all night long. After a cheap gyro and some happy hour beers, we descended back underground and let the metro carry us back to the darker edge of the city at the end of ligne 13.