When one goes to Paris, one is compelled to visit Montmartre. Its name short for Montaigne des martyrs, or “Mountain of Martyrs,” Montmartre is a charming bohemian town rich in artistic history. During the Belle Époque, many artists, including Degas, Renoir, Van Gogh, and Toulouse-Lautrec as well as Les Nabis, a group of Post-Impressionist avant-garde painters, lived here or derived inspiration from the town. Separate from the rest of Paris both geographically and atmospherically, it has its own characteristic charm and is not to be missed.
Start your day with breakfast or brunch at Coquelicot. This bakery offers the option of either taking things to go—there’s a queue out the door around peak breakfast- and lunchtimes—or sitting to order from the menu. If there’s room, sit at one of the petite wooden tables outside.
It’s here that I drank the best coffee I have in Paris, a perfect glass cup of café au lait (I ordered the café crème on the menu, but when the waitress brought it out she said “café au lait,” and it tasted more like milk than it did cream. If you order food, you’ll receive a basket of freshly baked bread that you can dip in the coffee as the French do—so good!
For food you can choose one of the predetermined meals, some combination of bread, jams, orange juice, and other items, or order à la carte. I opted for the latter and chose the tartine rustique, toast with yummy applesauce (America doesn’t do applesauce right. There, it’s that disappointing dessert you find at the bottom of your lunchbox at school; here, it’s delicious and often mixed with other fruits!), camembert half-melted, and raisins, accompanied by an impressively fresh mix of greens.
You can’t leave without ordering goodies to go. You can order them at the table, of course, but you may as well order them at the counter and take them to have them as a midday snack, as I did with this blueberry tart, because as at many bakeries in France, you pay more for the same thing sur place compared to à emporter; it’s like you’re renting the table at which you’d eat. If you choose to only stop for a minute and queue rather than sit, the brioche au sucre (it has pearls of sugar on top) is fantastic.
When you’re through with breakfast, make your way to Place du Tertre, a square full of painters selling small canvases and caricaturists who aren’t afraid to vie for your business by telling you you’re pretty and they simply must draw you. When you reach the top of the steps, look down! (This works best when there are leaves on the trees and in the morning, when the light filters through the leaves.)
A short distance from here is the Sacré-Cœur, a beautiful basilica. As the name implies, it’s dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a Roman Catholic devotion that takes Jesus’ physical heart as the representation of his love. Designed by architect Paul Abadie, who is considered a key figure of French historicism, the basilica was consecrated in 1919.
The walk up to it is very pretty; stairs on either side lead to a plot of grass with two long staircases side by side in the middle and one final staircase above that, overlooking the city from the top of the Butte of Montmartre. The dome paradoxically looks smoothly etched; the stone looks bright from afar, aged up close.
I believe everyone ought to see the Sacré-Cœur at least once in his or her lifetime. I myself have been three times: the first time, my jaw dropped as I walked inside; the third time, I was still noticing details I hadn’t the previous two.
Likely the first thing you’ll notice upon walking into the basilica is the monstrance, in which is located the Body of Christ, at the front of the church. It’s carried by two silver angels, the Angels of the Adoration. White in the middle, red and rose gold around, and sparkly like a star, it has its own little shrine, in which a white curtain falls behind it.
Carved into the platform on which this piece rests are the twelve apostles; the gold altar contains statues of them. Around the back of the chancel are wooden boxes with pointed tops, again with the apostles inside. To either side of the chancel are Stars of David.
In the middle of the striking mosaic of the apse, Christ’s heart shines out of his chest. At the base of the mosaic is written in Latin, “Sacratissimo Cordi Jesu Gallia poenitens et devota et gratia”—in French, “Au Cœur très saint de Jésus, la France fervente, pénitente et reconnaissante” or, in English, “At the saintly Heart of Jesus, France—fervent, penitent, and grateful.”
In each of the four corners where a column meets the ceiling is an Angel of the Passion. These angels carry the instruments of the Passion of the Christ: a cross, a lance, a crown of thorns, vinegar, etc. Delicately patterned stained glass windows encircle the top of the dome and allow a soft light, which contrasts sharply with the shadows around, to filter in.
The Side Aisles
Walk through the aisles and around the back of the church, stopping at each of the chapels. You can learn a lot from reading their dedications; for example, I learned that Saint Genevieve is the patron saint of Paris.
At the top of the walls to the sides of the nave are flower-shaped windows, small but daintily beautiful. One carries the image of a bird, one an apple, one a snake.
The windows in the chapels in the back of the church are lovely too—brightly colored and patterned in squares and rectangles. They say things, though I’m not entirely sure what. The panel on the right in the picture shows what looks like a small ghost but I would suppose is actually an angel.
In the chapel directly to the back of the basilica is a chandelier with what I think look like four-petalled flower cutouts, through which shine pink candles. In this chapel is also a golden tree of life with a cross in the middle and, on the stone just below it, a dark floral design. In another of the chapels are shield shapes in which are written the names of French cities, including Paris and Lyon.
After you’ve spent some minutes sitting in the pews or standing and staring in the back of the basilica, wander a little back down the hill to La Maison Rose, on the corner of rue de l’Abreuvoir and rue des Saules. Once an artist’s studio, it was made famous by Maurice Utrillo’s painting of it.
As it will likely be afternoon by this point, stop for a glass at Le Carrousel, a café that serves my favorite Bourgogne Pinot Noir. It’s this Pinot Noir that began my obsession with finding good Pinot Noirs (I haven’t found anything comparable). It has notes of cherry! Snag a table outside so you can people-watch as you sip your wine in the afternoon air.