The turn of the last century was the high point of an era in France known as the Belle Epoch (Beautiful Era). It was a time of peace and prosperity in France. Paris became a center for many great artists where were able to develop and flourish in their art. A major center for these artists was Montmartre, where artists like Picasso, Pissarro, van Gogh, Monet, Mondrian, Utrillo, (and writers like Appolinaire) could be found.
One spot where many of these artists hung out was a cabaret called Lapin Agile (Nimble Rabbit), named after a painting of a rabbit leaping out of a saucepan. The Lapin Agile attracted a whole variety of artists, writers, pimps, prostitutes, anarchists, and other interesting types. It’s still there, though I’m told it’s now the lair of tourists eager to carve their initials into tables and hoping somehow that the heady experience of the Belle Epoque will rub off on them.
One look around the Montmartre area, though, convinced us that if Picasso and his peers could again walk the streets of Montmartre, they’d quickly hop a Metro bus and find their way to some other part of town.
Montmartre is a hilly part of Paris, and the hill where the magnificent Sacré-Cœur Basilica dominates the entire area, gives you a magnificent view of all of Paris in every direction. That is, if you can see it for the masses of tourists everywhere, the mimes, the beggars weeping and holding out their hands, pickpockets you are warned about by frequent signs, people shooting selfles, artists who want to do your portrait for 80 Euros, and the occasional worshipper who is there to attend a mass that is still celebrated in the church-cum-tourist site, or just to come in to find some spot in the din of it all to pray. Maybe to pray the tourists will disappear.
We were two of those tourists, to be sure. Unlike dozens who ignored the prominent ‘no-photography’ signs to shoot pictures (some with flashes) inside the church, I did not. The pictures I post here come from other pirated pictures posted on the internet. (I guess that makes me somewhat complicit.)
Unlike the ancient cathedrals we visited on this trip, Sacré-Cœur is a baby. Begun in 1875, the church was completed in 1914. Stained glass is very colorful and beautiful, but after Chartres last week it was hard to get excited over them. The church, as you can see from the pictures is striking in its unusual and exotic, somewhat byzantine design. That carries into the interior where all the artwork is done in mosaic. Beautiful it is, and while its beauty is dazzling, it also carries something of a contemporary look even though it’s over a hundred years old. The travertine stone exudes calcite which helps to preserve its whiteness, even with weathering and pollution. It is truly as striking in person as it is in all the pictures I’ve seen. (Organ lovers. The instrument here is yet another great Cavaille-Coll, taken from another location and installed here during his lifetime.)
When you look at Sacré-Cœur and the fine shape it’s in — remember, it’s only a hundred years old or thereabouts — one wonders if it will age gracefully like the old cathedrals that we saw earlier in our visit. I’m guessing it will. For most travelers, however, a visit here is a decidedly mixed blessing. With the dozens of tawdry souvenir shops, the long string of sex shops nearby, and the pickpockets and other rather seamy parts of big city life in Paris (prostitution, drugs, etc.) that Montmartre is not immune to, you really want to have to brave all of that to make it to the great Sacré-Cœur. And even once there, there are hordes of tourists, souvenir hawkers, beggars, and don’t forget the pickpockets! For us, this one time was enough to satisfy our curiosity. Even enough to not go again to just find the Lapin Agile! Sorry, Pablo.
More views of Sacré-Cœur.