One of the things you couldn’t miss in Paris if you tried, is the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on top of the Montmartre Hill. Since the top of this hall is exactly three hundred forty-three feet above the Seine this basilica is visible from every part of Paris. This hill is to the north of the Grand Boulevards and starts to rise gradually shortly after you turn off these boulevards, and more steeply after you, pass the Boulevard de Clichy; This boulevard traverses, the Monttuartre irregularly from east to west about half way up the hill and is part of the so-called outer boulevards. It is on this boulevard, and especially on the, Place Pigalle—-which our GI’s used to call the Place Pig Alley that you will find most of the trashier hot spots for which Paris is famous. Not in this class, but right close by, you will also find the famous Moulin Rouge where Toulouse-Lautree, obtained most of the inspirations. However, we are getting of)’ our track already.
As I already mentioned in, connection with my article on Napoleon’s Arch of Triumph, the easiest way to get to the Basilica, de Sacre-Coeur when you, do not. have too much time in Paris, is by a conducted bus tour. Of course, if you, don’t mind walking up a steep , hill, you could also walk it. In that case, I would suggest that you walk up the Rue Lepic, which starts at the Place Blanche on the Boulevard de Clichy and which, after a few turns and twists, will ultimately bring you to the top of the hill. A still better way would be to take a taxi to the Place St. Pierre and the Rue de Steinkerque. This little square is right at the foot of the Basilica, and on it to your left, you will find what to my knowledge is the only funicular in Paris. This will take you up the steepest part of the hill and let you off at the side of the church. Of course, if you like steps, you could still walk it. There is a broad, double stairway of two hundred thirty-five steps from this square right to the entrance of the church. But perhaps the best way of all would be to take the funicular up and then walk down the Rue Lepic later.
In addition to the Basilica toward which we are now headed, there are, of course, a good many other interesting things connected with Montmartre, but nearly all of these have to do with the famous artists, writers and musicians who formerly lived on this hill, for Montmartare was, at one time, the Bohemian Quarter of Paris. And, strange to say, it was the Basilica De Sacre-Coeur that changed it. But about that I will tell you something as we go along.
If you had come to Paris about a hundred years ago, you would have found that the Montmartre, or the Butte as it is also called, was still rather sparsely populated. But even as late as sixty years ago there was still much open space on this hill, especially on the steeper parts of it. These open spaces were known as the maquis, which migh be roughly translated into the wastelands. However, in those days, Montmartre did not belong to Paris but was a village of its own, known as the Commune de Montmartre. As your guide book will also tell you, many years before this gradual influx, the entire Montmartre Hill was covered by windmills whose business it was to grind the flour for the city. Two of these, the Moulin de la Galette, you will pass on your way down the Rue Lepic. They are now connected with a dance hall. Also, needless to say, it was in the dance halls of this quarter that the fluffy dance known as the Cancan originated.
The area having deveolped rather slowly, the rents on the Montmartre were cheap, as few people cared to treck up this hill, especially if their business was elsewhere. The result of this was that it wasn’t long before impecunious artists began to settle on this hill. Many of these built their own “studios,” or shanties, on any vacant ground they could find and practically lived rent-free. Thus, in time the Montmartre became the artists’ quarter of Paris, and that, of course, always means a certain number of cafes where one could forgather to discuss art and life and declaim against the Philistines. (I was sitting in a little cafe in the Latin Quarter one evening, when I overheard one art student call anther a Philistine and it took four waiters to calm them down.) Well, everything went well on the “Butte” and the quarter in time became the Bohemian Quarter of Paris. And then something unforeseen happened.
Following the end of the Franco-Prussian War, the Catholics of France decided to build a great church, which was to de dedicated to the Sacred Heart. It was to be an expression of both hope and contrition to sustain the faithful after this terrible defeat. The place selected for this shrine was to be none other than the top of the Montmartre Hill, and how thankful we can be for that. Work on this building was started in 1876 and since the building of this tremendous church called for a variety of talent -masons, craftsmen, artists etcetera-there naturally was a great influx of labor into this area. Many of these craftsmen were Italians. As the Basilica was forty years in the building-it was not consecrated until 1919, after France had gone through another terrible struggle-the Bohemian inhabitants of Montmartre were gradually forced out of the area by high rents, and so were obliged to establish themselves on the Left Bank of the Seine. When Du Maurier (George, not Daphne, who is his grandaughter) wrote Thilby toward the end of the last century (my first American edition is dated 1894) the artists’ quarter of Paris had already shifted to the vicinity of the Boulevard du Montparnasse. Although there are still a few artists living on the Montmartre Hill, though mostly of the bogus kind, the modern counterpart of the “I,airds,”‘ the “little Billees,” the “Trilbys” and maybe even the “Svengalis” are now chiefly located in the Latin Quarter. But the workmen who built the Basilica stayed, and to this day there is still a large colony of Italians living in Montmartre.
And now, something about the Basilica, which is really what we came to see. I am sorry to say that I do not know the na)ne of the Archbishop of Paris who started the m)ovement to build this church. But I do know that the money to build it-some forty million francs-was entirely raised by the faithful. However, before the building got under may, the National Assembly in a vote of three hundred ninety-three against one hundred sixty-four voted the building to be a public utility, and that is probably the reason why we never hear anything of the man who originally proposed it. The design of it was then made a subject of public competition during which the award went to the architect Abadie. However, due to the fact that the Montmartre Hill was honeycombed with abandoned stone quarries from which plaster of Paris used to be made-and that’s where the name for it came fromit was necessary to sink eighty-three shafts to a depth of one hundred twenty-five feet in order to support the foundation. This work alone took eight years to complete. Unfortunately, Abadie died when only the foundation had been completed and so never saw the completion of his dream, and that is too bad.
Since of the dome of this church is two hundred fifty feet high, and the entire massive church is built out of limestone that is as white and as sparkling today as it was on the day it was consecrated, it forms a backdrop to the city which no visitor to Paris can ever forget. The style of the church is Romanesque-Byzantine, a style, especially the Byzantine part of it, which seems to fit its elevated position admirably. There is a bell tower too, two hundred ninety feet high, in which the largest bell in the world, the great Savoyarde, is housed. It weighs only ninteen tons, or four tons more than the great bell in Notre-Dame and it took eighty horses to pull it up the hill. It obtains its name from the fact that it was a gift from the Province of Savoy. So as not to spoil the appearance of the facade, Abadie had wisely placed this tower at the rear of the church, and since this church can be viewed only from much lower ground, this tower is not generally visible from the city except from a considerable distance. High up, over the main porch of the church, there is a large statue of the Sacred Heart, and, guarding the church on each side are the huge equestrian statues of Saint Louis and Joan of Arc in bronze, and these too, to me at least, are indicative of the thoughts under which this church was built, even though some writers, apparently not too familiar with French history, have called these statues incongruos.
Although the Basilica of the Sacre-Coeur is visible from nearly every part of Paris, one of the most startling views of it is the view you have of it when you come into the Gare du Nord. This is the station you come into when you come from the Channel ports. And if you arrive in Paris at nightfall from Calais, as you probably will, and look up the hill to your right, just before you come into the station, you will see the whole brilliantly illuminated church seemingly floating in the sky like a pearl. You will know, then, that you have arrived once again in the City of Light. Another unusual view of it from close up is the view you have of it when you look up the narrow Rue Laflitte (no relation to the Laffite brothers of New Orleans. This one was a banker). This street runs off the Grand Boulevards just before they make their first bend. If you ever pass this street, and you are likely to do so if you stroll any distance on these boulevards at all, and then look to your left, your line of vision will be right in line with the Church of Notre-Dame-de-Lorette on the Rue du Faubourg Montmartre, with the Basilica directly over that, high up on the hill.
After we have looked at this church, we can walk over to the Church of Saint Pierre, which is almost next door to it, and is the third oldest church in Paris. This church dates from 1134 and used to be part of a Benedictine Abbey which occupied the top of this hill when the City of Paris was still far away, down by the Seine. When we get to the front of this church, we will be only a few steps from the Place du Tertre. I don’t think that this little square is of any great importance today, but when Montmartre still had its own city government, the little cafes and restaurants around it were quite important, for its was at these restaurants that the families who lived on the hill met, and if there was a wedding or a christening to be arranged it was sure to be held in one of these restaurants. In fact we are told that it was in these restaurants that the practice of dining out-of-doors first came into vogue, for whenever the guests became too numerous to be accommodated indoors, the proprietors simply set up additional tables on the sidewalk.
Before we start on our trek down the Rue Lepic, we might just take a brief look at another celebrated cabaret, the “Lapin Agile,” which, many, many years ago used to be known by the uninviting name of the “Cabaret des Assassins.” You will find this cabaret at the corner of the Rue des Saules and the Rue St. Vincent, a little farther up the hill. Only don’t expect much of a cabaret. Also, if what I have mentioned about this section should tempt you to learn a little more about the early life on the Montmartre, you can visit the special wax museum, known as the “Histol-ial de Montmartre” in which you will find some interesting scenes from the early history of this section. This museum is located on the Passage Trainee, which turns off the Rue Norvins just before you hit the Rue Ravignan, which, in turn takes you to the Rue Lepic down which you are going to walk anyway. It probably isn’t more than a five-minute walk from the Place du Tertre, for everything up here is close together. It is open from ten A.M. to noon; again from two P.M. to seven, and, in keeping with the late hours of this quarter, again from nine P.M. to eleven.
And this will be all I shall have to tell you about the Basilica of the Sacred Heart and the Montmartre. For our next few trips we are going to visit some of the points of interest in that section of Paris known as the Marais. Then we shall cross over to the City, and after that we shall cross the other arm of the Seine and go to the Left Bank. I’ll see you again at our usual meeting place tomorrow at ten.