Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Rainy Day in "Heaven and Hell"

Mercredi, 9 juillet.

It's raining in Paris. It has been raining in Paris for several days. And it's going to keep raining in Paris for several more days. So what's a girl to do? Pull out the umbrella and hike to Montmartre, of course!

The worst part about exploring Montmartre in the rain? I began to strongly identify with the defeated (probably rain-soaked) woman in Edgar Degas's "In a Café" ... an 1873 oil-on-canvas bummer that's more commonly referred to as "l'Absinthe."

I kid, I kid. Despite my slightly wet feet, exploring the streets of Montmartre in the rain was actually a lot of fun. To me, Montmarte has always been a pretty depressing place, where great art was created from heartbreak, poverty, and disease. (And yes, I formed a majority of that opinion from the 2001 Baz Luhrmann film. Sorry not sorry.) That being said, there's no better time to visit than on a damp and drizzly day ... in addition to clearing the streets of all but the most determined pedestrians, the rain lends an appropriate sense of melancholy. 

I mean, look at Camille Pissaro's collections of almost-identical paintings of the Boulevard Montmartre. Replace the carriages with motorcycles and compact cars and I swear that it looked pretty much the same today!

In a city steeped in history, it's still impressive to note that the neighborhood now known as Montmartre has existed since the time of Ancient Rome. It's from the Roman Gauls that the neighborhood has its name ... well, sort of. The Romans had originally named the area mons martis ("Mount of Mars") after the Roman god of war. However, this name was later "christianized" into mont martre ("Mount of Martyrs") in honor of Saint Denis. (As the story goes, this third-century missionary was decapitated on the hill that is now Montmartre ... after which point, he picked up his head and carried it through the streets of Paris, preaching all the while. Seriously. Google it.)

The Romans and early Christians did agree on one thing -- the whole mont aspect. Even today, when traversing the neighborhood on foot, it's definitely clear where the area's early inhabitants got the idea...

Of course, these stories -- though interesting -- aren't quite what comes to mind when you first think of Montmartre. It's not until the nineteenth century that the neighborhood became the stuff of paintings (and award-winning movie musicals). Because of its convenient location just outside the city limits, Montmartre quickly became -- and I quote from Wikipedia -- "a centre of free-wheeling and decadent entertainment." Around this time, in the mid-19th century, the neighborhood became a famous haven for artists, writers, and performers. Among the most famous patrons of the area were Vincent Van Gogh, Edgar Degas, Pablo Picasso, and even Langston Hughes!

Today, this area is hard to find, having been long since replaced by bustling souvenir shops and strip clubs, by discount grocery stores and overpriced cafés. However, if you can look past the postcard stalls of Sacre Coeur and the neon lights of the Pigalle district ... it's not to hard to find yourself in historic Montmartre.

Some of the remains of the iconic Montmarte cafés. La Bonne Franquette (pictured above, on the right) has been sitting in its location -- on la rue Norvins, the oldest street in Montmartre -- for over FOUR HUNDRED years. Read more about its fascinating history hereLe Consulat is another historic café, where cash-strapped painters like Monet and Toulouse-Lautrec reportedly used to pay their bills in artwork. 

And, of course, there's le Moulin Rouge. The famous cabaret is, as I reported during my last visit, a tad underwhelming. Unlike much of Montmartre, still safely tucked away in tiny winding streets, the cabaret is located on a crowded, modern boulevard.

No wonder they didn't film a single scene of the movie here... eek!

Although the cabaret's location might not be the classiest, it remains a popular attraction. Even today, a ticket to see a show at the Moulin Rouge will still cost you a pretty penny. (And by "pretty penny," I mean "hundreds of Euros." Yeah.) Still, it's neat to think that there are still nightly performances on the same stage that once held the likes of Mistinguett, Maurice Chevalier, Edith Piaf, and Josephine Baker.

Unfortunately, not even the most intimidating of thunderstorms could keep the tourists away from Montmarte's main attraction: la Basilique du Sacré-Cœur. Built during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, this stunning basilica overlooks the city of Paris and has become a staple of the city's skyline.

How much do I love poncho-wearing tourists? Almost as much as the boy in the umbrella hat.

Although Molly and I visited the basilica during our fall 2013 Paris trip, we didn't get a chance to go inside. (Priorities.) But with the rain threatening to soak through my umbrella, I decided that there was no time like the present to check out the basilica.

In external appearance and location, Sacre-Coeur not unlike Lyon's Basilique de Fourvière. (Interestingly, the two were also built around the same time, for approximately the same reasons.) Still, I was surprised that the interior of the basilica isn't all that different from that of my favorite church! I loved the mixture of light-colored stone and bright mosaic tiles.

I was surprised to learn that photos are forbidden inside the basilica ... but snuck two anyhow. The contraband photo on the left shows a glimpse of the apse of the church, which is dominated by a stunning mosaic called "Christ in Majesty." The mosaic, which is among the largest in the world, depicts Christ surrounded by a variety of figures (including the Virgin Mary and Joan of Arc). The illicit snapshot on the left features another mosaic, this one located near the entrance of the church. It commemorates the laying of the first stone of the basilica on June 16, 1875. Debates over the location, style, and even the existence of the basilica delayed the structure's completion; it was not therefore until 1919 that the basilica was finally consecrated.

Interested in learning more about the religious history of Montmartre and about the Catholic revival that occurred on the "Mount of Martyrs" after the French Revolution? Click here to check out the Sacre-Coeur's official website (in English).

Of course, the best part of Sacre-Coeur is the view. Even on a stormy day, the Paris skyline is on full display from the steps of the basilica. Some of the buildings were hard to pick out, but I could easily identify the giant Tour Montparnasse, the gold dome of Hotel des Invalides, and the symmetrical towers of the Église Saint-Sulpice.

After a little more walking and a bit of souvenir-shopping, it was time to head home. I made the walk back from Montmartre to my apartment in Batignolles, passing over the Cimetière de Montmartre.

I peeked in through the gates at Avenue Rachel, curious about the thousands of people who found their final resting place in a gypsum quarry-turned-cemetery. (They include Edgar Degas, Alexandre Dumas, and -- before he was moved to the Pantheon -- Emile Zola.) Although the prospect of further exploration was pretty enticing, there was something too depressing about walking around a cemetery in the rain. If you're interested in seeing photos of the cemetery, you can click here.

Feeling a little turned around? Check out this map for a sense of location. You can choose solely to look at places I visited and discussed in this post (in blue) OR look at all of the highlights of Montmartre (in red).

Oh ... and if you've made it this far, you might be wondering about the slightly over-dramatic title of this blog post. It comes from a 1956 French movie called Bob le flambeur ("Bob the Gambler"). There's a famous scene in which the camera pans dramatically from the heights of Sacre-Coeur to the seedy streets of Pigalle. Over melodramatic music, the narrator explains: "Montmartre, c'est tout à la fois le ciel et ... l'enfer." ("Montmartre, at the same time, heaven ... and hell.")

1 comment:

  1. Loved this! What a great place to visit on a rainy day!