Montmartre has always been a 'mont' and the streets around it reflect a peculiarly flamboyant disregard for anything straight. Some even originate higher up, before sliding down, only to collide at unfeasible angles with the tangle of equally convoluted streets below.
If you live in the area you might expect to develop a certain gait to compensate for the lack of flat surfaces and straight lines. It is possible that Picasso, who painted here, developed his unique style as a subconscious response to the terrain – everything being determinedly off at an angle.
The last time I was here I was 25 years younger. I wore a cheap, backpacker’s rain mac, little more than a plastic bag really, and a desultory expression that had to do with the pouring rain running like whitewater off my nose and the seemingly insurmountable staircase that lay between myself and Sacre-Coeur. For a moment back there I forgot I was young.
This time it’s a cold February afternoon and the streets of Montmartre are damply deserted. It is a sobering and frankly observable fact that most of our sightseeing these days happens in this latter part of the day. We are slow risers in foreign places, some sort of reaction to being reliably diligent on home territory. We come to foreign places to relax and are sometimes quite nonplussed at how brazenly attention-seeking they can be. Take Paris for instance; always nudging and winking at you. Always a little pinch on the bottom, a raised eyebrow. Hard to sleep through.
So here we are doing the climb that I thought so heinous in my unabashed youth. Well, not quite there yet. Still sloping up the approach to this ‘Mount of Martyrs’. Even popping into a tacky tourist shop because they had rows of warm leather gloves on display, animated like so many foreigners’ hands in the damp breeze.
My husband’s hands were cold. His gloves were back in Colorado. These pairs looked quite good really. Could they be real leather? Railed in from Florence, maybe? We buy a pair. They don’t last long. Half way up this celestial stairway they begin unraveling.
This doesn’t stop two charming men from catching our naked wrists and winding something intricately around them in bright rasta colors. We feel cossetted, gazing benignly down the hill at the sprawl of the glistening wet City of Light. Something to remember this by. When the complex operation is over we say our thanks and try to leave. What a nice thing to do. What a lovely gesture. That’ll be ten euro. Each. I had thought it was a sort of brotherhood of man thing. The church up there, the ghosts of Monet, Modigliani and rarefied others swirling down below. I was humming “we are the world”, and they want ten euro each. We pay and soldier on. I stop with the humming and the basilica comes into view moments before I lose my religion altogether.
It is more exquisite than I remembered, a porcelain jewel box, stark and simple. Twelve Benedictine nuns in white float in like they are conjured out of the air, their chanting resonating off the pale travertine walls. We don’t understand the words but the sound is more than human.
Everyone who comes to Paris comes here, but Sacre-Coeur repels tourism. Since 1885 this sacred space has never been empty of prayer, literally. If you enter in, you must leave the world behind.
Outside again we survey Paris in the winter mist and it is pastel, and ours alone, spread out before and around us like a lover. We take the stairs slowly coming down, wending through the winding cobbled streets until we discover a tiny café on a rakishly sharp corner. We find a small round table and try to sit casually on the quaint metal chairs. Everything is at an angle.
Light is falling and across the street a group of Parisians with wine glasses in hand gather around the warmly lit entrance of a small neighborhood art gallery. I watch intently, trying to decipher the games people play, but in French. We find a way to steady our wine glasses on the sloping surface of the table, sit back, compensating for the angles by resting more weight on one leg while leaving the other there for show. Sipping chilled white wine in the soft Parisian twilight, it seems obvious that flat surfaces everywhere are blatantly insupportable.