Paris is gritty.
I think as tourists, as travelers, we have this idea of Paris as a light, romantic, colorful city. And it many ways it is, with its pastel shopfronts, wrought iron balconies and beautiful architecture. However, it’s still a big city, and an international hub- in other words, there’s a less-rosy side to Paris that isn’t often discussed.
Paris is a lot like New York. Lots of travelers, lots of tourists, lots of busy locals. I doubt many New Yorkers would stop at three in the afternoon for an espresso and a cigarette, as just about everyone seems to here, but basic similarities exist. If you are walking around slowly with a map during rush hour, you will get trampled. Scam artists will try to get you to stop and give them money for something. You know- same old, same old.
It’s been interesting to visit in January and see this darker, grungier side of Paris emerge. Especially with the Seine flooding, it’s a weird week to be a tourist. It seems like everything is pretty grey, the buildings dark and somber. It’s still beautiful, but much different than that fairy-tale version of Paris we all dream of.
Despite all that, though, Paris is Paris. Watching well-dressed women stroll confidently down cobblestone streets in sensible heels, accidentally stumbling into a photographer’s way in front of the Chanel Haute Couture show (I didn’t know why there were so many photographers and well dressed people outside this one building until I Googled it later), and learning that you can sit an a cafe for an hour and just order an espresso (here, un cafe).
All of this is why wandering around Paris can take up so many hours. In sunlight and shadow, with all of its filth and splendor, Paris is mesmerizing. Plus, it’s easy to stumble upon ancient landmarks without even realizing it.
I knew I was close to Sacre-Couer when I booked my hostel, but I didn’t realize how close until I had breakfast at a Parisian woman’s home nearby and we could see it from her rooftop (more on that in another post). I walked to the base of the church and admired the view for a moment, a little disappointed. I thought there’d be more than just this…
As beautiful as that was, it didn’t seem like “the highest viewpoint in Paris”, which I’d been told Sacre-Couer was. Hm.
I ventured into the church and realized there was some kind of prayer service going on (religious folks, sorry if that’s the wrong phrase, I’m not familiar!). I stayed and walked around the church, listening to the sermon (is that the right word??) going on in French and gaping up at the impressive ceilings. The church was beautiful, and the singing and music I heard was extraordinary. I stayed and listened for some time. There were signs that instructed visitors to refrain from photography, so I don’t have pictures to show you (even though lots of dumb tourists were snapping loud selfies and recording videos. GUYS. Don’t be this kind of tourist. Who takes selfies in an active place of religious worship??), but I encourage you to look on Youtube and Google for videos and photos of the church. Just search “sacre-couer prayer service”.
After leaving the church, I felt relaxed and glad to have been inside, but… I THOUGHT YOU COULD GO UP???
I really wanted to climb to the top, but I couldn’t figure out how to get there. I started circling the church and eventually found some stairs leading into a basement with an arrow saying something like “to the top” but pointing down. Um… kay?
It had started to rain, so I carefully climbed down some damp stairs and rounded a corner, where a cranky old lady was asleep in a quiet ticket booth.
“Uh, bonjour,” I tried.
“Bonjour, mumblemumble French words.” I don’t know what she said.
“Un billet, s’il vous plait? The.. stairs? Pour… le top?” I never said I was good at French.
“Oui, oui, 6 euros.”
“Merci.” I start putting my debit card in the machine-
“NON.” The little old lady slams her hand down on the counter. “NONON MORE LOUD FRENCH.”
Pause. “Ok oui.”
I put my card in again. She shakes her head at me and hands me the ticket.
“Thank- Merci beaucoup.”
Alright, then. So I turn away from cranky old lady and push through a metal turnstile to begin my ascent. I’ve found it!
Well this looks promising. I’m glad I’m small- I can’t even extend my elbows out all the way to the sides in this thing. And it’s… 300 stairs, I think? Well ok.
Up we go.
After a dizzying walk up, I thought I was done when I saw this door. The light! I’m free!
But actually, this only began the part of the climb that had me clambering over wet rooftops and slippery stairs. Was I supposed to be out here?
Evidently, yes. When I made it to the top, bells started ringing. Really! The church bells chimed just as I reached the top of Sacre-Couer. HERE was the view I was looking for!
Standing there in the rain and the cold, listening to the bells chime, surrounded by ancient stone and admiring the city was absolutely breathtaking. My legs were shaking the whole time from the height, but the experience was so, so worth it.
I hope you enjoyed this glimpse of Paris in January. I know I did. Thanks as always for reading!