Our last day in France had to come eventually. We were sad to leave the vineyards in Champagne, much like we were bidding farewell to Verdun, but now it was time to wave adieu to Normandy. Over the two weeks in Northern France, we saw decrepit and decaying forts from the First World War, cathedrals that are in a word, “heavenly,” enjoyed some incredibly rich French food, and saw more memorials and dedications to fallen soldiers than we had in our entire lives. It truly was an amazing experience, but with a few more hours before our flights home, we had one more excursion in us.
We left Villers-sur-Mer in the late morning, and drove two and a half hours to Paris. It was a quick drive until we got to the outskirts of Paris where traffic and accidents along the way slowed us down, but we made it in one piece and gave a full thirty-seconds to a complete collapse on our hotel beds before picking ourselves up again and making our way to the Metro.
The whole trip with my parents was really special because, nine years ago, my parents, my sister, and I took our first international trip together roaming up and down the Champs Elysees, marveling at history we couldn’t have understood at our ages, and seeing artwork that we had only seen in books. Then, in 2014, just a few months after moving to London, my husband and I made a trip to romantic Paris and saw some familiar and unfamiliar spots including the Catacombs and Versailles Palace.
But in those two separate trips to Paris, I never saw the Sacré-Cœur in Montmartre. Being back in the City of Lights, it seemed like the perfect one-off attraction to see while we had just a few hours of sunlight left.
Luckily, we were staying in an airport hotel. It certainly made things incredibly easy for the next morning, but also, the train station was handy to get to. A quick 30 minute trip later, and we arrived in one of the busiest train stations in the world. I’ll fully admit that when we stepped foot into the bustling station, we regretted the decision to leave the quiet and peaceful hotel room. But determination to see this landmark church kept us going. We pushed, were pushed, and fell out of the station into an equally crowded neighborhood and walked the mile uphill.
The path was down alleyways and through seedy neighborhoods, but then you climb a staircase that rivals the stairs up the Eiffel Tower, and you’re there. The views of the city below us were astounding if not incredibly hazy with thick, brown pollution. But nonetheless, Paris was at our feet.
We continued to push and be pushed through throngs of people up to the entrance of the church and were floored upon walking in. There are no photos allowed of the interior (despite the multiple flashes that went on around us), so we did our best to memorize and take in all of the ornate details of the church.
The Sacré-Cœur Basilica or Sacred Heart Church was built in 1875 and completed in 1914. After seeing centuries old cathedrals in Rouen, Amiens, and Reims, we were surprised at how “modern” the Sacré-Cœur was. But besides a church, this structure acts as a monument symbolizing the defeat of France during the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 and also a dedication to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a depiction of a sympathetic Christ.
As history tells us, in 1870, on the day of the proclamation of the Third Republic, Bishop Fournier gave a speech saying the defeat of the French during the Franco-Prussian War was due to divine punishment for the French Revolution in 1789 and everything that followed to date. The new church was to act as a monument to the 58,000 people who died during the devastating war in which Napoleon III surrendered to the Prussians. Montmartre, literally meaning Mount of Mars or Mountain of the Martyr, was chosen as the place for the church after Cardinal Guibert climbed the mountain in 1872 and had a vision. He said, “It is here, it is here where the martyrs are, it is here that the Sacred Heart must reign so that it can beckon all to come.”
It truly was astounding and overwhelming as you walk through the church. Many people come to the Sacré-Cœur as a pilgrimage and to pay respect at the feet of St. Peter whose right foot is completely smoothed over from a century of people touching him for luck or a blessing.
But the Apse Mosaic on the ceiling is what most people travel to see. Completed in 1923, this massive mosaic is 475 square feet of glass pieces. Surrounding Christ is a wide array of saints and figures such as: the Virgin Mary, Saint Michael, Saint Joan of Arc, as well as Pope Leo XIII. For more pictures and information, click here, and you can see professional (and perfectly focused) photos of the work.
We exited and walked around the right side to climb to the top. We’ve climbed every other structure in Europe, so why stop here? It was €6 each for us to get a workout in climbing the 300 steps to the highest point in Paris. As we gained more and more ground, our hike got more and more interesting. We scaled the facade, walked over the rooftops, and then shimmied up very narrow hallways. I’ve said it before, but these old churches were not built with tourists in mind.
It was not crowded when we went, so we got to go at our own pace, and once we made it, we had the views mostly to ourselves. It was truly breathtaking to see Paris at your feet. Unfortunately, the haze didn’t give us a clear view of the full city, so our shots of the Eiffel Tower are blurry at best, but still, we loved seeing the city from new heights.
From the church, we made our way down into Montmartre center. It’s a rather seedy area of town with a lot of scam artists selling “bracelets” and performing games of chance. It’s easy to be taken advantage of if you get in their line of sight. Just don’t let them grab your wrist, take anything they offer (thread, rosemary branches, etc.), or pull out a wallet to play the games. It’s all a scam, and it’s very easy to get robbed.
With an hour or so left of sunlight, we took a right turn on Boulevard de Clichy and found ourselves in front of the famous Moulin Rouge. Nine years ago, with my mom and sister, I ventured in the entrance of the famous Can-Can cabaret, but this time, we just snapped photos from the outside with other tourists. It is sandwiched between multiple sex shops and dive bars giving it a much less exotic flair than the 2001 film had us believe. But it was fun nonetheless to see the giant red windmill and lights.
One more place I will give a shout out before wrapping up this amazing trip around France is for the Maison Georges Larnicol. This famous chocolatier right at the base of the Sacré-Cœur has massive chocolate sculptures of the Notre-Dame Cathedral and dozens upon dozens of high quality chocolate, pastries, and macarons to choose from. We had a great few moments of indulgent pleasure walking through the streets of Paris.
After 2 weeks in France, we have learned a lot, saw more than we bargained for, and experienced some things I never thought I would in my life. The sights, sounds, and tastes of France are to be marveled and relished. I do hope this series of our Northern France travels inspire you to try some of the things we did, and please leave a comment with your own notes or suggestions on things to do in France.
To read more about the trip through Northern France and our previous days in Paris, check out the links below.
- Country Living in Northern Rural France
- The WWI Forts of Verdun: Part I
- The WWI Forts of Verdun: Part II
- A Brief History of Hautvillers: Home of Dom Perignon
- Champagne and Michelin Star Dining in Reims
- Cathedral Glory in Reims, Amiens, and Rouen
- A Brief History of Rouen and Joan of Arc
- Closed in the Winter: Giverny, France
- WWI Memorials in the Somme
- Fossils and a Quiet Seaside in Villers-sur-Mer
- A Brief Tour of the Normandy Beaches
- Palace of Versailles
- The Catacombs, Notre-Dame, and the Museums of Paris