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Visiting Montmartre, Paris, France: Shadows of History

Updated on May 27, 2019
Flag of France
Flag of France | Source
View of Montmartre and surrounding area
View of Montmartre and surrounding area | Source
Paris from Montmartre
Paris from Montmartre | Source
Map location of Paris, France
Map location of Paris, France | Source

The Sacré-Cœur Basilica dominates the Hill of Montmatre and the Paris skyline

While the Eiffel Tower may possibly be the most famous landmark of Paris, it is not a truism to say that the 130 metre high Hill of Montmartre (Butte de Montmartre ), topped by the Sacred Heart Basilica (Basilique du Sacré-Cœur ), dominates the Parisian skyline almost as much as the Eiffel Tower does. The successive shadows and light which fall upon central Paris's prominent hill and enormous, white church make an impressive sight, certainly. But also, symbolically, the light, shadow and the furious historical events associated with Montmartre make it a profound and multifaceted symbol.

For a very long time, the hill of Montmartre has been a favourite haunt of artists and their art-loving clients. The backdrop of Montmartre has also been a widely used, fictional leitmotif in writing and film; for example, it is maybe hard to think of Georges Simenon's legendary character Chief Superintendent Maigret without some remembrance also of the public steps, cafés, and lamp-lit passages in the vicinity of the Hill.

Plenty of history and symbolism

The Jesuit Order was founded at the church of Saint-Pierre de Montmartre, also on the Hill.

In 1871, following French defeat at the Battle of Sedan during the Franco-Prussian War, French nationalists held out against the occupying armies and the provisional French government which had made its peace with Prussia (referred to as Imperial Germany from 1871). The base of these Communards (from which the word 'Communist' is derived) was Montmartre, and the district witnessed an extraordinary measure of blood-letting as French people with differing convictions about the constitutional way forward fought each other mercilessly. One of the Communard leaders ordered the execution of Archbishop Georges Darboy of Paris, and, after unsuccessful mediation by American Ambassador Elihu B. Washburne, this was carried out as the Archbishop poignantly raised his hand in blessing (1). Meanwhile, Prussian soldiers contemplated these many events.

In 1875, the Constitution of the 3rd Republic was promulgated. One of the provisional French leaders following the Franco-Prussian War was Adolphe Thiers, an otherwise strongly conservative figure who once famously declared that a republic was the form of government which divided French people the least. In the National Assembly of the new French Republic, conservatives outnumbered republicans and radicals; however, the conservatives were unable to agree among themselves whether they wanted a royal or an imperial monarchy. In any case, the Royalist Pretender, the Duke of Chambord, seemed curiously unwilling to return from exile after the Battle of Sedan and the events of the Commune; in turn, former Emperor Napoleon III had gone into exile after defeat at Sedan, dying in 1873.

Interestingly, many of the Communards who were active in resisting peace with Prussians were very strongly secularist in outlook. The brand of republicanism which at first predominated in the 3rd Republic, however, was somewhat religious as well as conservative. From 1873 the building began of a church which would become the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, with a prominent location on the Hill of Montmartre. Its architect was Paul Abadie and the building was executed in Travetine stone. This massive Romano-Byzantine church thus represented a conservative, religious resurgence at a location deeply associated with the most radical manifestations of secular republicanism.

It was finally opened officially in 1919. Even today, however, historical memories relating to the Sacré-Cœur Basilica sometimes evoke controversy among French people, with some politicians declaring that the Basilica's purpose is to make amends for the 'crimes' of the Commune, while more cautious observers have usually cited it more generally a memorial for the war dead.

Montmartre and its Sacré-Cœur Basilica are thus very striking visually, particularly as the sun is reflected upon the white stone of the church, which also closely marks shadows as clouds pass across the sky. More symbolically, their history also recalls the almost Manichean opposition between evocative religious and secularist tensions, which have perennially informed French life.

Some people say the name Montmartre is derived from Mons Martis , Latin for 'mount of Mars', commemorating Antiquity's god of war. Others say it means 'mount of the martyr', in reference to Denis, bishop of Paris, executed at the Hill in circa 250. What do you think?


(1) Within less than 25 years in the mid-19th century, three Archbishops of Paris were assassinated: Archbishop Denis-Auguste Affre, shot by revolutionary insurgents in 1848; Archbishop Marie-Dominique-Auguste Sibour, stabbed by a defrocked, priestly opponent of celibacy in 1857; and Archbishop Darboy in 1871.

Also worth seeing

The huge and absorbing variety of visitor attractions in Paris are impossible to summarize with adequacy. But the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Bourbon Palace, and the Paris Opera would be included in any list of the most popular sights.

Reims (distance: 145 kilometres); its Cathedral was where many of the kings of France were crowned.


How to get there: United Airlines flies from New York Newark to Paris (Aéroport Paris-Charles de Gaulle ), from where car rental is available; but visitors to Paris may prefer to explore the city via its public transport system, which is excellent. The Métro stations Abbesses and Anvers are convenient for the Sacré-Cœur vicinity. Some facilities may be withdrawn without notice. For up to date information, please check with the airline or your travel agent.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.


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