The area of Montmartre is quite an arty little centre, though these days it’s more likely filled with artists trying to convince you to sit for a caricature of yourself. Back in the good old days it was frequented by the likes of Monet, Picasso, Van Gogh and Dali.
From the beginning, Montmartre (mountain of martyrs) was a place of worship. It’s no surprise then that at its peak sits the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris – better known as the Sacre Couer. We have a beautiful view of it from our apartment window, but today we are making the hike up the hill to see it up close.
As we are staying in a street not far from the base, there are two ways to get to the top – the stairs (oh my god so many stairs) or the windy, more gentle pathway. We opt for the pathway and begin our descent. It’s good to be out and about early because it means that the grounds surrounding the Sacre Coeur and also the inside are really quiet.
You can’t take photos inside the Sacre Coeur for obvious reasons, but it’s worth a look. Inside, apart from the main altar, there are a number of smaller altars in coves around the perimeter of the church. The domed ceiling is covered in brilliant paintings and the stained glass windows are nice. I can’t help comparing it to the incredible La Sagrada Familia and thinking how amazing it was for Gaudi to create such a beautiful light and colour filled temple of worship, where the Sacre Coeur is quite a dark, sombre affair inside.
Once finished at the Sacre Coeur, we jump on the funicular down the hill to catch the L’Open Tour bus so we can tick off a few more of the sights of Paris. On the way down though is the mots beautiful carousel – not working while I was there because would have LOVED a ride.
It must be noted that Paris is a massive city and any time you go into the centre, there is traffic chaos. I can’t see any rhyme or reason to how the Parisians drive – there are no lines on the road and it appears that you just drive anywhere you feel, sometimes minding the crosswalks and other traffic.
Our first stop on the bus is nearby to a street named Rue Cambon. This street was home to the first boutique of none other than Coco Chanel.
Born Gabrielle Chanel in 1883 and raised in poverty after losing her mother and being abandoned by her father, she endured a lonely childhood in an orphanage in rural France. Showed a natural flair for needlework and worked in a local draper’s store.
Coco also spent time as a singer and it’s believed this is where her nickname ‘Coco’ came from – two popular songs she used to sing ‘Qui qu’a vu Coco’ and ‘Ko Ko Ri Ko’.
She mixed in well to do circles, having affairs with textile heir Etienne Balsan (with whose help she set up her first business – she began her millinery business out of the ground floor of his apartment – and Arthur Capel – with a loan from which she started her millinery business. From hats, she moved onto to clothing producing high-end leisure wear, including a one-piece swimming costume that came halfway down her thigh! Scandalous for the time!
In 1918, she bought the entire building at 31 Rue Cambon, making it into an emporium of clothes, hats, accessories, make-up, beauty products, jewellery and fragrance. The shop was opened with a spritz of Chanel No. 5 throughout the salon and changerooms each morning.
Despite having an apartment and design studio in the building, she slept across the road at the Hotel Ritz. Here she entertained the likes of Salvador Dali, Elizabeth Taylor and Pablo Picasso.
Coco never produced a ready to wear collection, but she changed the way women dressed forever. She was the first to design women’s trousers, bought black from mourning dress to evening wear and introduced the use of jersey into luxury dress. She created the dress we all know as ‘the little black dress’ in 1926 – the first version featured a round neckline, long sleeves and a skirt just below the knees.
“Chanel had the vision to turn black into a symbol of independence, freedom and strength for women.” Megan Hess.
Her signature style was tweed fabric, monochrome colours, gold chains, quilted leather and the interlocking C logo, and she was one of the first designers to capture the potential of advertising.
Coco had many famous clients – Jackie Kennedy made the tweed suit iconic in the 1960’s, but other clients included Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and of course Marilyn Monroe, who turned Coco’s Chanel No. 5 perfume into a ‘twentieth century obsession when she famously responded to the question ‘what do you wear to bed?’ with ‘just a few drops of Chanel No. 5’.
Passing away in 1971, the house of Chanel continues today under the leadership of Karl Lagerfeld, who has been at the helm since 1983.
Coco’s favourite café was ‘Angelina’, not far away from her shop in Rue de Rivoli, and she always sat at table 10 next to one of the mirrors. Sounds like a perfect place to stop in for a cup of their famous hot chocolate!
The hot chocolate comes in a jug that you pour into your tea cup, along with a small cup of cream, but in my opinion, not even the cream is enough to cut through the richness of the hot chocolate. It is THAT rich.
Notre Dame cathedral is over 800 years old, dating from 1163. Monstrous gargoyles watch over the church from the ballustrades. Stained glass windows depict scenes from the New and Old Testament of the Bible. A horrible smell invades the pavement below – I don’t know what it is – years of spit and urine? – but it’s off-putting enough to make me not wan to go inside.
We move on.
In Gare de Lyon, there is the most incredible restaurant you can imagine. Recently having undergone a bit of a spruce up, you can’t miss it if you have the time. It’s called Le Train Bleu and it sits right above the train lines, though you wouldn’t know it by the elegant surroundings once you step inside the rotating door.
We were full from that hot chocolate and dessert at Angelina, but forced ourselves to have a proper lunch here and at least sit for a while and experience France, so we ordered a round of club sandwiches and minced duck with potatoes.
Definitely worth the visit even if you just go into the bar for a drink to admire the building.
Last up for the day is the Eiffel tower. Built in 1891, the Eiffel Tower was designed by Gustav Eiffel. It is 340m high and is made of lattice wrought iron and it’s freezing cold at the top.
Down below, African men sell replica Eiffel Towers that hang on hug rings – illegally I assume, as they all make a run for it when the cops are spied. It’s actually really annoying because they keep at you even if it’s clear you have no wallet on you! It does ruin the atmosphere a little with tourists swatting them away left, right and centre. Mum says they weren’t here like this when she had visited a year or so ago.
The view from the top is undeniably the best in the city, but I am ill prepared for the cold that has settled in and the chill that is rattling my bones – I just wanna take a quick snap and get outta here, but there are queues. Queues everywhere.
We finally reach the bottom and luckily a cab is waiting right out front and we go straight home, ready to rest our weary heads and ready ourselves for another day of sights in this massive city.