Paris is a flat city. There are just not many hills except, that is, for Montmartre which is why my pictures from Le Pompidou and Musée d’Orsay posts show it rising up in the north-west with Sacré-Cœur perched on top gazing out over a skyline of low-rise buildings broken only by a few landmarks such the Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame, the Pantheon and the Tour Montparnasse sticking up like a completely anachronistic refugee from Manhattan. It is clear, too, just how far Montmartre is from the centre of the city and when you get up there it is easy to understand why so many artists did congregate there. Being so far away from anything it was cheap!
I don’t think that can be the case today though, judging by some of the property and restaurants up there. One thing that is certain is that it is still a magnet for tourists, at least in and around the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur which gleams a preternatural white owing to the weathering and pollution defying calcite exuded by the travertine stone from which it is constructed. On emerging from the Metro station at Blanche we headed up the cobbled street leading to the basilica which was lined with shops selling every kind of tourist tat imaginable even in stylish and chic Paris. The sweeping steps invite you to climb despite there being a little funicular available. The various balustrade viewing points are infested with buskers and street hawkers selling the latest gizmos – selfie sticks are a favourite – and at the top one must join the queues shuffling into the entrance and decide on one’s moral stance towards the frankly Islamic-looking beggar women at the doors.
It is important to realise that Sacré-Cœur is not an old building despite its crazy Roman-Byzantine appearance. Work actually commenced on it in 1875 and was not fully completed until 1914 and even then not consecrated until 1939. There is something a bit poignant about those dates given that the basilica was initiated in 1873 to atone for the bloodshed of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870-71.
Now I have to admit that I am not one for the Catholic style of Christianity with its morbid emphasis of death and suffering and tendency to obsession with the supposed magical powers of reliquaries and the saints and so on. I usually find all this a bit creepy compared to the soaring beauty and simplicity of English Gothic once it had been stripped back by the reformation to something more akin to tasteful middle-class sensibilities. There was definitely that cloying element present in Sacré-Cœur and the interior was oppressively dark and, incidentally, hot due to the humidity and all the bodies crammed in. It was difficult to really look carefully at anything shuffling round with all the other visitors and all I really wanted to do was get back outside again and once that was achieved, to escape the vicinity. What I was looking for was the little archetypal Montmartre square surrounded by cafés enclosing the collection of artists displaying their work and creating it while people strolled among them to admire. Yes, I wanted to find what I remembered from my only other visit to Paris when I was taken there as a boy by the family of my French penfriend, place du Tertre. And the amazing thing was that it was just as I remembered it.
It goes without saying that we had to sit at a pavement café and sip coffee while nibbling on a croissant. Ah, ma Cherie. But once done we needed to get away from the crowds and once again we found that it really wasn’t very hard to do. Just a street or two away and we had found the Dalí Espace Montmartre dedicated to the work of that great Surrealist and self-promoter Salvador Dalí. This was a real eye-opener for both of us. My knowledge of Dalí’s work I now realize had been confined to his great trademark surrealist oils. Here I was introduced to his prolific output of prints and his sculpture which was made from a material I had never heard of called Daum after the name of its inventor or perhaps more accurately its re-discoverer.
“Pâte de verre (literally “glass paste”) is ancient glassmaking technique dating back to the Egyptians over 3,500 years ago. The technique was rediscovered in the 19th century but was never widely used and only in small productions. The process utilizes the “lost wax method” of casting, the same process used to make cast bronze sculptures since the ancient Greeks. (more about the “lost wax method” wiki)
The artist’s original sculpture is reproduced in wax, surrounded with a plast mold which can withstand high temperatures. When the mold is hardened, the wax is heated and melts. Granules of glass crystals are placed in the mold and heated in a furnace to 1800ºF for a week. The crystals melt and spread throughout the mold exactly reproducing the original. The mold is cooled for 5 days and then broken open. The sculpture is chased, or smoothed, to remove imperfections under the direction of the artist. The variously colored glass crystals react with metallic oxides forming a myriad of tiny bubbles that reflect and refract, creating a mysterious inner light in the glass.”
The presentation of the various works made clear the great importance of both literary works such as Baudelaire’s “Fleur du Mal” and Greek myths and Freudian psychology although I suppose that the latter could be intuited just from looking at the his work. See what you think in the gallery on the right.
Moving on from Dalí we headed off to explore “behind the Butte”, the streets that tumble down the back of the hill behind the basilique. Here we were able to find such treasures as the Moulin Blute-Fin and Moulin Radet the only two surviving windmills (not counting the fake one at the Moulin Rouge), Gill’s mural Le Lapin à Gill (a rabbit jumping out of a cooking pot), Clos Montmartre which is the only vineyard in central Paris and which still produces about 800 bottles of wine a year and Maison Collignon au marche de la Montmarte where Amélie, the eponymous heroine of the film worked. For the full flavour of the streets of Montmartre view the gallery to the right.