The cobblestone streets here start climbing upward and require a good amount of leg work. At the summit is the Sacre-Coeur overlooking all of Paris where tourists mill around taking pictures of the sprawling view. We were lucky to have our first visit here accompanied by a history professor : who better to divulge Paris’s secrets? Marc started by hinting at the symbolism behind the churches location: the highest point in the city. Flickering candles and melting wax, suspension in time and the background rhythm of the priest’s sermon. Everything is grand and ornate. An intimidating beauty anyone can appreciate.
I prefer the hidden gems on the hill. Not too far from Sacre-Coeur, one stumbles upon the tiny Clos Montmartre vineyard looking out of place on the slope. The wine made from these grapes is mostly for show, as Marc proclaimed, “C’est de la piquette!” i.e. it’s a very bad table wine. Across the street is the famous cabaret, Au Lapin Agile. The artist Andre Gill painted its sign of a rabbit jumping out of a saucepan. The locals began to refer to the place as Le Lapin a Gile (Gill’s rabbit) which then morphed into Au Lapin Agile (the Agile Rabbit).
Of course one of the Montmartre’s main attractions is its art scene. During the Belle Epoque (1872-1914), many artists lived and worked here, often in extreme poverty. We passed Picasso’s studio where according to Marc, the artist sometimes had to live off of as little as one croissant a day. Other greats associated with Montmartre include Van Gogh and Monet. A little further up is a permanent exhibition of one of my favorites, Salvador Dali, also a prominent member of the intellectual circles of early 19th century Paris.
The Espace Dali is worth a visit for lovers of surrealist art. My first time visiting the
museum was in high school when I did a summer program with Oxbridge in Paris. My core subject was psychology and Dali’s art is so heavily laden with symbols, it is highly susceptible to Freudian psychoanalysis. Melting clocks, drawers pulled out from the body, elephants on spindly legs. The small collection makes a lasting impression. Many of the paintings and sculptures are intense and even disturbing, as art this personal should be. With the student discount, the exhibit is only €6.
Today artists still gather on the Montmartre to exhibit their work though it is mostly portraitists now calling out to tourists, much like in Central Park. Yet there are still some paintings that capture the eye. Most vibrant is actually the street art all over the walls of the quarter.
There are many cafes and boutiques here as well, but they are not aimed at students. This first week of orientation, we have allowed ourselves to play the role of tourists, snapping pictures and loudly commenting on everything in English. Soon I hope to rediscover Paris as a student… the camera will probably still come out once in a while, but hopefully the commenting will be done in French.