I spent two busy days in Paris, experiencing as many of the sights as possible. Forgetting, for a moment, that we could have extended that time from days to weeks and conceivably still not seen everything, it may come as little surprise to many that my fondest memory of the city might not be one that is immediately apparent. We had time to tour the Palace of Versailles in all its grandeur; we stopped by the Arch de Triumph; we even scaled the Eiffel tower (you can read about that adventure here), but none of these experiences really completely summed up my experience in Paris as well as one spot – Sacré Cœur.
The Basilica of the Sacred Heart itself was not the reason that this excursion is so etched in my memory. While both imposing and picturesque, the structure itself does not overshadow the many other attractions in the vicinity (Notre Dame remains to me a more pleasing and more memorable temple thanks to its renown, and the Louvre is a far more spectacular site without even considering the trove of treasured stored inside). The draw for Sacré Cœur to me is, as is so often the case with such lasting memories (and with real estate), location.
Crowning Butte Montmartre, the highest point in the city, the steps of the basilica offer a commanding view of Paris in its entirety. As I stood with a few hundred others admiring the city as the sun set, I noticed that one iconic landmark was missing from the view. The Eiffel Tower is actually obscured by other buildings from the steps of Sacré Cœur, and this made the outlook all the more rewarding as Paris retained its allure, despite the absence of her favourite icon. Again, however, this is not the source of my warm memories of Sacré Cœur – that honour is reserved for something that will most likely appear surprising.
The simple explanation for my less than mainstream enjoyment of Sacré Cœur is that it was the only place in France where the dubious cultural stereotype of the arrogant, rude French Barista was validated. In order to clarify this, however, it is necessary to consider why I was not (as I would be at home) angered by poor service, rudeness and a mediocre coffee that cost in excess of €6 ($9 AUD).
Not long before I was disdainfully served muddy water in a disproportionately small cup, we’d climbed the stairs to the basilica and enjoyed the view. Once I realized that the Eiffel Tower was conspicuous in its absence, I made it my business to reestablish my bearings. My innate sense of direction (you know, the one all males profess to have until they find themselves hopelessly lost) told me it was obscured by buildings to the right of our outlook and we went to investigate. Sure enough, a few hundred metres on from the stairs there was a gap between a restaurant and some houses and the tower came into view. Seeing the Eiffel Tower, one of the greatest icons for travelers, framed and surrounded by urban sprawl is one of my favourite images of France – made a little more special by the impending sunset.
We moved on up the road another hundred metres or so, seeking a way in to the basilica, when we came across an intersection that opened up into a small square where around a hundred artists had set up their easels and were vying for the chance to sell their work or ply their skills of portraiture. Restaurants and cafes open onto the square and the bustle of tourists and bohemians alike brought the place alive – it was as if we were in a small hamlet, hidden away within one of the world’s great cities. We milled around a small chapel for a moment and eyeballed the sights for a few minutes before sitting down to enjoy a coffee.
It was here that I came into contact with our stereotype affirming* waiter (*no stereotypes were truly, irreversibly affirmed during my trip to France). Given the atmosphere, company (Linh and her cousin/our guide Nathalie) the views and the general buzz in the winter air, I could not bring myself to be overly perturbed by any affirmation of stereotypes and I spent the time drinking in the atmosphere in remedy of the brown water I’d previously ingested.
After all, it wasn’t really the service that made the experience memorable, nor was it the basilica, or the view. The thing that made this hour-long Parisian experience the most memorable of my experiences in Paris was that it was unexpected, and ultimately that it really felt like Paris.