Where do you find the stereotypical Paris? The one where cafés and restaurants line the streets, artists and philosophers packing the terraces to enjoy fine dining and discuss concepts that we mere mortals cannot comprehend.
The answer is it’s everywhere in Paris. The Parisian stereotype (at least, the one that I’ve held in my head over the years) turns into reality every street you walk down. I’ve felt sometimes during my previous travels that towns or even countries feel as though they have to live up to a stereotype. They’ve been labeled at some point in history and now the people expect it from them, so they oblige and attempt to become the expectation.
But the place shouldn’t have to become the stereotype. If the true livelihood in the area is not what the people expect, then the visitors have now learned something by actually going there instead of assuming general popular misconceptions. Sure, it may not provide the same experiences as what the visitor had anticipated but at least it remains true to itself and the visitor can discover the reality of the area.
Paris is one such city that does live up to it’s stereotypes, but not for result of a masquerade. It does remain itself. It procedes through the days as if there were no expectations of it from anybody other than it’s loyal citizens.
There is no truer indication of this than in Montmartre.
Montmartre is famous for it’s artistic history. Here, artists including Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh lived at some stage in their lives. Salvador Dali too. Today, that artistic inspiration and flair continues to exist in Montmartre.
Montmartre, as the translation in French suggests, is actually a mountain rising some 130 metres high. Because of the geography, it provides two things immediately.
The first is a great view of Paris. This is best appreciated at the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur, the iconic church that sits atop the hill and looks out over the center of Paris. The basilica has become the centrepiece of Montmartre and has stunning architecture that’s quite unique compared to the other churches of Paris. Inside the basilica, and it’s much the same as the other churches’ interiors.
The second thing that the geography of Montmartre provides is the abundance of staircases that connect the streets of the area. These, sometimes long and steep, staircases provide great views of the cobblestoned streets.
I recall during my time at Alliance Française in Adelaide that there was a picture above the stairwell that showed Paris in a black and white setting. Each time you would descend the stairs, you would see it. It showed a series of steps, with light posts illuminating the path (although from memory the photograph was in a daytime setting). I loved this picture and hoped that one day I could be there, experience the same setting through my own eyes. While I did not stumble across the exact same one, and indeed I’m not even sure if that photograph was taken in Montmartre, this was the closest that I’ve came to that scene, and it was a very satisfying moment.
Montmartre is wonderful. Everybody knows this. The Parisians themselves feel it. So too, the tourists. The flocks of tourists. Ascend to the basilica and it’s a push and shove game to keep your footing. That the weather was amazing surely made it worse. It dampened my experience of Montmartre. It was difficult to truly appreciate the beauty of the place when my main focus was to not get stuck in a pedestrian logjam.
Worse still, I felt despair for Montmartre itself, and the locals the inhabit it. There’s no doubting that the tourism was providing some positives for the region and it’s people. Artists would offer to sketch portraits of yourself, musicians would fill the corners to busk. But I couldn’t help feel that this was not wanted in the area.
The Eiffel Tower had the same amount of tourists. But the Eiffel Tower wanted them. It was designed for them. It opened it’s arms willingly to accept them. Montmartre was different. Au contraire, it was not built to be an attraction, to provide tours to foreign wanderers.
Montmartre had become a victim of it’s status. A victim of the french stereotype.
Wander behind the basilica for one hundred metres or so and you can finally begin to find some empty streets, although they are rare. Here, the majority of people you find are Parisians.
My experience in Montmartre was not necessarily a bad one, I just would have preferred it to have been more intimate.
Then again, I can’t blame the tourists for going there. I’m one of them, and I’m sure they, and the Montmartre community, probably would have preferred it if I weren’t there.