The Sacred Heart Basilica atop Montmartre

The Basilica of Sacre Coeur on Montmartre, Paris
The Basilica of Sacre Coeur on Montmartre, Paris. (Photo by Sebastian Bergmann.)

The steps in front of the Basilica du Sacre Coeur in Montmartre make for an excellent spot to take in the sunset over the city of Paris.

This meringue confection atop Montmartre hill shimmers in the sunlight like a church built of clouds. Actually, it's built of gypsum, and therein lies both its unearthly white glow and the ticket to its own rapid demise.

You see, when they designed this neo-Byzantine shrine in an effort to convince God to hold back the Prussian army back in 1875–1914 (didn't work; the Germans invaded and they couldn't even consecrate the thing until 1919), they decided to coat its exterior in this frangible gleaming white stone so that regular rainfall would slowly dissolve microlayers of the surface, leaving it always beaming white like someone who just got back from a good teeth-cleaning at the dentist.

Problem is, they never banked on (a) the pollution levels of the latter-20th century, and (b) acid rain. The church is literally being eaten away at an amazing clip, and though it will be decades before it's gone (assuming they don't intervene—which you know they will), unlike most major churches in Europe, this one was decidedly not built to last.

Sunset over Paris
Sit on the steps of this meringue confection of a church on Montmartre at dusk and watch the great wash of Paris filling the valley below you live up to its nickname as the City of Lights twinkles to life at your feet. The romance, unfortunately, is somewhat spoiled by the daily crowds of backpackers and their, ahem, unwashed Parisian counterparts (plus the accompanying beer hawkers wandering around with plastic buckets full of Heineken), so perhaps find a more secluded spot down the railing a bit to watch the spectacle.

For an aural treat, tour Sacre Coeur from 9:45 to 10:45am on a Sunday morning while the choir is rehearsing for the 11am mass; if you want to blow out your eardrums, be around when they toll the bell tower's 18.5-ton "Savoyard," one of the largest bells in the world (sounds it, too).

You can climb to the top of the dome, the second highest point in Paris after the Eiffel, for views that, on a fine day, stretch 50km—though you pay for the privilege.

The steps in front of the church are one of the best (and most popular) places to watch the sunset over Paris (see sidebar).

The Ephrem guesthouse

The church also runs a cheap guesthouse called Ephrem of 53 room, nine with private bathrooms for the handicapped (Tel. +33-(0)1-53-41-89-09).

It's wonderfully cheap (around €15)—and the rates include breakfast, lunch, and dinner—but it really is desgined for pilgrims who want to pray and reflect, not tourists (among other things, curfew is an unreasonably early 9pm).







The steps up to Sacre Coeur Basilica, Paris
The steps up to Sacre Coeur. (Photo by Jun.jb)



The views from Sacre Coeur Basilica, Paris
The views from Sacre Coeur. (Photo by Gryffindor)