Only a few hundred metres from our hostel, the Sacré-Cœur is Paris’ second most visited tourist attraction. It’s the city’s highest point and the focal point of historic Montmartre, but here’s 5 interesting facts you might not know know about the Sacré-Cœur.
Long before becoming a hub for a cheeky Heineken and a spot of flame throwing, pilgrimage to the famous mount was a strictly pagan affair. With the lofty hill apparently putting worshippers in closer proximity to God; pagan rituals were commonplace on the spot where the basilica now sits. Historians say that Gallo Roman temples dedicated to Mercury and Mars even gave the elevated area its original name mont Mercori and later mont Martis (Mount of Mars) – which would eventually evolve into Montmartre.
Following defeat in the Franco-Russian war, France was in the midst of elections that appeared to promise renewed republican royalism. Paris, then a hotbed of working class radicalism, had other ideas. The city’s socialist Communard government launched an insurrection, beginning in Montmartre, attempting to free the city from the hands of the government. The communards promised a separation of state and church, remission of rent and the abolition of the bakery graveyard shift. Their reign over Paris lasted only two months, but endures as an emblem for those nostalgic for a revolutionary Paris.
Although today it is claimed the basilica was erected in honour of those who lost their lives in the war; the Archbishop of Paris hoped it would “expiate the crimes of the Commune”. A likely story seeing the Commune had beheaded his predecessor during the insurrection. While it is a beacon for tourists across the world, the Sacré-Cœur is seen by many Parisian communists as a symbolic punishment for the city’s revolutionary past. Some of them have even proposing to the city council that it be demolished to honour the Commune.
The basilica’s distinct white frame stands in contrast to the rest of the city’s churches, with its whiteness said to recall the Sacrament of the Eucharist. In order to fulfil his religious objective; the famed architect Paul Abadie, who beat off 77 other competitors to win a contest to design the basilica, sought out a specific kind of travertine stone to cover the church’s exterior.
Sourced from the Souppes-sur-Loing quarry in Seine et Marne; the stone, is known as Chateau-Landon. Not only was it an extremely hard granite, making it resistant to weather conditions, but it also cleaned itself. Abadie, presumably factoring in Paris’ prolonged weather forecast; selected a stone not only resistant to the effects of prolonged rain, but one which produces calcite when in contact with rainwater, causing it to continually renew the white shell of the basilica for over a century.
The only problem with a trip to the top of the Eiffel Tower for a scenic snap of the city; you’re standing on the most desired photo opportunity in the Paris skyline. Fear not, there is an even better opportunity at the second highest point in the city – the Sacré-Cœur
While many visit the basilica for the vast city view from the steps, a vista that doesn’t quite fit the Eiffel Tower in its ambit; the Sacré-Cœur has yet a higher vantage point to see the city, that most tourists are unaware of. If you’ve got the energy to keep climbing stairs after the first 300, there is one more spindly staircase inside the basilica that takes you all the way to the dome of the church, and the best view of the city.
If you’re religious, thrifty, or maybe both, the Sacré-Cœur’s night adoration could be a godsend. Every night the basilica plays host to a continuous chain of silent prayer, which has been ongoing since 1885. Locals and tourists alike are welcome to spend the night in the church, in exchange for an hour of prayer. In return, you will receive a night’s accommodation in one of the dormitories (a contribution is suggested). Prayer sessions continue throughout the night, and you will be awaken by one of the nuns when it’s your turn, so probably best to arrive early to save a 4am wake up call. Or better still, book a bed at our hostel and have a lay in!