Photograph by Stephen Kiernan

The View from Sacre Cœur

What Paris looks like in the morning from the steps of the famous basilica.

By / April 2012

The night glows powder blue as it dies behind dunes of apartments. Thick cloud cover melts into the farthest buildings, a smokestack’s white expulsions barely visible against the wet horizon, the slate-colored buildings, the slate-colored shadows of sky. Churchbells, drowsy in tone, sound from the right, announcing the arrival of some early hour. Moments later, a different bell echoes the same. Like bunk-bedded brothers, one padding to the breakfast table after a long rest, the first draws the younger to rise.

The wet pavement peels against my canvas sneakers. I’m running late for the sunrise. To save time, I might have taken the funicular tram up to the spectator’s landing at the foot of the Sacre Cœur, but I declined an effortless ride up in favor of walking, feeling the need to tackle the 300-stair climb unassisted. Views are always better when they are earned.

A basilica with several oval-shaped domes, Sacre Cœur sits on a hill, the Butte de Montmartre, and looks over the city from its north-central perch. The sanctuary inside has a breathtaking mosaic-tile Christ above the altar. People would know about it if they went inside, but hardly anyone ever does.

Having reached the top, winded, feeling pathetic, I watch the gazers trickle in from below, gaining the incline so slowly, as if synchronized with the crawling light. A few camera flashes precipitate the coming brightness. Nasal American notes waft my direction, all dipthongs and insouciance, the Europe-curious products of a few generations spent in the New World. Their voices tangle with other morning sounds, the pigeons’ flutter and cluck, the roll and beep-beeping of the fluorescent green garbage buggy. The feeble reflection of light off the buildings shines up stronger now through the mist that still lingers.

“SEXODROME,” screams the sign of an adult bookstore at the base of the hill. Beyond the foreground’s discernible structures stands the Pantheon, on another hill, distant, hazy and regal, the queen of the Latin Quarter, whose Sorbonne has since medieval times afforded France an Olympus of its own.

Facing west, a crow alights on a lamppost. I look up after rifling hastily for my camera, but the bird is already gone. The tourists seem to have disappeared as well. The green-clad trashmen begin to circle around the lower road. One strains over the girded railing, reflective strips pulsing, to sweep up the bargain-beer cans and bottles, the residue of revelry from the night before.

A lone jogger huffs his way up the steps toward the church. He pants heavily and bears a sporty backpack for harder training, chest strap cinched tight. His shoes are colored in the wildest neon riot imaginable, all emeralds and yellows and cyans, shoes better suited for a champion’s feet than the twice-a-week jogger he appears to be. Another bird lands on the lamppost, craning south. What does he scout for?

Below, the African street salesmen shout to one another jocularly, enthusiastic despite the hour and the chill. They hawk bracelets, garish flashing glowsticks, tiny Eiffel Towers arranged in lines on ratty tablecloths. They toil and save, waiting for the day when their families will join them. They do not work in Sacre Cœur’s shadow for no reason. I wonder, can I pray as hard as they?

Now fully illuminated, clouds burnt to vapor, Paris is a shadeless morning miracle. It sparkles as one arching horizon, centuries of gritty human efforts in a cramped, urban mold. American girls photograph their way up the slope, stepping and shooting, stepping and shooting. I think of the people back home with whom I might wish to describe all this, as I sit on a cold granite stair.

Everyone climbs in Paris, from Balzac’s Rastignac to the hawkers and joggers on this unremarkable morning. Everything climbs. The sun, the crows, and the thoughts of undetermined wanderers like me.

 

Will Fleeson is a press officer at the French Embassy in Washington, DC. He is currently completing a collection of short stories set in Paris.

 

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