I had no idea which way I was facing or how far I’d come, and there was no use in counting. The stairs trailed up forever. There was no use in stopping either. I had no place to rest. For what seemed like an eternity, my world consisted of a three foot wide staircase spiraling up into eternity. And then, I felt a breeze.
I found what I was looking for—the view from the Sacre Coeur.
On any given day, Montmartre Hill at the top of Paris, where this Mahal-esque basilica sits, is littered with people coming to see the view. Each person earns it, either by walking the 250-plus steps to the top, by waiting in a never-ending line for the tram, or by paying a hefty fee for a cab to get there. But a funny thing happens when people get to the top of Montmartre Hill: they just stop.
Hundreds of people just stop and take a photo. Or, they stop and have a smoke. Or, they stop and get pick pocketed. But only a handful actually go inside of the basilica, and even fewer seem to make the extra climb to the top.
It could be because they don’t know about the narrow staircase and its basement entrance. It could be because a view of the basilica itself is impressive enough. Or, more likely, it’s because the spiraling climb to the top carries you through tiny towers and along the perilous rooftop of the monolithic building; it’s not for those who are short of breath, and it’s not for those who don’t like heights. It’s also not what you want to do after walking up a small mountain just to get to the front door.
But what it is, is spectacular.
I sat there for over an hour, in the dome of the Sacre Coeur, watching the afternoon rain sweep across Paris, waiting for the sun to spit its final glow.
I wasn’t alone, but the dozen or so photographers and explorers meandering around the hallway had plenty of room to spare. The scene was a far cry from the crowded steps below. It was solemn, and it was powerful.
The structure isn’t ancient. Unlike Notre Dame Cathedral far below, the Sacre Coeur was only finished in 1914—the same year as my apartment back home. But what it lacks in medieval history, it makes up for in spirituality.
This place feels special. It feels holy. It feels overwhelmingly calm. Really, it’s a feeling very similar to the Buddhist temple I found at the top of Marble Mountain outside of Da Nang.
I don’t know if all religion is connected, or if architecture plays on human psychology. I don’t have the answers to those questions. I didn’t go here looking for them. In fact, I nearly didn’t enter the Sacre Coeur at all. There was a moment of self doubt at the top of the hill. I actively try to avoid crowds, and the sight of one was disheartening. I truly almost turned around right then.
But at the top, it hit me. It was staring me right in the face—a sign that I did the right thing, a reminder to always keep going written in just five words.
All we have is now.
Editor’s Notes: The sign will be my lasting impression of Paris, as I depart tomorrow for Italy. There, I’ll reconnect with an old friend from Memphis, and attempt to drag him up a volcano.