Unbelievably, in the whole 50 some years since I first visited Paris, I had never been to Montmartre. It felt like time to fill that gap! The tourist photos of Montmartre always make the area seem beautifully quaint – a place outside of Paris (it’s actually within the borders of the city) — an earlier, simpler more lighthearted quarter.
Let me digress a little here, before we get into the particulars of Montmartre, to talk about Parisian bus adventures. There are two ways to navigate Paris by public transportation, the Metro or Underground, and the bus system. Of the two, the Metro is dramatically simpler, with its well defined stations that are often used as the names of sections or neighborhoods of the city, and where one can call a cab for a pickup at such and such Metro, with no confusion. To travel by Metro is deceptively simple, because a single Metro “station” can extend for a square half mile of underground tunnels that one walks to change from one train to another. With regard to the city itself, the Metro creates the sense of Paris as a series of islands. You pop underground in one place, and some time later, you pop back up someplace else, much as I imagine a gopher or prairie dog popping down and up as it navigates its underground maze.
The Metro is also easier for newcomers to Paris to navigate because mostly, on a first visit to a large city, one wants to hit just the highlights, and they’re all named on the Metro map. In addition to the original 12 subway lines, there are 5 suburban lines that also crisscross under the city and intersect with the Metro. These additional lines are named RER (Regional Electrical Network), and after their (very deep) underground passage through the city, they emerge into the light as surface riding suburban light rail lines. You can talk about taking either the Metro or the RER (air-eu-air). But they’re all shown on the same map.
Buses can be a bit more complex. For one thing, according to one of the bus guides, there are 111 bus lines crisscrossing and circulating around the city. Some lines quit running around 9 pm at night, but most continue till 11 or so (23h). They come at different intervals at different times of day, but even quite late at night, the longest we’ve had to wait at an eerily dark and quiet bus stop is 18 minutes or so. Most often, the wait is less than 10 minutes, no matter what the line. So most of the time, it’s not worth the effort to consult bus schedules ahead of time.
The major complexity with buses is planning ahead for what buses to take to arrive from your specific location now to where you want to end up. For instance, for our trip from the Latin Quarter to Montmartre, four different buses would be involved. Even with two buses, the trip often turns into an adventure. Four guarantees it.
What’s an adventure? It involves the unknown and the certainty of confusion, wrong decisions, and feeling lost.
There are really helpful bus guides that begin to make it possible to calculate a route plan. The best I’ve found is a book called “Paris Bus” published by the guidebook company “L’Indispensable,” which also publishes my favorite navigation map for getting around Paris, called “Paris Pratique par Arondissement. ” Both guides have well laid out information and legible maps, and they are both published in relatively lightweight paperback format. When you’re lost somewhere at a busy intersection, the last thing you want is to try to spread out and read a four foot square map filled with microscopic print, to figure out where you have ended up and which direction to follow to try again to get where you thought you were going. Smaller maps only make the print smaller, while multiplying the confusion factor by splitting the city into different sectors and printing these discontinuously to fill the whole page with rectangles. Much of what you want to see will be depicted in one of the discontinuous random sections, making it hard to imagine how they connect to the rest of the city, or they will have been left off entirely because not central enough. If you opt for a book of maps of the Paris arondissements, these bulky, weighty tomes, which seem relatively benign when you’re still at home, begin to weigh more and more heavily each hour you’re on your feet navigating your desired itinerary. The same is true of any items you choose to carry – umbrella, raincoat, sweater, etc…To avoid carrying anything unnecessary, I always look at the hourly weather forecast on my phone before sallying forth on any significant excursion in Paris.
Besides the printed bus guide, the other way to calculate a route is to use the free “RATP” app on your smartphone. RATP is the abbreviated name of the Paris Transport Network, which controls both buses and Metro. You can enter your departure point and destination into the app, and it will return to you a possible itinerary for taking buses from Point A to Point B. This will be only one possible route of several, and will vary according to whether you told the App you wanted to walk less or to take fewer transit legs. And you will find other possible variations as well, if you ask a passerby, or research for yourself in the printed bus guide. Most Paris bus routes run across the city in a primary direction, starting in one nearby suburb and ending in another at the other side of the city. Consequently, it’s always extremely important to find a stop on the correct line AND also going in the right direction.
Having mastered these pieces of how to travel by bus in Paris – researching, mapping, and planning — you’re ready to start your trip. First you go to the nearest bus stop on the line you will take first. Finding bus stops is one of the biggest parts of every bus adventure. Stops with the same name on different lines can be spread out over half a square mile, in a way similar to the Metro’s underground tunnels for connecting with different lines. In contrast to the Metro, however, where each turn is meticulously marked, there is no indication at one bus stop where to find the same-named stop for a different direction or a different line. Because most central Parisian streets and avenues are one way, the place you got off the bus may be a couple of blocks away in any direction from the place you will get back on the same bus for the return trip, and discovering the right place is always a needle in a haystack adventure. Several lines pass through most central neighborhoods, in close proximity to each other, but with different stops. So even finding the first bus stop can be an adventure in itself.
One more piece of useful information for you if you wish to start taking Paris buses, is to get a bus/ Metro pass or a pad of 20 bus or Metro tickets. The tickets are usable interchangeably on bus or Metro. The inconvenient part is that you can only get the tickets or passes by going into a Metro station. They are not sold on buses.
The cash bus fare in 2016 is 2 Euros per adult per leg of a trip (in case you want to take a bus but don’t have a pass or tickets). The Navigo pass is a delight, once you manage to obtain one (it requires taking and gluing on a smaller version of a passport photo). For 22 Euros (in 2016), it gives you unlimited rides anywhere Paris transit goes, for a week, from Monday to Sunday(your pass is electronically loaded with the dates for the week purchased, one week at a time). You can also purchase a month at a time, if you will be in Paris close to that length of time. We generally stay in Paris for two and a half to three weeks, and make it a point to get to a Metro station on Sundays to charge our passes for the upcoming week. We have had the same actual passes for the past 5 years, and just bring them back and recharge them each time we come to Paris. Approximately ¾ of bus passengers use a Navigo pass, and almost all the rest use tickets. The occasional uninformed tourist ends up lurching along with the bus, standing next to the driver as s/he empties pocket and purse, looking for the exact change of 2 Euros.
Now that you have that background information, I’ll share our bus adventure from the Latin Quarter to Montmartre.
Finding the first bus stop was easy. We started taking buses in the first place because the nearest Metro stop is a good 12 minutes away on foot, while the bus stop is only two doors away from our apartment. It was a no-brainer! According to the RATP itinerary on our Smart Phones, we were to take our neighborhood bus and get off two stops away, and pick up the second bus there, at Luxembourg. Piece of cake, right?
We got off at Luxembourg, which for us was at the intersection of rue Gay-Lussac and Boulevard St-Michel. It’s a major intersection, complete with a huge roundabout, fountain in center, where five streets intersect. It’s at an entrance to the Jardin du Luxembourg. We knew that our bus stop where we got off only served the two lines that pass by our house. And we knew there were three or four more bus lines that waited or stopped across the intersection.
Getting to that other set of bus stops meant crossing two wide streets at right angles, and walking 150 feet or so down another street. We did that, to find three bus stops along that other street, serving four different bus lines – but not the 85, the line we needed to find. Standing there confused, we saw yet another bus stop across and back up that street, and went across and up to look at that stop – but it was still not the line we wanted!
Meantime, I had seen two buses with the number we wanted swinging around the fountain to go in a different direction. I had seen the second of those buses on yet a fourth street, around the corner, so we went there. No bus stop in sight, as far as the eye could see. Hmmm…those buses must have just been waiting for the light. Then, in the distance, back further up the street we had originally come down, but behind the stop at which we’d gotten off, I saw a bus with the number we wanted, stopped. Aha!
So we crossed yet two more streets, now having made a full circle, and started walking up the hill past the stop we’d gotten off at to get to the bus that was stopped further up. As I got closer, I could see that there were people gathered around the front door of that bus, which was just stopped. And there was no bus stop in sight. When we reached the bus, the gathered people turned out to be bus drivers from the bus we had seen and three more of the same line (the one we wanted) stacked up behind it. We asked where we could get on the bus, and the driver let us get on the one waiting there (at the end of its run – the first bus stop for that line was about a half mile down the next to the last street we had crossed). The driver told us to change to the next bus at a stop different from the one I had been told by the bus guidebook.
So now it was about 45 minutes after we had left the house, and we were still in our neighborhood, about a mile and a half from home, boarding the second bus we needed, the 85, essentially where we had gotten off the first bus, the 27, but where there was no stop for the 85.
Pretty immediately, the bus we’d gotten on started off, and turned at a right angle toward its first stop, where about 25 people got on, filling all the seats. (Parisian buses assume people will stand, so the seats are relatively sparse). Now that we were going in this new direction, we were seated on the sunny side of the bus, with hot sunlight pouring through the huge windows. I had apparently gotten overheated on our hike in search of a bus stop, and with the beating sun, I began to feel faint, with powerful cramps going on in my torso (on the right side – at least it was the wrong side for a heart attack). As the bus wended its way down the crowded Boulevard St. Michel and across to the Ile de la Cite, stopping repeatedly to wait for traffic or pedestrians, I began to sweat and feel faint. We got over to the right bank, and turned on to Rue de Rivoli, where we’d been told to pick up the next bus, the 67. I couldn’t reach the call button for the bus to stop, and as I slowly, dizzily, made my way to my feet to squeeze down the aisle to a call button, the bus flew by three more stops. I pressed the button, finally, just on time to watch the third stop whiz by (all of them had been named Rivoli). I swore under my breath, as the bus then continued to barrel down rue de Rivoli another half mile or so, and then, abruptly turned up another street. By this time, since I had pushed the button, the bus did finally stop, on the next street. I felt as if I was in a bad dream.
Also as if in a dream, this stop, too, was called Rivoli, but I was half unconscious, and didn’t really care any more. I stumbled off the bus, and stood there collecting my senses, my knees trembling. Nancy, who was with me, looked up at the bus stop and said, “Oh, Look! This is the stop where we can pick up the number 67! Serendipity!
But I wasn’t in any condition to get on another bus just then. Fortunately, in central Paris there is a café at virtually every corner, and we stumbled into the café on that corner, sat down, and ordered cold beverages. It was extremely helpful to drink a cold, sweet Orangina, and sit out of the sun for a bit, and after about 15 minutes, I was back to normal. Whew!! They had a display of refrigerated bottles at the café entrance, and we each bought bottled water to take with us when we returned to the bus stop. Now it was almost two hours after we had left the house, and we were about to get onto the third bus.
We ended up waiting more than 15 minutes for the next 67 bus to appear (they were supposed to come every 11 minutes), so we got to explore the bus stop shelter in detail. It was a stop that served four different lines, the numbers of which were listed on the end of the shelter’s back wall. Atop the shelter, on a narrow beam, the different lines were listed by number and beside each number flashed an electronic square with the number of minutes before the next bus of that line would appear. Below waist level, on the same beam, were the bus numbers next to little buttons we could push. We couldn’t figure out what good that did until we realized that below the column of buttons, behind a cute cover we could slide up, was a USB port, for plugging in a phone, perhaps. Under the printed bus schedules on the front of the shelter’s wall, was also a QR square for finding out on one’s phone, via another method, how much time remained before the next bus would pull up. And then a young woman arrived, looked at how much waiting time we had left, plugged her phone into the USB port without pushing any buttons, and sat down on the shelter’s bench while giving her phone a mini-boost of electricity. There were seven of us gathered at the shelter when the next 67 finally did arrive, and we got aboard for the third leg of our trip – this time being sure to stay on the shady side of the bus.
We knew we had to get off at Place Pigalle to catch the fourth bus, which would take us up Montmartre to visit Sacre Coeur Cathedral and enjoy the majestic view over Paris. Again, there were multiple lines and multiple stops. As we got off the 67, we asked the driver where to pick up the Montmartre bus, and he pointed to the stop next to where we were getting off. Piece of cake! We had now ridden from the Left Bank Latin Quarter, through the heart of the right bank cultural and shopping and financial districts, and to the base of the Montmartre hill, and it was two and a half hours after we had left the house.
The “Montmartrobus” was smaller than other Paris buses (to navigate Montmartre’s very narrow streets), but otherwise everything was similar to other buses. Amazingly, this bus had a couple of seats side by side. Wow! As soon as we left Place Pigalle, we were riding up at a steep angle. The bus negotiated several hairpin turns as we laced our way up the hill. Outside the windows, in contrast to the Montmartre I’d seen for decades in tourist photos, the buildings were typical 19th and 20th century Parisian apartment buildings, perhaps on a slightly smaller scale than deeper into the city center. Paris is largely flat, aside from Montmartre and the Left Bank’s “Montagne Ste Genevieve,” which is a long, but not steep upward slope. So the hill experience was definitely unique in Paris.
We disembarked at Place du Tertre, where the small village charm of Montmartre begins. We still had several blocks to go on foot to get to Sacre Coeur. On the way, we stopped for an ice cream – a mid-afternoon Paris tradition we thoroughly enjoy. The famous, oft-photographed, quaint Montmartre buildings all contained souvenir shops or atmospheric cafes – a Mecca of Paris Kitsch! It was disappointing.
We did discover, however, in visiting the Sacre Coeur basilica – that white domed hilltop sanctuary visible from most anywhere else in Paris – a beautiful end to our odyssey, which had taken us a full three hours to reach (about 45 minutes of which we spent on buses actually moving toward our destination). The basilica is beautiful and serene within. About a dozen Carmelite nuns in the sanctuary were seated in stalls facing each other, chanting the sacred office in high, pure voices, and we stayed to pray and meditate. We hadn’t known that Sacre Coeur is a place dedicated 24/7 to praying for all those injured in war, and for peace finally to envelope the world. The basilica had been dedicated to this purpose when it opened in 1871, after the tens of thousands of tragic deaths of French soldiers and civilians during the Franco-Prussian war, waged from 1870 into 1871. Through World War I and World War II, and all the wars that have occurred since (thankfully, since the end of World War II not on Parisian soil), the prayers have continued.
The energy of Sacre Coeur was pure and loving and deeply peaceful – a stark contrast to the massive carnival of Kitsch that surrounds it. Nancy observed, and I agreed, that it would be lovely to spend a part of every day at Sacre Coeur.
We could have stayed longer in prayer, but it was past 6:30 pm, and we had dinner reservations for 7:30 back down on the Parisian plain, on Boulevard Montmartre. We walked back to the Place du Tertre, and decided that at the rate at which we’d come up to Sacre Coeur, we’d never make it back down in an hour and actually find the restaurant (never mind the bus stops!). We chose to return to the central city by taxi. We arrived at the restaurant with a generous 12 minutes to spare!
I can now happily say that I’ve been to Montmartre. More than that, Nancy and I can look back on a major adventure on Paris buses! The advantage of traveling by bus rather than by Metro is that we get to know the city itself — the relationship of one section to another. By bus, more than by any other method of travel other than by foot, we can become more knowledgeable Parisians, trip by trip.
(I took pictures, and will post them at a later date)