Sacré Coeur (Sacred Heart) Basilica draws your eyes from every point in Paris. The white Romano-Byzantine domes of this marvelous church dominate the skyline of the grittier neighborhoods of northern Paris. Observed from atop the Arc de Triomphe, Sacré Coeur’s domes seem to levitate above Paris.
I decided to save Sacré Coeur for my last full day in Paris. Born into a family of Soviet intelligentsia, I was brought up to revere French literature and art. Having read nearly all famous French works from Dumas to Simenon, I lived in Paris long before ever setting foot in it.
Sacré Coeur emerged in all its divine splendor when we walked up the narrow and trinket-filled Rue de Steinkerque. The glory of the pre-Vatican II Church was there, the domes as white as the ribbons on the hats and sashes of the royalist Vendean rebels, like Henri de la Rochejaquelein and Jacques Cathelineau—merciless warriors and devout Catholics; hard men who executed prisoners yet wept while saying a rosary.
On the day of our visit the descendants of the heroes of the Vendée were nowhere to be seen. Instead, the base of the several hundred feet of steps leading to the basilica was occupied by short, leather-clad, and menacing West African drug dealers. Whispering to one another in bastardized guttural French, these immigrants...