Recently I read a book about life on one neighborhood street in Paris, a street named rue des Martyrs. The book is The Only Street in Paris by Elaine Sciolino. If the lives of ordinary Parisians interest you I recommend it. Because I liked it I planned to walk the six blocks or so that make up this small street on this trip and today was the day to do that.
The name rue des Martyrs means street of Martyrs and refers to several early Christian men said to have been killed in this area by the Romans. The northern end of the street is in the part of Paris known as Montmartre. It takes its name from the legend that St. Denis, an early bishop in Paris, after being decapitated picked up his head and walked a mile or more up the hill before dying to the area known “hill of the martyr” today.
Today the best known place in Montmartre is a basilica called Sacre Coeur (Sacred Heart), a giantic church sited on the highest point in Paris. The church was built between 1875 and 1914 as a penance by conservative leaders of Paris. I felt a little like a martyr going there today because I probably climbed more than 200 stairs and spent an hour or more climbing the hill. This is not an easy part of town to reach by public transit.
The church is surrounded by the old village of Montmartre which was independent of the city of Paris until the 1870s. Together the church and the touristy village form one of the most popular tourist destinations in Paris. One reason for this is the spectacular view of all Paris from this highest point in the city. (The pictures I took today aren’t good so I’m using some I took about ten years ago instead.)
Rue des Martyrs is a mix of traditional old shops (such as butchers, bakers, fruit and vegetable vendors, and sellers of cheese and chocolate) and new retailers selling upscale clothing and other trendy merchandise.
Paris has always been a city of very small retail establishments. As I walk through this city I wonder how people can survive and support a family on the income from a shop that repairs shoes or sells baby clothes or costume jewelry. There are hundreds of small, independent book stores in this city.
Each time I’ve come here I’ve noticed more and more chain stores. As rents go up and the proprietors grow old, fewer of the tiny businesses are surviving. That’s the heart of the story told by the book about this street. Nevertheless, there are still many thousands of very small, independent businesses throughout Paris. That makes it fun to wander these streets.