The first time I saw Paris, many years ago, my friends and I headed for Montmartre. We’d seen the movies and heard the stories, and we weren’t about to miss this famous neighborhood. It seemed a bit tawdry, but we didn’t care. We went straight to the Moulin Rouge where we watched women in skimpy outfits dance onstage, while we tasted champagne. No one asked for ID. I had just turned seventeen. Did I mention this was a long time ago?
Montmartre, in the 18th arrondissement, has an intriguing history. Set upon a butte (the “mont”), it was rural, with working windmills and narrow, winding streets — no broad Haussmann-designed boulevards here, as there are in central Paris. And, this working-class neighborhood didn’t become part of the city until 1860. Montmartre was home to artists, writers, and performers looking for cheap lodgings and a tolerance for what some called decadence. Parisians and tourists alike were lured by the dance halls and cabarets.
The Moulin Rouge was the renowned venue for the can-can dancers that so fascinated Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec — and his paintings soon became symbols of the music hall. Over the years, operetta was performed, and singers such as Edith Piaf and Yves Montand held the stage. Now, tourists flock in to see extravaganzas, with dancers more skimpily clad than ever. Dinner and a show at the Moulin Rouge are expensive, and reservations are a must.
Touring the area on The Little Train of Montmartre covers the main sights in 40 minutes (available mid-June to mid- September.) A walking tour, however, allows much more exploration. ParisWalks offers tours three times a week, leading visitors up the winding streets to see the old vineyard, artists’ studios, gardens, and the Sacré Coeur Basilica. Your guide will point out the sites where Picasso, Renoir, Salvador Dali, Monet, Vincent van Gogh, and many other artists lived and painted. Another great tour company is Sight Seekers Delight offering a more theatrical view of Paris.
If you want to walk on your own, pick up a map and try this route: Start at metro station Abbesses, one of the deep underground metro stations, and recently renovated. The curving ironwork entrance is one of two original entrances by Hector Guimard. At Places des Abbesses, you’ll see sidewalk cafes and a carousel – vintage Paris. From here, ride the funicular up to Sacré Coeur for a grand view, or take a longer route, walking rue des Abbesses and rue d’Orsel to leafy Place Charles Dullin. Here Théatre de l’Atelier presents plays on occasion.
Continue on rue des Trois Frères to Progrès restaurant. This corner spot is a good place to enjoy a coffee at an outdoor table before climbing the stairs to Sacré Coeur. The immense white church, visible all over Paris, was built in memory of French soldiers. There’s a garden below, and nearby is Place du Tertre, which tourists are usually urged to avoid. It has a bizarre charm, though, with dozens of artists industriously painting at their easels and urging passersby to stop and have a sketch done.
Escape the crammed Place du Tertre by wandering the more quiet streets. You might encounter the statue of St-Denis, holding his head in his hands; Place Marcel Aymé, where there is a sculpture of a man seeming to emerge from a stone wall; or the famous Montmartre cemetery, resting place of many artists.
Montmartre has several noted restaurants. The charming and fairly inexpensive L’été en pente douce has a pretty terrace and serves excellent salads and wines. If you saw the film Amelie, you may recognize Café des 2 Moulins, where Amelie worked. It’s a nice spot for a coffee and pastry. Le Moulin à Vins is an intimate wine bar/bistro serving traditional dishes such as coq au vin and lamb stew. There’s a good wine selection.
Le Crémaillère 1900 is next to Place du Tertre, but it’s removed from the crush of tourist action. You can dine on the terrace by the square or retreat to a courtyard garden and enjoy classic French food. In the evenings it offers dinner with a cabaret show. For something quite different, try No Stress Café, where you can get a massage or have your fortune told while you enjoy a Sunday brunch.
Make a day of your Montmartre experience; you won’t regret it.
Written by Marilyn McFarlane for EuropeUpClose.com