Montmartre, the Parisian District of Popular Culture and Colour
These days, I like to visit Paris now and again. I feel that I am keeping myself topped up with a sense of youthful Gallic life that always makes me feel twenty years younger. I like to revitalise my consciousness with a dose of grown up culture, sight and sound. I go to immerse myself in the pattern of an enduring and enthusiastic pursuit of hedonistic life. I never feel that my visit is complete until I have walked up the hill to Montmartre. This is the district of Paris that is almost the very womb of popular culture and is available for all. Montmartre is actually just a little kitsch. It proudly wears the badge though and can be enjoyed unpretentiously by everyone.
Montmartre rests on a hill, 130 meters above all of its surroundings in the north east of the City. You don’t need a map to find it. Just look out for the very prominent Basilica du Sacre-Cour. You can’t miss it as it surveys all things that lie beneath it under the crest of the peak. The name Montmartre translates as ‘mountain of the martyr’. The name reminds France of one of its patron saints, St. Denis, who was decapitated there for his Christian beliefs in 250 AD.
Should you ever find yourself in this 18th arrondissement of Paris, The Basilica will be the object of your first focus. It is a dominating, white domed Catholic Cathedral that was completed only in 1919. It looks as though it ought to be a much more senior piece of imposing architecture. Its construction commemorated the end of the Franco Prussian War and it sits right at the top of the hill. If you feel energetic, you can reach it by walking up a large number of steep steps. If you don’t feel up to that, there is a funiculaire railway that operates as a continuous shuttle right to the entrance. There is no charge to go into the Basilica. The view of the exquisitely decorated dome from the inside is magnificent. When you have finished browsing, come outside again and take in the view of most of Paris spread out beneath you. On a clear day, every single well known architectural feature of the City can be surveyed from the great doors of Sacre Cour. For new visitors, the spectacle is mesmerizing.
Walk around to the rear of Sacre-Cour and survey the much less imposing but much older church of Saint-Pierre de Montmartre. This church claims to be the birthplace of the Jesuit order of priests, an ancient component of the Catholic Church. The building rests rather like a wallflower in the shadow of the arrogant and overbearing Basilica.
Just a few steps from this ecclesiastical showcase of Montmartre can be found the sizzling Place du Tertre. In the summer months you will hardly be able to move due to the tourist throng. This square is awash with artists with their easels all plying their trade. They rent their confined patches by the square meter and they are all genuinely very talented. I have spoken to a number of them. They have described their renowned artistic backgrounds. Some have been cartoonists for many of the most famous global news journals. You can have your portrait drawn or painted. It will take about 20 minutes and will be done very skilfully. You can have it either as an accurate representation or as a caricature. The result will really make a splendid souvenir of any visit to Paris. The cost will vary from 60 to 80 Euros but you must agree the charge before it is started. Most of the artists in the Place du Tertre have not lost a sharp eye for a bit of profit.
The Place du Tertre is lined on all four sides by the most instantly recognizable of Parisian Cafes and Bistros. Once again, during the summer months, they are all full to the gunnels with tourists enjoying the atmosphere. The sight and delicious smells of the culinary action taking place is almost a separate experience in itself. The word ‘Bistro’ is very much a French expression for a light cafe. Montmartre was occupied by Russian soldiers during the course of the battle of Paris in 1814. Before going into any scuffle they needed a fast drink of something strong. They would go into the little restaurants and demand a ‘Bystro’. This word meant ‘quick’ in Russian, short for a demand for a quick drink. The French word Bistro has stuck.
Montmartre especially and the Place du Tertre are both very much the home of nineteenth century impressionist art and artists. Many of the celebrated painters of the time lived and worked around this hill in Paris. Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, Camille Pissarro and Vincent van Gogh were all members of a much larger group that practised their profession in this district. Virtually all of the tourist shops in this arrondissement sell very well produced prints of the most famous impressionist works.
Generally, during the high season, there is a little, smartly decorated and petrol propelled train with its carriages in tow plodding the streets of Montmartre. Tourists are persuaded to purchase a ticket and view the local features from this patrolling vehicle. Children adore it but the discerning adult visitor generally chooses to avoid it. There is something curiously non French about this rather un-blending means of transport. I have never used it but find that it is a strangely subtle part of the artistic ‘kitschness’; a contribution to the rather louder side of the culture of Montmartre. It is fun to watch.
In nearby rue Cartot, Pierre-Auguste Renoir rented space in a house. From here he created what has often been described as the most beautiful painting of the nineteenth century, the ‘Bal du Moulin de la Galette’. This depicts a Sunday afternoon dance that took place around the very famous windmill nearby. A print of it hangs on my wall at home in England and I love it. The painters Maurice Utrillo and Raoul Dufy spent time living at the same address. The house buildings were once part of the Hotel de Marne and the Maison du Bel Air. They were converted into the public Museum of Montmartre in 1960 and a visit is very much worth the time.
Go to the western edge of the hill and visit the ‘Cimetiere de Montmartre’. It was established during the French Revolution. It is the artist’s cemetery nowadays and contains the remains of many famous painters and writers. See if you can find the headstone for the celebrated Edgar Degas.
Close by is the rue Saint-Vincent. Located here is one of the few vineyards still active in Paris. Wine is still produced from this land and is marketed commercially. About 500 litres are distilled each year and can be bought from local shops. The cost of a bottle is actually rather high but the profits are used to support local charities. Present day Parisian officials are very determined to maintain a wine making industry that has existed in the City for centuries.
The part of town that lies on the lower slopes close to the edge of Montmartre can be a little seedy and tacky. It is a quarter though that is almost a Parisian art form in itself. It is called the Pigalle district and is really the red light area of Paris. Here you can find the celebrated ‘Moulin Rouge’ and the ‘Chat Noir’ night club. Both of these establishments are well known and continue to function just as they always did during their origins. A close inspection externally will show that they have not weathered the years especially well. The Pigalle, shall I say, tends to attract visitors of less sophisticated taste and grace. A walk through the surrounding streets will reveal the rather less alluring aspects of Parisian life. The famous ‘Can Can’ dancing routine was founded at the Moulin Rouge and continues to function today in its original style. Strangely, many currently famous and successful performers have cut their ‘dancing shoes’ as members of the ‘Can Can’ troupe. I used to work with one of the English ‘apprentices’ in an earlier life. She adored her experience in Paris.
Montmartre was established as an official ‘Historic District’ in 1995. As a result of this, planning rules are very restrictive. Paris is determined to preserve the area in its original form. Officials see Montmartre as the primary location of modern Parisian culture in its rawest form. Montmartre is easily and instantly appealing to all visitors. Underneath the rather coarse veneer however, their lies much in the way of skilful art, culinary grace and event changing history. Take a visit sometime and sense the depth of the culture that lies beneath the skin.