A village with a unique history sits on a hill, a city sprawling at its feet. That, at least, is how Montmartre feels when you wander its streets and glimpse the sweeping vistas of Paris that its elevated status affords. Even amidst the tourist hoards – and this is as touristy as it gets – Montmartre still feels special. This is, after all, the place that nurtured innumerable writers and artists, and is the home of the legendary Moulin Rouge.
Montmarte is famed for the alternative lifestyle that it afforded the many artists that have taken inspiration from it. Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec are chief amongst those who have immortalised this patch of the 18th arrondissement, its cabarets and Chartreuse-drinking ways. It’s an area that has become very touristed, but no visit to Paris would be complete without a few hours spent walking Montmartre’s lanes.
We had a lunch in Montmarte that perfectly defines why it’s different to much of the rest of the world. Descending down steep flights of stairs and narrow streets from Place du Tertre, and the crush of people at the Sacre Coeur, we found a quiet cafe on a corner to sit and relax. Fate had a far more interesting experience in store for us.
As we sat enjoying a glass of wine, a delivery vehicle drove past spilling liquid all over the cobbled street. We assumed it was water. It was vegetable oil, and it turned the street into an ice rink. People slipped and fell over. Cars almost crashed. Luckily, a couple of drunks decided this state of affairs couldn’t continue. Through a mixture of shouted warnings and elaborate mimes, they stopped cars and pedestrians to warn them of the dangers.
It was an entertaining couple of hours of unintentional street theatre, that brought the local community together to watch and critique the situation. This vignette of local life and local characters, seemed a long way from the crowds and tour groups that throng the main streets and squares of Montmartre, and the ever-present caricature artists roaming around looking for a commission.
Montmartre itself has come a long way from the predominantly working-class neighbourhood that was known for its revolutionary politics, and attracted artists, writers and intellectuals to its bohemian way of life. Subversive politics, and a rejection of the morality of the day, thrived in Montmartre’s vibrant cafes and raucous cabarets. It would be hard to make that claim today.
There are still some rough edges to the area, but tourism and gentrification have taken their toll on Montmartre’s bohemian legacy. I doubt a struggling artist like Van Gogh, or even an established artist like Toulouse-Lautrec, would be able to afford the rents today. They’d be horrified by the prices being asked in the area’s cafes and restaurants.
We started our wander around Montmartre at the Abbesses metro station, home to the I Love You wall, and made our way down narrow streets and up steep stairways taking in the area’s most famous sights: the Bateau Lavoire in Place Émile Goudeau, where Picasso and many other artistic luminaries lived; the 17th century Moulin de la Galette, a flour mil immortalised by Renoir and Van Gogh; the Lapin Agile cabaret; Montmartre’s vineyards; Sacré-Cœur; and the Place du Tertre.
It’s an evocative and, away from the crowds, atmospheric place. For all of Montmartre’s sights though, it will be our lunch and street cabaret that sticks in the memory.