Wednesday, June 24, 2009


Sacre Coeur, the basilica of the Sacred Heart, offers a panoramic view of Paris.

When a friend recently told me he'd just returned from Paris my first response, as always, was: Quel arrondissement? I am forever eager to learn what secret places people have discovered for their stays. The Marais has long been popular but I was quite surprised to hear him say Montmartre. Although I, too, had made the pilgrimage up the hill to Sacre Coeur I did find the area to be overwrought with tourists. For many years tour companies warned visitors of the rampant pickpockets here. Yet, when one wanders off the beaten path you can really imagine what the bohemian village must have been like at one time.

Set on a hill 130 meters high, Montmartre looks out over the city. Many immortal painters lived and worked in Paris during the late 19th century, Montmartre and its Left Bank equal, Montparnasse, were once the artistic centers of Paris: artists and writers moved into the area because of its proximity to the center of Paris, and its cheap rents. Painters like Picasso, Modigliani, Van Gogh, Renoir, Degas, Toulouse Lautrec, and others lived and worked here.

Place du Tertre, a square in the 18th arrondissement, is located just a few blocks from the basilica. It is here that today’s artists set up their easels and tempt passers-by with their works of art. Artists at the Place du Tertre will ask if they can paint your portrait, which has overwhelming appeal as a souvenir of Paris. Place du Tertre is a throw-back to the days when the world’s best artists lived in Montmartre and did the same, eventually forging a name for themselves in the world of art. It was the era of the "Bateau-Lavoir" (literally, “Washouse-Boat”), a cluster of rundown studios where the artists lived and shared true friendship. These were the times when, equally penniless, they would pace up and down the streets of Montmartre looking for a free dinner in exchange for a picture or a poem. They would all meet at the "Lapin Agile" (Agile Rabbit) knowing that the owners, old Frédé and his wife Berthe, would not let them leave with empty stomachs. They would eat, sing, laugh, and also fight as wine would flow freely and sometimes heat up their personalities. Then they would go dance at the "Moulin de la Galette".

You can still visit the open air cafe which served as the setting of Renoir's "Les Danseurs".

Even if today’s Montmartre has become popular with tourists, it has not lost any of its past genuine charm. Walking down its streets, you are always sure to enjoy the same somewhat bohemian atmosphere. You can still have a meal at the “Moulin de la Galette” (on rue Lepic), or go to the corner of rue St Vincent and rue des Saules, to the “Lapin Agile”. The cartoonist André Gill designed its sign, a rabbit jumping from a saucepan, which gave the restaurant its name. After having climbed the many steps to the top of the hill, it is a very pleasant surprise to discover one of the best viewpoints of Paris (and discover just how flat this city is), to stroll around the Place du Tertre or down the small adjacent streets, such as the beautiful avenue Junot a little lower, or to discover the secret Victorian charm of the Villa Léandre. You may even come across one of these poets or painters who will offer you his creations. And why not go all the way down to the foot of the hill and push open the door to the Moulin Rouge?

The narrow, hilly street of Montmartre.

An atmosphere of creativity bloomed in these narrow streets and made for cozy and inexpensive living. Today it is the enclave of the rich, with the only elevated view of the city. A one bedroom flat with an adequate dining space to entertain your very own circle of artistes can be had these days for 1157 € per week, a sum even a budding Picasso and friends, as they dined, drank and danced, could scarcely afford.

For excellent ideas on things to do and places to stay in Paris we highly recommend the blog: Hip Paris.

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