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Wednesday
Sep192012

Montmartre

Pigalle.  Le Moulin Rouge and le Moulin de la Galette. Artists and cabaret dancers.  Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril.  Drinkers and “poseurs” - the very word Pigalle seems to sum up all that is naughty about Paris, or at least all that people think is naughty.

Today, Pigalle tries hard to live up to the expectations of the visitors who still come looking for traces of the romanticized Naughty Nineties (of the 1890s variety, I hasten to add).

Pigalle, with its dubious cinemas and peepshows, is at the foot of probably the most famous of the hills in Paris, Montmartre. Montmartre has many claims to fame : it was (and still is) home to innumerable artists and writers. It was briefly an independent commune in the 19th century. And it is the site of the only vineyard in Paris.

Part of the fun is getting to Montmartre.  You can walk up the steep cobbled streets from Pigalle.  Or you can take the funicular train, for a quick ride up the hill, admiring the view as you go.

In the early 19th century, Montmartre was a pretty country village, way outside Paris.  Since Baron Haussmann had not yet built the wide streets and avenues that would so alter the physiognomy of Paris, access to Montmartre was difficult and so land was consequently cheap.  Artists gradually settled there, and the inhabitants of “La Butte” (the knoll) read like a roll call of the French literary and artistic scene of the 19th-century - Berlioz, Heinrich Heine, Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir, Van Gogh, Utrillo.  The artists congregated in cafes and bars, or at the Moulin Rouge nightclub, whose singers and dancers such as Jane Avril and la Goulue were immortalised by Toulouse-Lautrec in his paintings.

Today, coach-loads of visitors follow in the artistic steps of these 19th-century Bohemians, gravitating to the pretty Place du Tertre. This little square, which has come to symbolize Montmartre in the eyes of many visitors, still manages to retain a charming village atmosphere about it, especially in the mornings, before Montmartre has welcomed its day's quota of visitors. 

Later in the day, artists of varying skill and price set up their easels on the cobblestones of the Place du Tertre. Visitors stroll, sit and have their portrait sketched, or sip a drink at a pavement cafe.  There are paintings galore on sale, too, mainly endless romanticized reproductions of Montmartre.

Dominating Montmartre is the striking white Basilica of Sacré Coeur (Sacred Heart), an integral part of the Paris skyline, with its 19th-century Romano-Byzantine inspired  cupolas and dome.  From the dome there is a superb view of the city, and on the steps in front of the church, you can sit and listen to folk musicians, gospel singers and would-be rock stars strutting their stuff.

One of the surprises of this admittedly major tourist mecca, is the existence of a tiny vineyard, the Montmartre vineyard.  The vineyard celebrates the start of the grape harvest on the first Saturday of October, and if you ask for it in the local restaurants, you can taste the wine which is usually consumed its exclusively in the cafes and restaurants around the Butte.

Around the vineyard are pretty ivy-covered houses, little flights of steps, and the famous rustic looking “Au lapin agile” bar, the haunt of well-known writers and artists in the early 20th century, which is now haunted by equally earnest 21st-century hopefuls.

At the beginning of the 20th century there were still many windmills on Montmartre, but only a couple are still in existence today - the picturesque Moulin de la Galette, and on the corner of the rue Lepic, the Radet windmill.

As befits this bohemian neighbourhood, Montmartre cemetery is the last resting place of many artists, among them the Russian dancer Nijiknsky, the Impressionist painter Degas, and the local artist, Poulbot. 

Look in any souvenir shop in Paris, and you will still see reproductions of Poulbot’s iconic line drawings of cute wide-eyed waifs, that have come to epitomise the spirit of Montmartre.

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