When you visit Paris, a detour to the Place du Tertre is a must. It began as a local village square and grew into the buzzing square that it is today, especially in the summer months. It lies just behind the magnificent Cathedral of Sacré Coeur, right on the top of the hill in the district of Montmartre. ‘Place’ means public square and ‘Tertre’ means small hill or butte. It rests 130 meters above the base level and used to be the heartland of the historic Benedictine Montmartre Abbey.
The artists at Montmartre are part of the culture
The Place du Tertre is an active and vigorous centre of commercial artistic talent and classic Parisian café and restaurant life. It draws masses of cosmopolitan visitors during the sunny months.
About 300 artists occupy their rented spaces. They erect their easels and pallets and go about their creative business from around 10 am until dusk. There are about 150 spaces of a square meter, occupied by two artists – each working alternate days. They produce portraits, silhouettes and cartoons to order. Self-conscious visitors sit still as their likeness is captured.
Many of the artists are extraordinarily talented. They have to be to earn the right to rent the space in the first place. They are required to submit examples of their work to the town hall authorities for scrutiny before they are able to begin. There is currently a ten year waiting list.
A hand drawn portrait in any form makes a wonderful souvenir of a Paris visit. The prices vary from 25 to 100 Euros or more. Agree the price before the artist starts his work and you won’t have an unpleasant surprise.
The original artistic foundation for the Place du Tertre comes from the nineteenth and early twentieth century. This part of Paris offered many opportunities for famous artists to come and work and live. A number of these talented people spent periods living in the Montmartre district. They included Picasso, Renoir, Dali, Van Gogh, Pissarro, Modigliani and others too.
Read more about why there are so many artists in Montmartre
All four sides of the square around the artistic centre support a range of always busy classic Gallic restaurants, cafés and bars. Look for the celebrated Café Chez la Catherine, La Crémaillère and La Bohème du Tertre for an authentic Montmartre experience. In fact, it’s claimed that the French term ‘Bistro’ started from earlier days in the Place du Tertre. It originated during the Russian occupation of Paris in 1814. The Cossack soldiers would often take a drink in the cafés before their little battles. They would call ‘Bystro’, meaning quickly, before they were ordered to fight. Legend has it that the term Bistro has stuck ever since.
There are quaint shops around the edges of the square. Quite a number sell art works and souvenirs of Paris at prices that appeal to the tourists. The top of Montmartre and the Place du Tertre rest at the peak of the highest hill in Paris. Reach them by trekking up a steep slope or take the funicular railway (you can use your metro ticket to ride). This will take you up to the base of Sacré Coeur. From here you can pay to take a tour on a little train.
On Christmas Eve in 1898, Louis Renault drove up that steep hill to the Place du Tertre in one of his new motor cars. As a result he got his first 12 orders and the rest, as they say, is history…
By Bob Lyons, ex-pilot turned travel writer.