Montmartre rests on a hill, 130 meters above the sprawling city of Paris. You don’t need a map to find it. Just look out for the very prominent Basilica du Sacré-Cœur, which majestically surveys all that lies at its feet.
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.
What to see and do in Montmartre
Should you ever find yourself in this 18th arrondissement of Paris, the Basilica will likely be the object of your first focus. It is a dominating, white domed Catholic Cathedral that was completed only in 1919. 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 daunting number of steep steps. If you don’t feel up to that, there is a funicular railway that operates as a continuous shuttle right to the entrance. There is no charge to go into the Basilica and the journey is well worth the effort. The exquisitely decorated dome inside is magnificent. When you have finished browsing, 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 Sacré-Cœur, it is a mesmerizing view.
At the rear of Sacré-Cœur is 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 haughty 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 easels plying their trade. They rent their confined patches by the square meter and are all genuinely very talented. Most are happy to chat and describe their renowned artistic backgrounds including some who’ve been cartoonists for many of the most famous global news journals. You can have your portrait drawn or painted either as an accurate representation or as a caricature which takes about 20 minutes and makes for a splendid souvenir. Expect to pay 60 to 80 Euros but you must agree the charge before it is started. Most of the artists 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 packed with tourists enjoying the ambience. The sight and delicious smells are an experience to relish. 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. 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 train with carriages in tow plodding the streets of Montmartre. Children adore it and 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. The painters Maurice Utrillo and Raoul Dufy spent time living at the same address. The 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, well worth a visit.
At the western edge of the hill visit the ‘Cimetiere de Montmartre’. It was established during the French Revolution. It is the artists’ cemetery nowadays and is the final resting place of famous painters and writers including Edgar Degas.
Close by is the rue Saint-Vincent. Located here is one of the few vineyards still active in Paris. Wine is produced annually 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 determined to maintain the wine making industry that has existed in the City since Roman times.
The part of town that lies on the lower slopes close to the edge of Montmartre is very different. It is almost a Parisian art form in itself. Known as the Pigalle district it is the red light area of Paris. Here you will find the celebrated ‘Moulin Rouge’ and the ‘Chat Noir’ night club. Both of these establishments are well known and ever popular. The famous ‘Can Can’ dancing routine was founded at the Moulin Rouge and many famous and successful performers have cut their ‘dancing shoes’ as members of the ‘Can Can’ troupe. The buildings have not weathered the years especially well and a walk through the surrounding streets may reveal the rather less alluring aspects of Parisian life.
Montmartre was established as an official ‘Historic District’ in 1995. As a result of this, planning rules are very restrictive. It is the district of Paris that really typifies popular culture and, though it is just a little kitsch, it proudly and unpretentiously wears the badge.
Bob Lyons is an ex-pilot turned travel writer who loves France and all things French…