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CULTURE: Montmartre - Bohemian District of Paris

Post 225 

Guest Post by MikeH

In 2006 I had a wonderful experience that left me with an everlasting memory. This fond moment occurred in Montmartre, in the north of the city of Paris. The place itself added to the moment because of its charm and bohemian character. To this day, Montmartre holds its distinct individual character despite having been swallowed by the city. As you wander around its hilly streets, it makes you believe that you are walking around a country village! 

Sacré-Coeur Basilica
On visiting Paris recently, I had the great opportunity to revisit this charming district, exploring it in more detail and I realized this is a world apart from the rest of the city! Montmartre has captivated Bohemian artists since the Belle Époque (Period of Western European History) and continues to delight tourists today. The whole area has a unique ambience. Joie de vivre is everywhere: merry-go-rounds, quaint sidewalk cafés, and impromptu street performances. Not only is it a touristic area, it has also been a movie set for various films, most notably the French comedy The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain a story depicting the contemporary Parisian life, mostly set in this great district. 

The origin of the word Montmartre is uncertain although according to one of the most accepted theories, Montmartre means “mountain of the martyr” owing its name to the martyrdom of Saint Denis, Bishop of Paris, who was decapitated on the hill around 250 AD. Another theory mentions that the name Mons Martis, or "Mount of Mars" in Latin, survived into Merovingian times (Frankish Period), Gallicised as Montmartre. Archaeological excavations show that the heights of Montmartre were occupied from at least Gallo-Roman times. Earlier excavations during the 17th century at the Fontaine-du-But (2, rue Pierre-Dac) found remains of Roman baths from the 2nd century, supporting the theory of the hill’s earliest occupation. In modern times, excavations that took place in 1975 at the north of the Church of Saint-Pierre found coins dating from the 3rd century and the remains of a major wall!

The first attraction, located at the highest point of this district is the Sacré-Coeur Basilica. Visitors enjoy the panoramic view of Paris from the Basilica's terrace, a favourite place to pose for photos; others lounge on the grassy prom while listening to street musicians. The Sacré-Coeur may have a sober atmosphere inside the sanctuary, but outside, it's a joyful celebration of life with all the visitors around and the live music.
Typical hill with stairs 
A few steps away the Sacré-Coeur stands the Place du Tertre, with are the open-air art galleries and several museums displaying works by Renoir, Picasso, and Dali among other artists, who made this neighbourhood an artists' colony. Packed with colourful artists' stalls, this picturesque stone-paved square is an open-air art gallery that effuses the creative spirit of Montmartre. You can find all kinds of painters, portraitists, and caricaturists, although much of the work is designed to be tourist souvenirs. The square is also lined with lovely 18th-century buildings featuring busy restaurants, crepe stands, and cafés. 

Even when packed with tourists, the Place du Tertre keeps its charm. Standing in the shadow of the Sacré-Coeur and shaded by ancient trees, this space has the feel of a provincial square. It was the main square of the medieval village before Montmartre became incorporated into Paris. The house at number 3 on the square was the town hall of the old village! The narrow lanes surrounding the square are an open invitation for visitors to get lost in its streets. 

Moving forward in the area, one can stumble across two of Montmartre's most photographed sites: the pink-and-green Au Lapin Agile Cabaret and Clos Montmartre, Paris's only working vineyard. While the former cabaret still welcomes revellers after 150 years, the vineyard is closed to visits except during the annual Garden Festival. The stone wall on the northwestern edge of the square borders the peaceful Cimetière St-Vincent, one of the neighbourhood’s three atmospheric cemeteries.

Au Lapin Agile Cabaret
A few blocks away from the vineyard is the Place Dalida, a square dedicated to the diva of French music, Dalida. This small square features a bronze bust dedicated to her. Dalida loved Montmartre, where she lived until her last days. To honour her, Paris devoted a square to her, a large empty corner of two Montmartre streets. The Place Dalida was opened in late April 1997, to mark the 10th anniversary of her death.

Moving on from Place Dalida, the Place Marcel Aymé is famous for its unusual sculpture “Le Passe-muraille”, named after the title of a short story “The Man Who Walked through Walls” by French novelist Marcel-Aymé. The story's main character, Dutilleul, discovers that he "had the remarkable gift of being able to pass through walls with perfect ease". The sculptor is Jean Marais, also known for being an actor, notably for Jean Cocteau. Just like other famous artists, he also lived a long time in Montmartre. 

The man who walked through walls
The little village of Montmartre was once graced with many windmills but they were all taken down except for two: the Moulin Blute-Fin and Moulin Radet, which date back to 1717. Together, these two remaining windmills are known as the Moulin de la Galette, a nostalgic reminder of Montmartre's old windmills. The Moulin de la Gallette provided inspiration for a number of painters including Renoir and Van Gogh.

And last but not least, the Place des Abbesses deserves to be visited. Its unique metro station's entrance is one of only two original glass-covered Guimard entrances, called édicules (kiosks), left in Paris. As a curious anecdote, the station is featured in the movie “The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain” as its main character, Amélie, was actually living in the neighbourhood. 

Place des Abbesses
These are the main sights in the area and of course there are other attractions which deserve to be visited like the famous Moulin Rouge, its wonderful art museums such as the Space Dalí or the Art Naïf. If you are passionate about history, then the Montmartre Museum is the right space for you: this is a place where you can delve into the history of this emblematic district. 

When visiting Paris, take your time to explore Montmartre, admire its stone-paved lanes and discover old churches, hidden squares, little bakeries, and inspirational ateliers. Get lost in its streets and climb its narrow and in some cases, steep stairs. There are so many things to do here that you could spend several days exploring Montmartre! Definitely, I will revisit Montmartre and explore in detail the next time I return to Paris.

Images: Supplied by Author 

About the Author

MikeH, born in Mexico, now living in Barcelona, has an avid interest in ancient history, mythology and a longing to understand early civilisations. When he is not working, you will find him on the tennis paddle court or exploring the historic city of Barcelona while enjoying delicious Spanish tapas. 

Discover more on Ben Kesp, author and writer on the Ben Kesp Website.
Discover how to Contribute on the Ben Kesp Website

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