Montmartre is a truly unique neighbourhood and a favourite of many Parisians. Our local editor Magali recently had the opportunity to stay a few days in this well-known part of Paris and wished to share her experiences with you.
Less than two centuries ago Montmartre was just a quiet village outside of Paris. It only became part of the French capital in 1860. It saw many transformations before becoming the Montmartre that we now know and love today. The picturesque landscape disappeared and was replaced with winding cobblestone streets, private gardens and wealthy residences.
Montmartre became famous in the middle of the 20th century thanks to numerous artists who lived and worked in the area, including Picasso, Utrillo, Renoir, Modigliani and Van Gogh to name just a few.
The crowds at Place du Tertre and Sacré-Coeur seem to indicate that Montmartre’s artistic years are a thing of the past. Along the narrow streets, however, you can still find many discrete art galleries, meet artists and stumble across drawings and posters.
This small museum was a great discovery. It consists of two houses where the artists Auguste Renoir, Suzanne Valadon, Émile Bernard, Emile Othon Friesz and Raoul Dufy once lived.
In the first building, several drawings and paintings show you the complete transformation of Montmartre across the centuries. You can get an insight into what the area was like before it was annexed to Paris. For a long time Montmartre was a modest village mainly composed of huts. Inhabitants made a living out of subsistence agriculture and mills. There’s a room that’s dedicated to the uprising of 1871 when the people of Montmartre erected barricades and fought against the government’s army.
Another room is a basic reconstruction of a 19th-century café. A well-preserved zinc bar reminds you that the area was highly frequented by 19th and 20th-century nightclubbers. It’s also interesting to see the old posters for balls and parties that took place at numerous cabarets in the area.
French cancan lovers will enjoy the room dedicated to this famous and audacious dance. There are drawings, pictures and cabaret posters that put faces to the pioneers of this dance that requires mad energy, balance and flexibility. Not so many dancers could (and dared) to dance it. Those who could follow the hot rhythms had nicknames: la Goulue (the Glutton), Jane Avril (Jane April), Valentin le Désossé (Valentin the Boneless) and Grille d’Egout (Sewer Grating).
Montmartre was (and still is) a major nightlife and entertainment hotspot. Painters, artists, songwriters, singers, dancers, poets, writers and comedians used to mingle with businessmen, criminals and ordinary folk who simply wanted to have a good time. This diverse mix of people filled the numerous cabarets, café-theatres and circuses, contributing largely to the creation of Montmartre’s popular spirit.
The second house currently hosts the exhibition “The Spirit of Montmartre and Modern Art, 1875–1910”. The exhibition reminds visitors of the story of the famous Lapin Agile cabaret and cultural hub where famous artists like Picasso used to go to meet friends and non-friends who were opposed to cubism.
Le Chat Noir (The Black Cat) was a famous cabaret as well as a newspaper. French speakers have the opportunity to read some of the articles. The cabaret also hosted shadow theatre spectacles. At a time when TV and the Internet didn’t exist, this kind of show met great success!
Le Lapin Agile and Le Chat Noir exhibited artists from various artistic fields such as Les Hydropathes, Les Arts Incohérents and Le Fumisme.
Les Hydropathes was a literary club. The name translates to: “for people who don’t like water”. Artists, poets and students who loved wine and literature used to meet every night to compose music and create verses. Les Arts Incohérents exhibited drawings by people who didn’t know how to draw. The goal of this insolent art form was to make the audience laugh. All artworks were accepted, with the exception of obscene and overly serious submissions. According to Le Fumisme, nothing is sacred. Irony and derision created a new form of humour more relevant to contemporary life at the time.
The Fumist and Hydropathe artists bore the brunt of Montmartre’s bloody period. The army killed thousands of Parisians. It was a hard time for humour in general. Young and disillusioned people decided to meet and cultivate laughter until reaching absurdity and nonsense.
Humourists and other artists also met to break the rules – freedom and humour are inseparable after all. Léandre, Guirand de Scevola and Jossot are important illustrators and caricaturists of this period. Their controversial drawings were published in satirical journals like Le Rire (Laugh), Frou Frou, L’Assiette au Beurre (The Butter Plate) and La Vie en Rose (Life in Pink). They greatly contributed to the social, ironic, caricaturist and subversive spirit of Montmartre.
In the second house you can also visit the apartments of Suzanne Valandon and her son Maurice Utrillo. Suzanne Valandon is one of few female artists who lived
in Montmartre. Once you enter the apartment, the atmosphere changes completely. You really must experience the feeling of being inside Suzanne’s home.
Gastronomy in Montmartre
Montmartre is not only known for its artists, but also for its gastronomy. There are many restaurants, brasseries, cafés and bakeries where you can enjoy traditional French cuisine. I was delighted to visit Le Grenier à Pain. This bakery was awarded the “best baguette in Paris“ title in 2010. I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t buy a baguette, but instead chose the fougasse (flat bread) with figs and goat cheese. It was just amazing! The combination of the figs and goat cheese was perfect.
Arnaud Larhrer is another excellent address. I stumbled upon this bakery and chocolate shop, and the name resonated with me as our local Hélène had previously recommended it. The phrase Meilleur Ouvrier de France (Best French Craftsman) particularly caught my attention. M.O.F. is a very demanding competition for craftsmen working in very different disciplines, from carpentry to hairstyling to butchery. It’s a particularly prestigious competition as winners are recognised as the best within their field, and the President himself awards the winners. So, when you see this prestigious mention in a shop, you can be sure that the products and service are of the highest quality. Chef Arnaud Larhrer was awarded the M.O.F. in 2007 in the pastry and candy category. I was more than happy to have discovered this bakery. I got three chocolate sponge cakes with different fillings for €2.90 each – a very good price!
Finally, I was very lucky to have dinner at the gastronomic restaurant Le Chamarré. The chef is Antoine Heerah. He was born in Mauritius and was awarded one Michelin star in 2003. He currently owns four restaurants in Paris: Le Moulin de la Galette, Au Clocher de Montmartre, Antoine de Montmartre and Le Chamarré.
Le Moulin de la Galette is known for its popular balls of the mid-19th century. Parisians came here to admire French cancan dancers and to dance themselves. Renoir immortalised this ball in the painting Le Moulin de la Galette, which is exhibited at the Orsay Museum.
Let’s go back to the Chamarré restaurant. Diversity and unusual flavour combinations are the leitmotivs of head chef Antoine Heerah. He successfully combines Mauritian and French flavours, the result being an inventive, unique and personal cuisine. The €39 dinner menu gives you the chance to enjoy a starter, a main course and a dessert without completely blowing your budget.
Stroll around the streets
Strolling around the streets of Montmartre is a real pleasure, even in the depths of winter. Every corner is a surprise and you never know what you might stumble upon. Numerous narrow streets with stairways leading to the top of the butte create a unique atmosphere, adding to the charm of the area, and the views from the top are stunning.
I put on my warmest clothes and took some time to discover streets that I didn’t already know. One of my goals was to see Place Dalida. I knew that Dalida, a famous and beloved singer in France, had lived in Montmartre, but until this point I hadn’t had the opportunity to visit the square dedicated to her. She was born in Egypt and made her career in France from the 50s to the 80s. Tragically, she died in 1987 after committing suicide.
I then made my way to rue de l’Abreuvoir. I was very happy to see that the village atmosphere didn’t disappear at all. Sometimes a bus or a car passed by, but mostly the inhabitants enjoy quietness that’s very rare for the French capital.
I ended my short journey near the Sacré-Coeur basilica. It took 44 years to build this iconic cathedral. A room in the Montmartre Museum shows the different steps of its construction and explains the difficulties involved in carrying out such a huge project during a complex political period.
A day in Montmartre was a great experience! I’m even wondering why I didn’t explore more of this landmark before. My fingers and feet were frozen and it wasn’t always easy to find my way, but I was rewarded! I learnt a lot, enjoyed delicious food and tried to capture the atmosphere of this special place. I hope I will return.
Have you explored the neighbourhood of Montmartre? We would love to hear about your experiences!
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Magali is a project manager in the luxury hospitality industry. She was born in Nice, France. She recently moved to San Francisco, California, after having worked in Paris for six years. The City of Light is still in her heart and she never misses the opportunity to wander its streets and discover new spots each time she returns to France. She also lived in Italy when she was a student. One of her dreams is to travel the entire country in a single month by car.
Opening photo credit: Cédric Paul