Friday, May 20, 2016

Staying in Paris: Marvellous Montmartre

Basilica Sacré Couer

We met up with my sister and her family during our time in Paris. We all stayed together in a quirky and interesting flat in Montmartre - chosen because it's tough to find an affordable place large enough for two families and seven people if you don't want people camping out and sleeping in the living room. 

Montmartre isn't in the heart of Paris - as in being easily walkable to what people view as the traditional sites - with the Metro, everything is a short ride away. Plus, the neighbourhood of Montmartre has its own unique history that makes it unique and interesting area to stay while in Paris. It has it all, from Romans to a Christian martyr to monks and nuns, to providing a home and inspiration for artists with some of the most recognizable works of our time, to the current day les bobos (bourgeois-bohemians). 

Mont does mean mountain so be prepared for a few uphill climbs.

Admittedly, while the edges of the neighbourhood are not the most attractive and are lined with tourist shops hawking cheap Eiffel Towers, bits of tacky neon, and a red-light district, a walk through the heart of the neighbourhood reveals so much more. 

There are bakeries, pastry shops, cheese shops, butchers, and fruit and vegetable stands galore. You get the sense that it would be very easy to quickly build up your neighbourhood of familiar faces by visiting the same shops just a couple times.

Sadly, I have photos of neither the seedy nor the food. We had cool, wet weather and I just didn't think to haul out my camera more frequently. But sometimes an imagination is just as good.

You can see Napoleon's tomb off in the distance (the golden dome, of course).

As we ventured deeper into the neighbourhood we found some glorious residential streets with quiet parks, playgrounds, and some surprisingly huge houses. So much history and character jammed into this place, and we didn't even have a chance to see it all. Next time I plan to add the cemetery to my list.

The name Montmartre means Mount of Martyrs and refers to Saint Denis' martyrdom. Around 250 AD, Denis, who was Bishop of Paris, was doing his job. The Romans were not fans, and decided to crucify poor Denis at the top of the hill behind where the Basilica Sacré Couer now stands. But the walk was long and the guards impatient. So, the guards cut off his head. Denis picked up his head, walked up and over the hill to the north, handed his head to a woman and asked that she build a church to bury him. That's where the name for the suburb of Saint Denis hails, and explains why in every depiction of Saint Denis, he's holding his head. Needless to say, the kids loved this story and it has been repeated often.

Saint Denis holding his head in Montmartre

For the next few centuries, Montmartre had nuns, a monastery, farm fields, vineyards and windmills. It grew to be a village on the outskirts of Paris where taxes were lower and rents cheaper than in Paris. But then Paris needed to grow. In 1860 Montmartre became the 18th arrondissement of Paris.
A vineyard from an old order of nuns remains and produces a few hundred bottles of wine every year.

The area became less agrarian, and more urban and working class. The lower part of the hill saw increasing rents, but as one climbed up the hill rents continued to drop. The artists came. And not just any artists were hanging out here; now famous artists called Montmartre home: Renoir, Pisarro, Degas, Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec, Seurat, Van Gogh, Picasso to name just a few.
Not many windmills remain, but this one does.

These artists brought with them the bohemian style for which the area became known. Cabarets and dance halls opened (like the Moulin Rouge) and the can-can dance appeared giving fancy Parisians a place to go and hang out with the wilder side of life before returning to their comfortable and quiet homes in the heart of Paris. 

The Moulin Rouge

A variety of famous singers made their debuts in Montmartre, including Edith Piaf. The  singer, Dalida (who we were told was famous and there is a bust of her in Montmartre so it must be true), made her home in Montmartre from 1962 until her death in 1987.

Dalida together with our walking tour guide. Of course someone started the rumour that touching Dalida in a certain place will bring good luck. As you can see, people don't pass up any opportunity for extra luck.

As for the statue of the man below, it's based on a short story about a man who lived in Montmartre, "Le Passe-Muraille" by Marcel Aymé. The man had the ability to walk through walls. He made no use of his power until he had a boss that annoyed him. Then he drove his boss crazy, started to burgle banks and jewellery shops, and started to visit his married girlfriend. He developed a headache, took what he thought were headache pills, and oh my, he started to lose his power while walking through a wall. Yup. He was stuck. Yet again, another great story for the kids.

If only he hadn't taken the pills he thought were for a headache.

Today, the area around Sacré Couer is swarming with tourists, as is the Place du Tertre, a square at the top of the mountain behind Sacré Couer where many artists set up their easels in the hopes that a tourist will stop by to buy something or have a portrait sketched. But just a short walk away you do discover a quiet corner of Paris. For example, the Dalí Museum is just a few steps from the Place du Tertre and it has a much calmer and less crowded atmosphere. 

Like many older working class neighbourhoods, the rich young are moving in -- les bobos (the bourgeois-bohemians). Our walking tour guide described them best: rich people pretending not to be rich, and freely telling you how you should live to save the world. He freely admitted he wants to be a bobo, but he can't afford to be one. Undoubtedly this group moving in impacts the working class people of the area, who likely can no longer afford to live here. I tried not think about that as we enjoyed our own fabulous apartment.

When we return to Paris in June, we won't be staying in Montmartre -- mostly because there are so many other neighbourhoods in Paris to explore. But if we return someday, I would never rule out Montmartre. And if you find yourself looking for a place to stay in Paris, don't be shy about including Montmartre in your search - just make sure you know where the ickier side of life can be found if you're going to be getting out and about after dark.

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