For All Things Art Visit Paris’ Montmartre


It seems almost every corner of Paris is historically and culturally endowed – complete with charm and hidden treasures of storeyed delights.  One of these charming spots of Paris is without a doubt the mecca for all things arty and bohemian – the hilltop district of Montmartre in Paris’ 18th arrondissment.  The lively and energy charged Montmartre is complete with hidden gems, artistic treasures and trails left behind by famous artists and thespians.  Here is where you’ll find the famous Moulin Rouge and Sacre Ceour with the famous steps of this etherealy white church cascading down the hill to reveal one of the most spectacular views of Paris.  Here on the stairs of the Sacre Ceour is where lovers, Parisians and tourists come to absorb the magic and allure of Paris.  Montmartre is a must when visiting Paris for here is where the heart and soul of the city’s history, charm and artistic inspiration can be discovered.   However necessary it is to visit Montmartre for its signature sights there is so much more to this captivating part of Paris to explore and discover so read on to find out what makes Montmartre an alluring place to see and explore.

Montmartre rests at 130 metres high up on a hill and can be spotted by its most famous site the pure white, Roman Byzantine Sacre Ceour or Sacred Heart Basilica.  This marvelous structure is actually not that old as it was completed in 1914 after breaking ground in 1875 and rests somewhere between heaven and earth at a commanding height of 83 metres.   If you’re eager and willing enough to climb to the top of the Sacre Ceour’s belltower you will be rewarded and mesmerised by the most spectacular and unobstructed views of Paris.  The pristine white of the Basilica’s stone is completely natural and is a result of calcites that are secreted from the stone due to rainwater which in turn acts like bleach naturally maintaining the structures ethereal appeal.  The Sacre Ceour competes with the Eiffel Tour as the highest monumental structure in Paris and like the Eiffel can be seen from almost every point and corner of the city. During our last revisit to Montmartre, a bubbly shopkeeper revealed an interesting fact that visitors searching for solace can stay at the Sacre Ceour’s guest house for free provided that they pray during the night for the duration of their stay.

For the longest time, Montmartre was a separate commune of Paris and was self sustaining due to having its own farmlands and vin yards, its own laws and way of functioning.  As a consequence apartment rental, food and wine here was exceptionally cheap as it was not a desirable place to live and there was no wine tax.  Drugs, prostitution and homosexuality were also tolerated here which is why it attracted the most unusual, avant guard and lucid characters, drug dealers and small time traders.  It’s easy to understand why Montmartre was attractive to the struggling artists in the days of Monet, Renoir, Van Gough and Picasso before they made a name for themselves in the artictic world.  However, it wasn’t just the affordability of Montmartre that drew these famous artists to the area it was the district itself with its alluring appeal, winding narrow streets, tumbling architecture, inspiring views and notorious nightlife and cabarets that provided endless possibilities of subjects to paint and sketch.

In the days when Montmartre was a haven for artists this hilltop area was divided into two parts – the higher and lower Montmartre.  The Higher Montmartre was where painters, sculptors and sketchers gravitated and where most of the artistic trails can be located shooting off from the most significant landmark known as Place du Tertre – a square where artists to this day can be seen painting scenes and portraits in real time.  The lower part of Montmartre is marked by the Clichy and Pigalle Boulevards which were filled with cafes, restaurants and ballrooms which were and still are the tradition of the area and where wealthy Parisians and bougousie would go to escape Paris to relish in debauchery even if temporarily.

To understand the heart and soul of Montmartre is to follow the trails left behind by famous artists like Picasso, Renoir, Van Gough and Lautrec.  Place du Tetre, the famous artists square at the top of the hill, is a great place to start where 300 painters and charicaturists can be seen and are authorised to paint, sketch tourists, sculpt, show and sell their works.  Having a tiny spot here is a privilege to artists as the waiting list for a permit to work at the Place du Tetre can be up to ten years.  Here at this very artistic square is where you must plan to spend quite a bit of time exploring, having your portrait sketched by an up and coming artist and soaking up the quaint and charming atmosphere at a nearby café or bistro.  Perhaps your bistro of choice might be La Mere Catherine the oldest restaurant at Place du Tetre where it is believed the word “bistro” itself came to be.  During the Russian invasion of Paris in the early nineteenth century, a group of famished Russian soldiers came to dine at La Mere Catherine and frustrated by the slow service shouted the word bystro at the dismissive waiters which translates to hurry or quick! in Russian.  Very soon, the word bistro became the moniker of a restaurant where traditional and reasonably priced French fare would be served quickly.  If dining inside La Mere Catherine, take the time to observe some of the historic, untouched features of its interior like the exposed wooden beams, dark wood walls and worn terra cotta tiles.  However, if the weather permits take a seat outside La Mere Catherine or outdoors in any of the nearby restaurants at the place du Tetre to people watch and appreciate the artistic scenes unfold before your eyes whilst taking in the sounds of talented street musicians playing old Parisians tunes.

From place du Tetre head down the hill to 54 Rue Lepic where Van Gough lived temporarily with his brother on the 2nd floor of the building – a plaque on the front façade of the building indicates that you indeed are at the right.  Continue your walk slightly further to 83 Rue Lepic to see and perhaps dine in the oldest remaining wind mill in Montmarte and the sight of famous artistic activity – Le Moulin de la Galette.  This enchanting windmill got its name in the nineteenth century when the owners of the mill at the time made a wholesome brown bread known as the galette.  Locals and visitors to Montmartre would come to Le Moulin de la Galette to seek entertainment and to enjoy a glass of regional wine, freshly milled and baked bread when the mill converted to a cabaret.  After some years, a dance hall was built on the mill’s terrace around 1830 extending the immaculate views of the hill and Paris.  Here is where the poorer gentlemen would come with their ladies for entertainment, cheap wine and bread and for a dance while the wealthier gentlemen opted for the Moulin Rouge and dance halls down the hill for a more unconventional and illicit experience. Visiting this whimsical mill will inspire you as much as it did artists such as Auguste Renoir who painted the famous Bal du moulin de la Galette in 1876 and Van Gough who painted a series of works of the moulin that depict how it appeared in days of long ago.  Talouse-Lautrec also captured the soirees held at the ballroom of the mill in his vibrant Au bal du moulin de la Galette in 1889.

As you continue your exploration of Montmartre make a stop at 49 Rue Gabrielle where Picasso lived when he first came to Paris – a plaque on the front façade of the building will indicate that you have arrived.  And speaking of the great Pablo Picasso, head to the historically significant and not to be missed Le Bateau Lavoir at number 13 Rue Ravignan at Place Emile Goudeau just below the Place du Tetre.  It was here at this site where significant art history was made and where great artists and writers like Max Jacob, Apolinaire, Picasso, Modigliani, Van Dongen and Juan Gris lived for the cheap rent before becoming successful.  Le Bateau Lavoir translates to laundry boat in French and got its peculiar name because of its resemblance to the run down wooden boats where laundry items would be seen hanging to dry up on deck.   The wooden building used to be a piano factory with poor heating and water supply and comprised of a cluster of many studios where artists lived and painted and was the melting pot for modern art at the start of the 20th century.  It was nick named by the poet Max Jacob as the “central laboratory of painting” and it was here in this very building where Picasso revolutionised art and where he painted the very first cubist painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon that began a whole new movement.  Picasso once said it was at the Bateau Lavoir where he and his circle of artist friends were truly happy and at their creative peak.   In 1970, the Bateau Lavoir was almost completely destroyed by fire after having been listed as a heritage site and so was rebuilt in concrete in 1978 into 25 art studios.  These art studios are very difficult to come by and are usually allocated to young artists most of who reside and work there or just to create.

Rewind a few decades back to when Degas and Talouse Lautrec painted their famous dance and ballroom scenes here at Montmartre.  Toulouse Lautrec became famously known as the artist who depicted the underbelly of Paris in Montmarte and who resided with the prostitutes and dancers in the shadier quarters of the Moulin Rouge – another great place to visit especially to see the famous cabaret show inside (make sure you book in advance).  Lautrec reveled painting the saucy night life of debauchery led by daring members of the bourgeoisie, actors and poets who became part of the collective of peculiar characters that gravitated to the Pigalle district of Montmartre.  While Toulouse depicted the sinister and dark side of Pigalle, artists like Renoir and Degas worked on their romantic impressionistic scenes especially Renoir who became enamoured by the house and gardens at 12 Rue Cortot where he also resided and painted many lovely scenes there of the garden and its swing. Renoir also lived at 6 Rue de l’Abreuvoir which is lined with charming houses, trees and where Renoir must have been incredibly inspired.  Suzanne Valadon, who at first was a muse and model to many artists including Degas and Renoir later switched roles and became an accomplished artist herself and was the first female artist to have her work exhibited at the Societe Beaux Arts.  Salvador Dali also came to be inspired at Montmartre and you can see some of his works displayed at 11 Rue Poulbot at the gallery named The Espace Dali where 300 pieces of his incredible works can be seen at this permanent exhibition created in his memory and honour a few steps away from the Place du Tetre.

To uncover more art history while walking in the footsteps of artists, head to the well discovered and highly photographed pink house at 22 Rue des Saules to see Au Lapin Agile one of the most famous cabarets in Montmartre.  The cabaret was rescued from demolition by the infamous nightclub proprietor, actor and  comedian Aristide Bruant, who featured in a few Talouse Lautrec poster art pieces.  The Lapin Agile was a hot spot for artists who gravitated to this charismatic cabaret for cheap wine and meals and to be inspired by other artists who came here carry out discussions about the status and meaning of art.  Picasso, Modigliani, Van Gough and Degas were known to have come here and today those who visit the Lapin Agile get to recapture the days of long ago as the cabaret continues to present a musical repertoire dating back to the original cabaret days and where you can sit down at charming wooden tables with the initials of previous guests have been carved out by guests for countless decades.

Other notable galleries to include in your exploration of Montmartre are the Musee de Montmartre 12 Rue Cortot and Carre d’artistes Paris Montmartre at 16 Rue Yvonne le Tac.  The Musee de Montmartre is a delightful gallery inside a former grand 17th century house known as the Bel Air house which happens to be the oldest abode in Montmartre.  The house has a captivating garden that is accessible to all with a resident black cat which you may find engaging in a nap under the tree or on the garden bench and enjoys a pat and attention from enchanted visitors.   The permanent collection here is composed of posters, paintings and drawings by Toulouse-Lautrec, Valadon, Steinlen, Modigliani, Kupka and Utrillo.  The collection as a whole seems to recount and retell the stories of the days when cabarets and ballrooms where at there prime and recaptures the life and times of artists living in the studios of the Bateau-Lavoir and the activities that took place in the famous Lapin Agile and the Moulin Rouge.  The Museum also dedicates a whole room to art depicting the cancan while another displays the whimsical and almost dreamlike scenes that took place at Le Chat Noir.  When Montmartre was in its heyday, the Bel Air House was a residence to Renoir who adored the house and its gardens and painted many beautiful scenes here.  Suzanne Valadon and Raoul Dufy also held studios here and painted many vivid scenes of life in Montmartre.  The gallery and gardens are relatively small and you could cover it in an hour although make sure you don’t leave until you have been to the gallery’s adorable gift shop where you can stock up on adorable Chat Noir souvenirs and tokens to take back home.

Now that I have mentioned Chat Noir, the first Cabaret to have opened in Montmartre, one can only imagine the exciting history and artistic scenes that unfolded there.  At any given time in its heyday, Le Chat Noir artists like Toulouse Latrec, Degas and Picasso would be spotted taking part in the vibrant and outlandish cabaret lifestyle mingling with bizarre and lucid characters and wealthy Parisian types who were regulars here.  Although the original Le Chat Noir cabaret had relocated and changed hands and then relocated again now in its place a café and hotel inn takes its place on 68 Boulevard de Clichy which can be spotted immediately by the famous and iconic poster art of a black cat against a yellow and red background created by Theophile Steinlen.  To continue your artist trail, pop into the delightful, charming and historic café Le Consulat where on any day in the days of long ago celebrity artists like Van Gough, Monet, Sisley, Degas, Picasso and Toulouse Lautrec could be spotted sipping on cheap wine and enjoying an equally inexpensive meal while exchanging inspiring words on all things art.  Dining at picture perfect Le Consulat at 18 Rue Norvins, just a few steps away from Basilica Sacre Ceour, is like stepping back in time while enjoying the pinch yourself ambience and vintage scenery all around while dining on delicious traditional unpretentious French cuisine.

Also, a great place to visit to see unique and original works on sale is at Carre d’artistes at 16 Rue Yvonne Le Tac in Montmartre.  Here, you will discover prints and reproductions of past artists and contemporary art, paintings, canvases and sculptures by current artists as well as abstract, figurative, pop and street art for all budgets.  If you’re lucky and arrive at the right moment in time, you will get to see and meet some of these modern day artists producing art live within the gallery.  The Carre d’artistes makes it achievable for many to come in and find a piece of affordable high quality art to purchase and take home.  While art galleries are certainly concentrated heavily in Montmartre another one not to miss the highly eclectic Galerie Chappe at 21 Rue Chappe which happens to be the oldest art gallery in Paris and has two floors of glorious art to explore.  For as long as this gallery has stood, it always seems to have delightful art work to discover showcasing not only works by notable Parisian street artists but also exhibits 3D shows and rock star tributes – especially to popular artists like Lady Gaga and the late Amy Winehouse.

Other points of interest in Montmartre would be the Pere Lache cemetery the largest in Paris where most of Paris’ great artists, writers, poets, singers and composers rest in peace in a beautifully maintained allotments and garden like spaces.  Here you can find the graves of celebrities like Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde, Colette and Chopin just to name a few, however, whether you come here to hunt for celebrity grave sites or just to stroll around it is definitely a worthwhile experience.  Another spot in Montmartre not to be missed especially if you’re of a more romantic and sentimental bent is known as the I Love You wall or Le mur des je t’aime. This wall comprises of a forty square metre wall of 612 charcoal coloured tiles expressing the sweet words I love you in 311 different dialects.  The wall, so befitting the romantic ambience of Paris, can be located near the Abbesses metro station in a tiny park in Square Jehan Rictus a few steps away from Place des Abbesses.

Montmartre is not just a place of artistic history complete with artist trails, charming winding streets, historic moulins, a vintage vineyard, cascading staircases, monuments, endless galleries, whimsical buildings, and a bohemian ambience it’s more like a dreamy theme park preserved in time that can’t be likened to any other district in Paris.  Today, the artists can no longer afford to live here and the little cobble stoned streets, Place du Tetre and Basilica Sacre-Coeur are over run with tourists all year round as is the Moulin Rouge which stands proudly in her red attire minus Toulouse Lautrec and the can can girls but instead replaced by a modern day racy Las Vegas like cabaret show.  Despite all this Montmartre is a gem and to miss it is to not have completed your experience in Paris.  So, when in Montmartre pleasurably take a seat at a café somewhere near Place du Tetre or at Le Consulat or perhaps Les Deux Moulins near Place Blanche made famous by the film Amelie and which happens to be one of the nicest bistro’s in Montmartre.  Imagine you are back in time as you take in the wonderful ambience and great art history made here but don’t rush! take your sweet Parisian time because the Montmartois work, play and live to a different clock than their Parisian residents at the bottom of the hill.  So whether you follow the tourist trail or lose yourself to your own itinerary in the steep and cobbled streets, just make sure you do come to Montmartre and bystro!!!  

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