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Montmartre: Sacre Coeur to the Moulin Rouge

I’ve never been inclined to hang out up in Montmartre. Too far, too touristy, and I just never had experienced one of those Paris moments that makes me fall in love with a place. Place du Tertre I get pestered by people who want to draw me. Sacré-Coeur is full of people selling junk, people posing as statues for money, and the people watching them getting their wallets and passports lifted. Humbug! But I’ve got a friend who lives up there, so I’ve had a better chance to look around, and now I don’t completely hate it.

Montmartre was originally called Mont des Martyrs after the first bishop of Paris, St Denis, was beheaded here by the Romans. Legend has it that he picked up his head, washed it off in a fountain, and carried it until he collapsed quite far away in what is now the St Denis Basilica. Anytime you see a statue of a saint carrying his own head, that’s St Denis. The Métro Abbesses has one of the last intact Guimard Art Nouveau entrances, which you should reach from the underground by taking the never-ending staircase instead of the elevator. Why? Because the paintings in the stairwell are cute, and who doesn’t need to walk off a croissant or two?

Love the shopping along the streets between Place des Abbesses and the Montmartre Funicular. Lots of funky clothing and house décor stuff. There are tons of good café terraces, too. I still think Place du tertre is horrid, but the nearby l’Espace Montmartre Salvador Dali is worth the high admission if you like Dali at all. Artists have always been a part of Montmartre, and if you DO want a portrait, get one from one of the seated artists who have samples to show you, they’re much more reliable since they’re pretty permanent.

You’ll see Toulouse-Lautrec posters everywhere, as well as the typical touristy stuff that probably costs less back home. One interesting historical note, the name ‘bistro’ came from the Cossacks who frequented Montmartre in the early 1800s, who used to pound the tables in cafés and yell “Bistro!” the Russian word for “faster!”

The Sacré-Coeur Basilica was built between 1875 and 1914 in penitence for the sins of the Communards after the Franco-Prussian War. Supposedly there has been someone on duty non-stop since 1885 praying for the sins of the Commune. Many disregard its strange cake-white exterior and the darkish interior, and head straight for the view from the top of the dome. Funnily enough, the locals were worried that the basilica would ruin their little hilltop village atmosphere, and one has to wonder if the tour busses would still be there without it. Down below the basilica is the Square Willette, named after the Moulin Rouge architect who said even God wouldn’t want to live in Sacré-Coeur, and reportedly yelled “Long live the devil!” on the inauguration day.

To see the historic buildings, some beautiful architecture you don’t see much of in Haussmanian Paris, stroll down Avenue Junot, detour into the Villa Leandre (it’s a little street, not a villa, with an English look to it), another detour up the steps of Allée des Brouillards to see the 18th century Chateau des Brouillards.

On Rue des Saules is the Lapin Agile (literati meeting place since 1910) and the Montmartre vineyard (off Rue St-Vincent), where grapes are harvested for the wine every fall. There are plenty of bars that stay open well into the wee hours, many with live music. The Moulin Rouge is on the tacky sex street Boulevard de Clichy. Although Toulouse-Lautrec made its can-can famous in his paintings, the dance was actually popularized in the night clubs of Montparnasse. Today the show is a bit more commercial and touristy than what you’ll see in the recent film about it. If you’re looking for some genuine Parisian sleaziness, head over to the Barbès end of the 18th, the Goutte d’Or neighborhood. Full of culture and life, but not for the faint of heart at night.

A hotel recommended by the Avant Guide (‘for urban adventurers’) in Montmartre is the Hôtel Ermitage. No TVs, no credit cards, just twelve cozy rooms in a B&B; atmosphere. 24 rue Lamarck Metro Lamarck-Caulaincourt 01-42-64-79-22 Between 450-550ff per night. Another is the Hôtel Prima Lepic, much larger with TVs, casual décor going from kitsch to charm, a pretty tiled entrance and garden-style breakfast room. 29 rue lepic Metro Blanche or Abbesses 01-46-06-44-64 From 360-460ff per night

This article is one of the 78 original “Secrets of Paris” articles published between September 1999 and July 2004. After disappearing into the internet graveyard for almost 15 years, I’ve republished them in autumn 2019 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Secrets of Paris: “1999-2019: Twenty Years of the Secrets of Paris” Broken and dead links have been updated or deactivated, but otherwise the article remains unchanged. 

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