The Romance of Montmartre
Updated: Oct 7, 2018
If the beauty of Paris overall causes me to catch my breath, the area of Montmartre in the 18th arrondissement sends me into cardiac arrest. Montmartre, for me, is quintessential Paris: the hills and steep stairs and cobblestone and the leafy trees framing it all that evoke another era altogether. Taking it all in, my eyes automatically cast a black-and-white filter on what I'm seeing and it's all just so....sorry for the gushing, but the word is romantic.
In part, I can certainly thank Robert Doisneau, Henri Cartier Bresson and other photographers for this long-ingrained impression, but there's also the deep artistic history of the area. While the literary history of the Left Bank naturally appeals to me, the feel of St. Germain-des-Pres and even the Latin Quarter is much more commercial in 2018, and the imagination has to work double-time to block out the Armani store (and other luxury brands) that's inserted itself between the famous establishments of Les Deux Magots, Brasserie Lipp and Cafe de Flore and conjure up the writers and philosophers that once defined the area as an intellectual hotbed. Though Montmartre certainly has the same deluge of tourists, it somehow maintains much of the artistic atmosphere of the Belle Epoque, when the likes of Toulouse-Lautrec, van Gogh, Modigliani, Monet, Degas, Renoir and Picasso (and many others!) made the area their stomping grounds. In the midst of the tacky souvenir shops and cafes swilling cheap "formules" of mediocre food to the throng of tourists, there are still many artist studios and galleries, and those landscapes of stone don't change.
I'd avoided visiting Montmartre in August, not only because of the crush of American tourists, but also because of the heat. There are a lot of steps to climb and hills to mount, so I was waiting for just the right weather--a sunny day in the mid-70s. That day came, though I did make the mistake of heading up there mid-day rather than first thing in the morning. And maybe it wouldn't have been so bad if the metro had been running as normal, but when I got to the Strasbourg-Saint Denis station of Line 4, there were major delays and what should have been a 25-minute trip took well over an hour. Oh, well!
After taking a few wrong turns out of the metro at Pigalle, I found the foot of rue Lepic and commenced my ascent to the top of Montmartre, taking my time to explore inviting little side streets, snap photos and peer into shop windows--you know, the usual! Quite by chance, I happened upon Cafe des 2 Moulins, the "Amelie" cafe for those of you familiar with the popular Audrey Tatou chick flick. It felt like time for le snacking anyway, so I dropped myself into a rattan chair at an outside table and ordered an aperitif and salmon rillettes--perfect!--while (mostly female) tourists stopped in their tracks in front of me to take photographs--not of me, of course, but inside the cafe, just over my right shoulder, was a portrait of Audrey Tatou as Amelie.
Then onwards, in a zig-zag up the hill. Zig-zag because when I've visited Montmartre in the past, the focus was, first, on reaching the Basilica of Sacre-Coeur, the majestic cathedral that crowns the hill, and, second, on the immediate area around it--the breathtaking view of Paris and also the Place du Tertre, the touristy square filled with painters and portrait artists in its center and restaurants lining its four sides--but this time I wanted to find the less frequented spots. In that spirit, I took detours off rue Lepic to turn down any street that looked vaguely interesting (which is most of them). I can't say that I succeeded in finding even an inch of Montmartre without a tourist, though I was pleased to stumble upon some areas I hadn't seen in previous visits, including the only vineyard in Paris and the famous Au Lapin Agile, the cabaret where once upon a time Picasso and his artist friends partied. I wanted to visit the Musee de Montmartre, but again, I'd come too late in the day and the line was too long.
After much meandering, I finally made the ascent up the many, many stone steps leading to the gleaming white Sacre-Coeur--perhaps my favorite cathedral in the world. It was mid-afternoon by now and the tourist buses had released hordes of people, but still I elbowed my way into the church, where a mass was underway. (How odd it must be for the parishioners of the world's famous cathedrals to have tourists milling about, clicking hundreds of photos, while they're listening to a sermon and praying!) Sacre Coeur never disappoints, and this particular afternoon, at this particular hour, the sun shone through a set of stained glass windows to cast its colorful reflections on the wall while musicians began playing classical music. Ahhh.
Back out in the blinding sunlight and warmth of the afternoon was a completely different tableau. It was a party on the white stone steps and green lawns in front of Sacre Coeur, with the unrivaled view over all of Paris on grand display. Hawkers had laid out their blankets of fake designer handbags, Eiffel Tower keychains in every color imaginable, selfie sticks and friendship bracelets, while others stationed themselves just outside the church with ice buckets filled with water bottles.
This Times Square kind of activity can be quite off-putting to me, but I do enjoy the general bustle and I adore the street performers. I came across two terrific ones that afternoon--one who stood perfectly still and one who didn't stop moving for even a fraction of a moment.
As luck would have it, I actually got to share the performance above with Ken! I had just emerged from Sacre Coeur and taken a seat on the steps outside, deciding I would initiate a video call with him to show him where I was. It was Saturday morning in Florida, roughly 4,600 miles from where I sat, but thanks to WhatsApp, there was Ken waving to me on my phone screen and he could see everything I was seeing. While we spoke, I noticed a guy atop a pillar ahead of me kicking around a soccer ball and then I realized he was doing much more than just kicking it around, so I got up and moved closer to see what was going on--and Ken came with me. This freestyler from Guinea turned out to be one of the most incredible street shows I've ever seen, and best yet, Ken and I were able to share the experience together despite the physical distance. This definitely made my afternoon and his morning.
From there, a lot more wandering and, hey, wasn't it time for another aperitif and snack? I'd taken a photo earlier of an adorable cafe and, when I retraced my steps to find it, my wish for a free table outside was granted. For a little while, I indulged in some great people-watching: not only the tourists posing for photos, but also the runners (one of them in bare feet!) racing down the steep cobblestone hill and the residents "walking" their dogs (it seems very few people leash their dogs in Paris; rather, the blasé dogs just skip along the sidewalk with them.) I also spotted again the bride and groom who'd been traipsing around Montmartre all that afternoon with a photographer.
It was all so inspiring and so I fished my notebook out of my bag and did a bit of writing while I nibbled on olives and charcuterie and I couldn't help but think that this was how I imagined it all those many months ago--check that, all those many years ago! I would have stayed at Maison Rose longer, too, except as usual, there was a bee who didn't want to leave me alone and somehow, when I wasn't looking, the afternoon had morphed into evening and the retreat of the sun had dipped the temperature considerably.
Alas, it was time to head down the hill and leave Montmartre--for that day, anyway. I actually returned just a couple of evenings later to meet an acquaintance from years ago for a few glasses of wine. She took me to a hotel terrace bar there that afforded an enviable view of the Eiffel Tower--and we just so happened to be there for sunset.
Needless to say, that's not the last I'll be seeing of Montmartre...