Sat out in the 18th arrondissement is Montmartre, a district of Paris which used to be just outside the city walls back in the day. Montmartre took its name from Mons Martis, or the Mount of Mars, so technically Montmartre is the name of the hill, but it has given its name to the entire area. The district has been occupied since Roman times, and later, in the Middle Ages, it became home to a monastery founded by King Louis VI. The monastery incorporated an existing church, Saint-Pierre de Montmartre, which is one of the oldest surviving churches in Paris, dating back to the 9th century.
Now though, the landscape in Montmartre is dominated by the Sacré-Cœur, a 19th century Basilica on the summit of the 130m high Montmartre hill. It’s generally absolutely packed with tourists, and numerous wedding shoots, and pigeons. It kind of takes away the mysticism of the place. But as Montmartre developed through the ages, its religious importance became less and less… well, important. Now, I didn’t go inside the Basilica but I’m sure I will on my next visit! If it’s anything like the outside, I’m sure I’ll be gobsmacked by the inside. The terrace outside the church offers a view over practically all of Paris. Apparently Adolf Hitler once visited there in 1940 to look over Paris, a view of which he approved. He then turned to face the Basilica, calling it ‘appalling’; adding another point to the list of things he and I disagree on.
From the 1400s up to the introduction of Montmartre into the city of Paris, the area was surrounded by vineyards, gardens, and orchards, owing to the fact that it was still outside the city walls. Taxes were only payable inside the city on pretty much everything, such as alcohol and even prostitution! To dodge taxes, businesses set up shop just outside, hence Montmartre’s reputation for a pretty good cabaret, and its copious amounts of vineyards.
One of these vineyards still survives, clinging on following the devastation of the other vineyards by pests and urban developers, which are one and the same, I suppose! The Clos Montmartre was one of the only ‘green’ areas still left in the district, so in 1933, the City of Paris bought the plot, beginning wine production in earnest the following year. A festival takes place in October every year to celebrate this wine and sell it. It generally goes for around €49 per bottle, and the money, rather delightfully, goes to charity; and each year, they hire a different local artist to design the wine labels.
Heading into the Belle Époque in the 1870s to early 1900s, the district became a hive of artistic activity! Many renowned artists, such as Renoir and Van Gogh called Montmartre home. Many of their old studios can be visited and you’ll find a lot of street corner shops that profit on this part of the district’s heritage. Creative juices were constantly flowing, and rent was still cheap. It was the perfect environment for experimental artists, open-minded students, and emerging writers. Dance halls, such as the Moulin Rouge, became a huge attraction where social classes mingled, and windmills have now pretty much become a symbol of the alternative and bohemian culture of Montmartre.
Bit by bit, as with any other popular area, the rents got higher, and eventually many of the artists moved to other less-developed areas of Paris, such as Montparnasse. Their influence still lives on in Place du Tertre where you can get an average caricature for a few Euros.
It’s too easy to spend a day wandering the streets of Montmartre and you’ll always find something new or different, from ivy-covered houses, to pink corner cafés. It’s such a far cry from the iconic Paris we know and love. Some people say if you want ‘romantic’ Paris, you might want to go up the Eiffel Tower and watch the sunset. But really, that’s so cold in comparison to the romanticism of Montmartre. So instead, watch the sunset from the terrace outside the Sacré-Cœur, take a few beers, and just sit.