The Village of Montmartre
By Jerry Marterer
The iconic domes of the Sacré-Coeur Basilica. Images courtesy of the author.
New York has been called a city of neighborhoods. Paris could be called a city of villages, which once existed outside the old city walls. As the walls came down and the city expanded, these villages were absorbed into the new city limits. The last such expansion occurred in 1860, when Baron Haussmann, directed by Napoléon III to remake Paris, annexed 16 surrounding villages. Paris expanded from 12 to 20 arrondissements, the configuration that exists today.
The expansion probably didn’t surprise anyone at the time. New fortifications were constructed in the 1840s, the “Thiers Wall,” which circled the city but from outside the city limits. The 16 villages lay in the land between the two concentric walls. Today’s Boulevard Péripherique, the highway around Paris, runs along the outline of the 1840s wall. Many of the villages retain their small-town feel with their original town halls and churches sitting on the village squares. Older residents still talk about going “into the city.”
One of the annexed villages, and today the most well-known, is Montmartre, at the northern border. Its name means “hill of the martyr.” The first bishop of Paris, Saint-Denis, was beheaded by the Romans in 250 AD on this hill. According the legend he picked up his head and walked to a place north of today’s Paris, now the site of the Basilica of Saint-Denis, where many French kings are buried. His statue, still holding his head, can be seen on the façade of Notre Dame. Today Montmartre is known to most visitors for the Sacré-Coeur Basilica with its marshmallow white domes.
In the 19th century, these villages around Paris were popular hangouts for those in search of low rents, cheap alcohol and relaxed rules of behavior. Montmartre, covered with windmills and vineyards, was the favorite of artists. Auguste Renoir rented his first studio there. He and Pissarro, Monet and Cézanne bought their art supplies from Julien Tanguy, who lived at no. 10 rue Cortot. His apartment, along with the oldest house in the village and the grounds around it, comprises the Musée de Montmartre. The land was acquired in the 17th century from the Benedictine abbey that owned much of the area. Later, the land around the house was tilled for gardens and vineyards. Renoir’s painting of a girl on a swing uses the gardens as a backdrop.
The museum has a permanent collection of Montmartre memorabilia and rotating exhibits such as the recent one commemorating the “Chat Noir” cabaret that flourished in the hilltop village in the “gay nineties.” In 2014, the former studio and apartment of Suzanne Valadon and her son, Maurice Utrillo, was renovated in an adjacent building that now houses the Café Renoir. The museum and its gardens and vineyards seem to deny the proximity to the cliché-ridden Place du Tertre, where generations of restaurateurs and portrait artists have hustled tourists. Take a walk around the square, but beware! Eating there means tourist food at tourist prices.
For most visitors to Paris, the north side of Montmartre is like the dark side of the moon — it is never seen, but it is definitely the more authentic side where the musée as well as the celebrated artists’ hangouts can be found. Below the vineyard can be seen the “Au Lapin Agile,” or nimble rabbit, the favorite cabaret of artists from Impressionists to Cubists who discussed the meaning of art between drinking and singing sessions. An 1875 painting by André Gill shows the nimble rabbit jumping out of the stew pot holding a bottle of wine. The stone building sits on a cobbled street, and its wooden tables and benches are filled most nights with revelers singing century-old French songs. Everyone is welcome, even if they don’t know the tunes.
A few blocks away, on the rue Lépic, one of the two remaining windmills in Montmartre stands above the restaurant known as the Moulin de la Galette. The moulin, or windmill, was built for grinding wheat that was made into galettes or small bread loaves. In 1830 the owners started a dance hall that served wine in the surrounding lighted gardens. Its depiction by Renoir in his “Bal du Moulin de la Galette” is one of the most recognized Impressionist works. The dance hall also appears in paintings by Dufy, Utrillo, Picasso and Toulouse-Lautrec. We had lunch in the restaurant under the old windmill. There is no longer dancing, but the food is good and reasonably priced, and locals populate nearly all the tables at lunchtime.
A few blocks down the hill from the Moulin de la Galette, at 65 rue Caulaincourt, is Le Cepage Montmartois, a classic neighborhood bistro that takes up the entire corner of an angled building. When we want oysters in the fall and winter, this is our go-to spot. It is widely known (but not to tourists) for its fresh selection of shellfish from Normandy and Brittany. The number 80 bus stops close by on the same street and will take you back to central Paris after lunch.
Jerry Marterer is the author of Paris 201 — Uncommon Places in the City of Light. He and his wife, Suzanne, divide their time between Charleston and Paris; he may be reached at email@example.com.