I took some long service leave in 2007 and headed to London to visit my daughter. She was busy at work at the time and so to keep me out of her hair for a few days, she bought me a train ticket to Paris and booked me a hotel room up on Boulevard de Clichy in the 18th Arrondissement, Montmartre. I had three days in Paris and I was mainly interested in visiting the famous landmarks such as the Louvre, Notre Dame etc in the centre of the city. My hotel was near the Anvers metro station and I decided on one afternoon that I would be daring on the way back to the hotel and go one extra stop on the Metro and get out at Pigalle. I had heard about the Montmartre area, particularly the Moulin Rouge so I decided it wouldn’t hurt to have a stroll around before returning to my hotel. After exiting at Pigalle metro, I crossed Boulevard de Clichy and began strolling along, minding my own business and checking out the shops. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before the locals decided to mind my business and I began to be approached by various characters inviting me into their shop fronts for a good time or offering me other products that were frankly quite confronting for this innocent abroad. It wasn’t long before I beat a hasty retreat to the other side of the Boulevard and hotfooted it back to the safety of my hotel in Anvers. I returned to Montmartre in 2016 with my wife and noted that when we walked along this same Boulevard heading towards the Moulin Rouge ticket office, I wasn’t accosted by anybody!
The above map of Montmartre provides a simple route for a walk around this famous area of the 18th district of Paris. It starts at the Moulin Rouge and takes the visitor through the streets of what the locals call La Butte Montmartre, leading to the major site of this area, the Sacre Coeur Basilica. The best view over Paris is to be enjoyed from the park in front of the basilica.
The windmills of Montmartre have been on this prominent hill since the 17th century. However the history of this butte goes back as long as the Gallo-Roman city that was built around the island in the middle of the Seine River, Ile de Cite. The oldest historic site on Montmartre is where the church of St Pierre is situated, not far from Sacre Coeur. This hill on the outskirts of Paris has been used for nearly two millennia to mine Gypsum and has supplied the plaster trade of the city over that time. Even an ancient convent near St Peter’s was knocked down in 1790 to get at the gypsum underneath.
Given that Montmartre has a superb view over the city of Paris, it is unsurprising to note that its prominence has been used a number of times to site canons here to shell the city below. During the devastating civil war in France during the late 16th century, King Henry IV placed his artillery at the top of this hill and shelled the city as part of his siege of Paris. In 1814, towards the end of Napoleon’s rule of France, the Russian army set themselves up on this hill and bombarded the city. In 1871, Montmartre was the site of the uprising of the Paris Commune, partly because the French army had stored canons on top of the butte. It was the site of bloody fighting when the French army retook the heights of Montmartre in this brief civil war in May, 1871. The engraving to the left captures events on the 17th July, 1789 when more canons and ammunition were dragged up the dusty roads and set up on Montmartre.
The main feature of the Montmartre area today is the history of the artists who gathered here during the so-called ‘Belle-Epoque’ from 1872 to 1914. Walking up the streets of the butte is a walk through an area made famous by artists such as Pierre-August Renoir and Pablo Picasso and contemporary artists are drawn here by the many visitors looking to capture part of the Bohemian atmosphere. One of the destinations of this walk is the Musee de Montmartre, which is now housed in the property made famous by Renoir, particularly for his painting of ‘Bal du moulin de la Galette’, seen on the right below.
From the Musee de Montmartre it is just a short walk down Rue du Mont-Cenis to the busy square of Place du Tertre. This is where artists set up the easels (there are 140 designated spaces for such work) and paint the day away as tourists stroll around looking for an attractive bargain. Many artists will paint your portrait if you have the time to sit and contemplate this busy ‘place’.
From this crowded artists’ square it is a short stroll down Rue Norvins to the Eglise Saint-Pierre (St Peter’s Church), one of the oldest surviving churches in Paris. In the overhead image of Saint Pierre’s below right, Place du Tertre can be seen in the background, just above the church’s roof.
The Church of Saint Pierre has a long history, the traditional story being that it was founded by Saint Denis, the martyred saint who was bishop of Paris in the third century CE. There is some evidence that a Temple to the Roman God Mars once stood on this site. This building hails from 1147 when it was built as part of the Benedictine Montmartre Abbey. The only remains of the abbey is the famous vineyard that is still cultivated today just down the hill from the church. It is in this abbey that Saint Ignatius Loyola took the vows that led to the formation of the Jesuit order of monks.
The jewel of the crown that is Montmartre is of course the basilica next door to the Church of St Pierre, the Sacre Coeur. It is built on the highest point in the city of Paris and is the second most popular landmark for visitors. Earlier in this blog I mentioned the use of canons on this hill in the nineteenth century and it seems that one argument for the construction of the basilica was that it was a “national penance for the defeat of France in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War and for the actions of the Paris Commune in 1871.” (Wikipedia) It should be remembered that the Communards executed the Archbishop of Paris at the time. This religious motivation for the building of Sacre Coeur was not held by everybody involved in the decision-making process…for those on the left, the building of the basilica was “an incessant provocation to civil war.”
The basilica was built between 1875 and 1914 but the foundations extended 40 metres down into the hill due to the unstable ground that had been mined for gypsum for two thousand years. The photo above is from 1872, illustrating the long preparatory work that had to be done before the building itself rose above the hill.
The extended square in front of the Basilica is always crowded with locals and visitors checking out the views over Paris. The image below is of the park just below the Basilica and the steps that take those that like a slow stroll back down off the butte. One of the buildings that attracts many visitors’ attention in this city-wide view is the single high-rise tower in the distance on the right that is one of the few sky-scrapers in the city of Paris. It is the Tour Montparnasse and was constructed between 1969-73 and was the tallest building in Paris until 2011. Over to the right of this park is the funicular that can take those requiring a slightly quicker ride down the hill to Place Saint-Pierre.
The walk back down the hill of Montmartre is just as entertaining as the walk up. If you are catching the Metro back to your hotel, turn right at Place Saint Pierre and head towards the Pigalle Metro station. On the way you will be able to visit the ‘Wall of Love’ in the Jehan Rictus square. It is a 40 square metre wall covered in 612 enameled tiles, each containing the phrase “I Love You”, written in 250 languages. Paris is the city of love after all.