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This is the second in a series of walking tours highlighting the sites and stories of diverse districts of Paris.
I felt the romance of old Montmartre as soon as I arrived at the Abbesses metro station. One of only three surviving Art Nouveau stations, the glazed canopy over the entrance, designed by Hector Guimard in 1900, the elegant green railings, street lamps and – what fun! – a carousel, all promised a walk through Belle Époque Paris. The station’s name however is a look back much further, to the abbesses of the 12th century Benedictine Abbey founded here by Louis VI and destroyed in the French Revolution.
The Église St Jean de Montmartre is directly opposite the station and I could see immediately why its nickname is Notre Dame des Briques. Its façade is indeed red brick, chosen at the request of Abbot Sobaux who wanted his new church to fit the “industrial age” and thus “speak” to his parishioners at the turn of the last century. Its structure is of reinforced cement, which allowed an elegant interior, mounted on slender pillars, and the Art Nouveau decor, with its geometric patterns and bronze, blue and gold ceramic decorations is stylish and beautiful. Unusual, certainly, but I was glad that objections from traditionalists – and there were quite a few – were overruled and the church was completed in 1904.
Continuing up Rue des Abbesses, I soon sensed a certain hedonism. Cafés abounded, one sign announcing that food and drink would be served until two o’clock in the morning, and chalked blackboards offered such hearty bistro treats as soupe à l’oignon and moules-frites. The charm of the Vrai Paris café with its balcony of tumbling flowers struck me immediately, and I later discovered that it’s one of the city’s most Instagrammable spots! The street had a cheerful atmosphere, somewhere I could stop for an ice cream, buy some costume jewelry or just settle down with a coffee to watch the passers-by.
A right turn into Rue Tholozé brought an instant change of scene. Looking up past the pretty houses, flower-filled window boxes bringing an individual touch to the uniform balconies, I caught a glimpse of the Moulin de la Galette. One of the last surviving windmills in Montmartre, it’s a nod to the area’s industrial past, but better known as the dance hall it became in the late 19th century. The mill was transformed by a green-painted trellis forming a roof over the garden and, being a little cheaper than neighboring dance halls, it soon attracted a large crowd of good-humored revelers, especially on Sunday afternoons. And, of course, it was the setting for Renoir’s “Bal au Moulin de la Galette.”
Close by was a little square named after the writer Marcel Aymé, known for its strange statue of a man jutting out of a wall. His head and one leg are visible, the rest seems about to follow. This is Monsieur Dutilleul, the main character in Aymé’s best-known story, “Le Passe-Muraille.” Strangely able to pass through walls, Dutilleul burgled local properties and even escaped from jail by simply walking out. But then he lost his powers midway through leaving his married lover’s flat after “une nuit passionnée.” So here he is, forever lodged in a wall.
Just around the corner, I came to a little park, the Square Suzanne Buisson. She was, explained a plaque, a “heroïne et martyre de la Résistance.” Inside, two groups of men were playing boules intently, watched over, quite bizarrely, by a statue of St. Denis, shown holding up his severed head in both hands. It was up here in Montmartre that the third century bishop was beheaded and became a Christian martyr. Legend has it that he picked up his head and walked several miles to the site now named after him, the Basilique St. Denis. But fittingly here, where he was executed, in the place named “Mons Martyrum” (“the mountain of martyrs”) there is a statue to remember him.
Exiting at the far end of the park, I went up some steps to find a surprise view of Sacré-Coeur and a little pathway leading up and around a secluded property, the Château de Brouillards, where Renoir once had a studio. The path led straight into the Place Dalida, named after the Egyptian-born singer, Yolanda Gigliotti, better known as Dalida, who sold millions of records over a 30-year career. She spent much of it in Montmartre before her untimely death in the 1980s and a bronze bust was installed here to commemorate her. Her breasts have been rubbed shiny by the many visitors who find their way here for a moment of reflection.
It was a pleasure to walk up Rue de l’Abreuvoir, once named “the prettiest road in Paris,” to La Maison Rose, bought in 1905 by a Catalan painter who painted it pink and turned it into a restaurant, inviting his painter friends Picasso and Dali to eat there. In later years it remained well-known to the artists of Montmartre and Pigalle, and in the 1960s and 70s was frequented by writers, film-makers and singers such as Camus, Alain Delon and Dalida. It’s still a restaurant today, under new ownership since 2017 and offering hearty meals “inspired by French farm-to-table cuisine and the Italian cucina-povera.”
Turning left at La Maison Rose, I found the Clos Montmartre, the oldest vineyard in Paris, where the original vine was reputedly planted by the first abbess of Montmartre Abbey, Adélaïde de Savoie. It is not open to the public, except during the annual Fête des Vendanges when there are tastings and tours. But the nearby inn, the Lapin Agile is a different matter. From the 1890s it was a popular haunt for painters and poets – Verlaine, Renoir, Modigliani, Apollinaire, Picasso – and today, it is a venue where you can enjoy a drink and an evening of “Chanson, Humour, Poésie.” You will be entertained by the songs of Edith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier and perhaps join in a well-known drinking song such as “Les chevaliers de la table ronde.” Even if your French isn’t quite up to all the lyrics, you will surely manage the chorus: “oui, oui, oui, non, non, non.”
Doubling back, I continued into Rue des Saules, past some information panels on the two years Van Gogh spent here, learning from other artists – Degas, Gauguin, Seurat – while also “succumbing to practically every excess available in Paris,” before leaving for Provence. Opposite stood another Montmartre institution, La Bonne Franquette, also a former meeting place for artists and the spot where, in 1886, Van Gogh painted La Guinguette. Today it is still a place of conviviality, somewhere, as its sign indicates, to “aimer, manger, boire et chanter” (love, eat, drink and sing).
Bearing right at the end of Rue des Saules and then left downhill took me to Place Emile Goudeau, a little cobbled square with benches and a drinking fountain, the place where Picasso first encountered Fernande Olivier who became his model and, later, his lover. It is here that you can see the Bateau Lavoir, site of the workshop where he ended his blue period and worked through his pink period, inspired by Fernande. It is also where he painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the 1907 work which began his interest in Cubism. In those days this was a ramshackle labyrinth of little rooms and wooden staircases which eventually burned down, but it was reconstructed in 1970. At the end of his life, Picasso recalled it as the only place where he had been “vraiment heureux,” that is “really happy.”
And so back to Place des Abbesses where, before descending into the deepest metro station in Paris, I took a little detour into the Square Julian Rictus, another of those tiny parks with a few benches and some huge trees. This one has something else too, namely the huge I Love You Wall, an artwork covering 40 square meters with that single message, expressed in over 250 languages. It was good to linger with a takeaway slice of tarte tatin from one of the bakeries nearby, watching the tourists photograph each other and reflecting on all there is to see in this little corner of the 18th arrondissement.
Lead photo credit : The Abbesses metro station. Photo: Steve Cadman/ Wikimedia commons