Last Saturday, seven members of the DuPont family met me at the Lamarck-Caulaincourt metro stop for a two-hour Lokafy tour of one of my favorite neighborhoods in Paris, Montmartre. For anyone at least tangentially familiar with the history of Western art (or anyone who has seen Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge), the word “Montmartre” most likely conjures up images of romantic, ill-fated Bohemian lovers and artists struggling valiantly to survive despite it all, descending at night from their drafty garrets to drink absinthe and mingle with the showgirls and prostitutes of the butte. For those who have seen Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie, the mention of “Montmartre” also calls to mind a heartbreakingly twee French girl wandering wide-eyed through a curiously clean and empty plaza below the Sacré-Coeur, delicately cracking crème brûlée with a spoon. Not to say that these images have no truth to them, but they are a far cry from reflecting the strange, complex, living community that covers Paris’ most famous hill. In only two hours, I wanted to be able to show the essence of living in Montmartre; or, as that is probably impossible, at least to present as many of its curious facets as I could.
We started off with a bit of history, walking south-west up the Rue Caulaincourt, passing the buildings of the former Pathé film studios, now home to France’s most prestigious school of cinema, La Fémis, until we turned onto the Rue du Mont-Cenis (with a quick stop at a boulangerie for some pastries on the way). We began to climb. I pointed to the area that we had just left. Until 1860, Montmartre had been a small farming village on the outskirts of Paris, famous for its windmills, its abbey, and its tax-free wine. The northern side had been divided into plots of farmland, with windmills stretching from the base of the hill all the way to the top, taking full advantage of one of the most abundant natural resources of Montmartre, the wind.
After Montmartre was annexed to Paris under Haussman’s grand expansion program, the farms were razed and the windmills destroyed in order to make way for new urban buildings–but before construction had finished, the money ran out, and the entire area between the Rue de Caulaincourt and the Place de Tertre was transformed into a shabby shantytown known as the Maquis. Mounting the hill on the northern side may not be as daunting as climbing all of the 300+ steps to the Sacré-Coeur from the southern butte, but it’s no easy stroll down a wide Parisian boulevard, either. (There’s a reason that the locals who want to keep at bay the otherwise inevitable baguette-and-croissant induced love handles choose to run up and down these steps as sport.) It is possible to make it all the way up the Sacré-Coeur solely by following the curving, cobblestoned streets that ribbon their way up the hillside, but I wanted to show the DuPonts the beautiful, strange carvings I had found on the side of an Art Nouveau apartment building on the Rue du Mont-Cenis, and for that we needed to take the stairs. As we climbed, I explained to them that Saint Denis, the patron saint of Paris, is said to have been forced to march to the top of Montmartre before he was decapitated by the Romans, picked up his own head in his arms, and set off for what is today known as the commune of Saint Denis, thus giving the hill it’s name: Montmartre, the mountain of the martyr (although some sources say that the name probably dates to much earlier, when the hill was known to the Romans as Mons Martis, the Mount of Mars, and that the story of Saint Denis simply meshed nicely with the older Roman name.)
Having found the carvings, which include a two-headed sea monster and several bucolic images of windmills, a nod to Montmartre’s former existence as windmill covered farmland, we turned left to avoid the last stairs, as they were becoming difficult for one member of our group. I had not counted on going by Sacré Coeur, as it and the Place de Tertre are always so clogged with tourists, caricature artists and conmen that one can hardly moved, but our detour took us right to the stunning backside of Sacré Coeur, and a completely empty street. Unless one actually lives on that street, the area around the Sacré Coeur is not someplace where locals normally go, and honestly, I had forgotten how beautiful it was.
We then walked west to the Rue Cortot, where Renoir, Suzanne Valadon and Maurice Utrillo had all lived, and where one can still the gardens where Renoir painted The Swing in what is now the Musée de Montmartre (one of my favorite little museums in Paris.) We walked by the Place Marcel Aymé, which boasts a fantastic statue of a man emerging from a brick wall, a reference to one of Aymé’s most famous stories, Le Passe-Muraille or The Walker-Through-Walls, which tells the story of a middle-aged, middle-class man who wakes up one morning with the incredible ability to pass through walls. We then headed south, stopping to admire several ornate doors dating from different eras, and keeping an eye out for any interesting street art. Although many shop owners complain about the amount of graffiti in Montmartre, I see it as keeping alive the artistic, anarchist spirit of the area that witnessed the birth of modern art. At the turn of the century, the streets and walls of Montmartre were always plastered with posters advertising the cabarets of the butte, illustrated by Steinlein and Toulouse-Lautrec. When Picasso and Braque arrived in Paris in their early twenties, they were both amazed and inspired by the composition and color of the posters, as well as by their “decadent,” quasi-anarchist subject matter, but which were not, however, considered by the art establishment at the time to be much more than mere decoration or commercial illustration. Braque liked to sneak into the streets at night to peel the posters from the walls when no one was looking; he had one by Toulouse-Lautrec hanging in his apartment. Today, every tourist shop in Montmartre sells reproductions of the posters that had once decorated the walls as spray paint and stickers do today.
The DuPonts were starting to feel a bit tired and ready for lunch, so upon reaching the Boulevard de Rochechoaurt I led us east, to a café that I like near the textile/paper/creation studio of one of my close friends. We dropped by for a few minutes to chat with her and to see the space, which functions as a versatile creative studio and as an exhibition space for young artists, creators and designers, as well as hosting events such as free drawing workshops (and coming soon, open-mic poetry sessions in English and French). We finished the tour with a cold bottle of rosé (a summer staple) at Les Ptits Gros (a cute way of writing “the little fat men”) at 27 Rue de Trudaine, where the DuPonts were able to try snails for the first time. Consensus: they are good (most likely a result of the high butter-to-snail ratio). The Duponts had a rendez-vous at the Louvre that evening, so I used the Paris public transportation system (RATP) app to put them on the right bus to take them straight to the Louvre (when in Paris, I highly recommend downloading the RATP app–that way you can take the bus and spend as much time seeing Paris as possible, rather than spending an hour of your day underground in the métro). When the tour ended, I felt refreshed and energized, looking forward to the next one.