A walk in Montmartre: Of course, it’s a good idea!
A walk in Montmartre, day or night, never disappoints, or does it? As one of the most visited, touristy areas in Paris, Montmartre gets a lot of bad press. Some guidebooks even discourage their readers from visiting because it is “out of the way,” “packed with tourists, cheap souvenir shops and disappointing restaurants.”
Still, in spite of a public transportation strike that just entered its fourth week, (making trips around Paris challenging at best,) Montmartre is where I elected to spend New Year’s Eve, an inspired decision as it turns out.
This was not my first walk in Montmartre. In 2019, I returned to the neighborhood often, either preparing for tours I started offering at the end of the year, or escorting groups of travelers, as they visited the area with local tour guides. When on my own, I strived to find quiet, out-of-the-way places, and to enjoy popular spots when few people were around. I was fascinated to see that even at peak times, the old butte de Montmartre, once a rural area covered with fields, vineyards and windmills, had two faces: the much-touted crowded, touristy one, and a more authentic, more charming one. (Photos, from Left to Right: Wildflowers. A swing with a view at the Musée de Montmartre. Le Clos Montmartre vineyard. Commanderie du Clos Montmartre decked out for la Toussaint)
Montmartre: More than a bohemian neighborhood
We all know Bohemian Montmartre gets top billing: Tour guides introduce visitors to the lives of artists who worked and socialized in these parts. It would be an exaggeration to say they “all” came here, yet many did, starting in the 19th century, all the way to the 1920s when another neighborhood, Montparnasse, on Paris’s Left Bank, emerged as their new favorite playground. Until then, the list of Montmartre’s artists-in-residence reads like a Who’s Who of the Belle Epoque and early 20th century artistic and literary world.
The reason I love Montmartre? In this neighborhood, the best stories don’t focus on French monarchs, aristocrats or distinguished members of Parisian society. Instead, they highlight le peuple de Paris, (the people,) blue collar workers, starving artists, farmers, shopkeepers, craftsmen and more. They were the true soul of Paris. Still, downtown, they are but a blurry image in the background, overshadowed by the grandiose landmarks they helped build and tales of modernization, real estate speculation, and more recently, by gentrification.
In the free-spirited, resilient commune de Montmartre, locals resented losing their independence when Napoleon III annexed several villages around Paris during the Second Empire, increasing exponentially the size of the French capital. A few years later, during one of many uprisings in the city’s tumultuous history, les Communards, (many based in Montmartre,) would fight to death a government with pro-Royalist tendencies that had given up too easily against Prussia. In the 1920s, le village de Montmartre proclaimed itself an independent Republic. It still is today: Their office has just sent me a “Bonne Année 2020 !” greeting message (I subscribe to their newsletter.) The neighborhood is home to a collection of original characters, very proud of their traditions and la Butte‘s history. Some residents are long gone, yet are remembered fondly. (Photos, from Left to Right: Family and friendly participants at the annual Grape Harvest festival, street art featuring Dalida, a former resident and pop French icon at la Commanderie du Clos Montmartre.)
A walk in Montmartre: Wrapping up 2019 on “la Butte“
By now, you may understand why I did not pick a more convenient location to celebrate New Year’s Eve. After giving a food tour in the Germain-des-Près area on Tuesday morning, I went all the way back home from the Left Bank; picked up an overnight bag, and headed out again to la Butte de Montmartre. I won’t lie: More walking was involved, some of it uphill. As I reached the 18th arrondissement, I passed a couple of local icons, and decided to stop at the second one for a quick dinner. It was getting late, and I had plans, including a walk in Montmartre. Lucky for me, at le Café des Deux Moulins, the “Menu du Réveillon de la Saint Sylvestre ” (a multi-course meal created for the occasion) was not the only option. Amélie Poulain, the famed waitress, was off (or on strike?) that night. On the table, I had my copy of “le Passe-Muraille,” by author Marcel Aymé. I had started reading the short story again the night before and finished it before dessert. The main character is prominently featured in Montmartre as a statue located place Marcel Aymé (the book’s author) and is very popular with visitors. You’ve got to give it to me: I work hard at staging my themed adventures! (Photos, from Left to Right: Seeing red on boulevard de Clichy. Chez Amélie Poulain at le Café des Deux Moulins. My New Year’s eve dinner: Magret de canard sauce au miel, avec clémentines, quinoa et potiron.)
An evening in old Montmartre
Several cabarets once drew Parisian crowds to Montmartre. Le Lapin Agile, on rue des Saules, across from the Clos de Montmartre vineyard, is the only one left. It is recognizable thanks to its enseigne (sign.) I had always wanted to step inside and see if the rumor was true: The establishment is said to have remained dans son jus (unchanged.) How many places can make that claim in “the New Paris?” France has been a big theme in my life in 2019. I figured sitting in a historical place belting out iconic French songs from the 1940s and 1950s, would be a great way to pay a tribute to my homeland – and to my mom and grandma, who used to love these tunes. I was right. The decor, a cramped, dark room, where guests and performers sit on wooden stools along large communal tables as they sing and sip Champagne or une cerise, (the Lapin Agile’s iconic drink,) has remained virtually unchanged for decades. There was a lot talent assembled at le Lapin Agile on Tuesday night. Nostalgia was palpable among the guests, many of whom were French. On the last day of a hectic year, filled with change and learning, I was lucky to make yet another great discovery and spend time in “old Paris.” (Photos: Bienvenue au Lapin Agile. The party is on!)
A walk in Montmartre, when it sizzles
It would not have been a perfect Parisian evening without a long leisurely walk in Montmartre, on the way back to my accommodation. There were many tourists around but as always, most congregated around the Sacré-Coeur and place du Tertre in the cold December night. They were hoping to catch a sight of the upcoming feu d’artifice (fireworks) on the Champs-Elysées from their vintage point. Leaving them behind, I walked the deserted streets instead, and fell in love with Montmartre all over again. (Photos, from Left to Right: Le Moulin de la Galette. Dalida and Edith Piaf: Ghosts in the night. La Butte, la nuit.)
Bonne année 2020 !
I have more photos of my most excellent aventure montmartroise and will be sharing them by the end of the week as another “Facebook photo-travelogue” (or an Instagram story if I want to feel hip) 😉 — One of the perks of waking up early in popular neighborhoods like Montmartre? You get to capture scenes and sights most people miss during the day.
For now, it is time to wrap up this story with a message to all my readers. Merci, for following French Girl in Seattle in 2019 as she “took France”’after 23 years stateside. New life. New career. Same old Moi. Your support is very much appreciated! See you in Paris (where I would love to be your local tour guide,) out on French roads, or in social media this year.
In 2020, may we smile a lot, be fun and interesting. May we stay humble and elegant. Bonne année 2020 !
Véronique “Véro” (French Girl in Seattle)
More Montmartre fun…
Here’s a short TV segment (in French) featuring le Lapin Agile. You will see the owner since the 1970s (Yves Matthieu, fabulous voice and personality,) and some of the performers I listened to on 12/31. Matthieu discusses the copy of a painting Picasso had originally left there as a payment for his drinks, and the man who “saved” le Lapin Agile, Aristide Bruant. Bruant bought the legendary cabaret in 1913, so it would not get destroyed like many other buildings in the neighborhood.
A short video I filmed on New Year’s Eve. It was very dark! The talented (and beautiful) singer is Nawel Dombrowsky. Song: “Fais-moi mal, Johnny” (by Boris Vian)