Montmartre, the village-like district cresting a hill in the north of Paris, is in places so chocolate-box perfect that it sometimes feels like a movie-set for a film about itself. Beneath the veneer, however, exists a vibrant local community, sustained by the kind of shenanigans that earned the area its artistic reputation over one hundred years ago.
Once upon a time — well, around 250 AD if historical records are to be believed — a priest with the rather inauspicious name of Denis was sent forth from Italy to convert France to Christianity. He settled in Paris, or Lutetia as it was then called, and by all accounts did a pretty good job.
In fact, Denis inspired so many conversion that it alarmed the pagan priests of Paris to such a degree that they decided to execute him for his troubles. Denis was marched to the top of a hill overlooking the city and his head removed. This did not, however, stop Denis. Following his execution, the tenacious preacher is said to have picked up his own head and marched it six miles north, delivering a sermon all the way.
Eventually, Denis collapsed and died, becoming a martyr (and patron saint of Paris in the process). And the place of his martyrdom — the “mount” of his martyrdom — got a new name: Montmartre. So goes the legend.
Today, Montmartre is less well known as the execution site of martyred saints than it is for its artistic, bohemian history. At the turn of the 20th Century, the village was home to a who’s who of modernist art. Van Gogh lived here, as did Picasso and Modigliani: staying at the since destoryed artist commune, the Bateau Lavoir, and drinking at the still open caberet the Lapin Agile.
There will always be naysayers, of course; people who claim that the artistic life of the French capital has moved elsewhere; that the Montmartre of today is a twee tourist trap dining out on the glory of its past. And certainly, if the only places you visit in the district are the wedding-cake mishmash of the Sacré Couer basilica and the rugby scrum of portrait painters in the nearby Place de Tertre, it’s a reasonable assumption to make. But stray just a little from the beaten track, and a living, breathing community of modern day artists and bohemians presents itself; all in a setting so picturesque as to almost defy belief.
“To Truly Know a Place, You Must First Know its Bars.”
I made up the above quote myself, but it could easily be attributed to one of Paris’ more frequently sozzled luminaries, such as Hemingway or Scott Fitzgerald, and bars are certainly a good place to begin in lifting the lid on the real Montrmartre.
Most popular with the locals, at least until recently, is the aptly named Rendezvous des Amis. Located near the foot the steps leading down from the Place du Tertre, this bar has little flashy to recommend it. Its speciality is its atmosphere and the sense of belonging it inspires. Step through the doors, or even just pull up a chair on the street outside and immediately you’re a member of the club. In the daytime, this is where the portrait artists, the organ grinders, and the freelance poets come to drink.
A marginal price-hike at the RDA, however, has meant in recent months that the focus of some its clientele has shifted to a bar on Rue des Trois-Frères called L’Arsouille, which despite looking like a dive on the backstreets of some forgotten banlieue, has, I believe, claim to being one of the best bars in all Paris, perhaps even the world. What it sells is authenticity; authenticity and a jukebox. This combination proves as popular with the hipsters as it is does with the bankers as it is does with the tramps. At L’Arsouille not only is everyone welcome, but most of them are already there.
And if you feel like biting down on something while you drink, another excellent local watering hole is the Prohibo on Rue Durantin where “happy hour” is marked by free food rather than cheaper drinks.
The majority of restaurants in Montmartre are French. This is true right across Paris, of course, (the French are not known for their esteem of the cuisine of other cultures) but if you’re searching for a flash of something different, despite its avant garde reputation Montmartre is not the place to look. French food, on the other hand, French food Montmartre does very well.
Probably the Frenchiest of all restaurants on offer is La Part des Anges on Rue Garreau, an intimate dining area, where specials are chalked up daily on the blackboard menus and the atmosphere is as rich as wine sauce. Try the magret de canard!
For a more modern take on French cuisine, head to Un Zebra a Montmartre on Rue Lepic where the food is fresh and zesty. Also worth trying are the Relais Gascon restaurants: one at either end of Rue des Abbesses. These specialise in vast bowls of fried potatoes (misleadingly dubbed “salads”), reasonably priced and excellent for dealing with the repercussions of overdoing it at one of the aforementioned bars the night before.
Walking the Village
Such recommendations, though, represent only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. There are a city’s worth of delights in Montmartre waiting to be discovered. And one of the very best things to do in this Parisian village is to wander about, discovering them.
Montmartre is a city walkers paradise (albeit with the caveat that it’s on a hill: “mount”-martre, remember!). Day or night, whatever the season, there is always something new in the area to see or that is worth doing. Whether this is simply searching out the former homes of old artists (usually listed on plaques on the sides of buildings), attending new gallery openings or English language plays in a matchbox size theatre.
You might find yourself in the steps of Amelie Poulin, the eponymous character of the 2001 film, Amelie, which shared Montmartre’s Technicolor delights of with the rest of the world. Les Deux Moulins, the cafe Amelie ‘worked’ in, is still open and doing an excellent trade, while her local convenience store at 56 rue des Trois Frères looks almost uncannily like it did in the film.
Wherever you end up, make sure to drift into local boulangeries to pick up a fresh baguette or two. The area has a mind bending four of the past six winners of the annual competition for the best baguette in Paris. In other words, this small village may be said literally to possess four of the best bakeries in the entire world. Le Grenier à Pain is a good place to start.
Keep exploring the back streets and you never know what you’ll find. Montmartre also has the only vineyard in all of Paris. On a quiet patch on the northern slope of the hill are the very last remnants of what long, long ago (in Saint Denis’ time, no less) used to be a thriving industry. The best wine in the whole Roman Empire used to come from here. Now, the area produces just 500 bottles of wine a year, of middling quality. Still, a minor miracle given the urban surrounds. The harvest of this wine happens in October and is followed by a festival, the Fêtes des Vendanges, when vineyard owners from across France descend on Montmartre to flaunt and sell their wares.
And then, of course, there is the view. Yes, it means you’re back within the tourist fold, but with the whole of Paris laid out glittering before you who can really complain? In summer, the steps of Sacré Couer have a carnival atmosphere every evening. Bring your own cheese, bring your own wine, and eat and drink, and give a brief thought to poor Saint Denis, while you watch the sun go down.