Saturday, November 18, 2017
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Montmartre, my favourite French village

To mark the Presentation to JOHN TREW of the French Medaille du Tourisme on July 5 in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the development of tourism in France, here is one of his typically enthusiastic, informative and entertaining columns…

IT WAS a steaming Parisian day in high season, with temperature around 30deg and what felt like 143 per cent humidity, as I trudged up Rue Lepic, Montmartre’s main street. I was on a pilgrimage to the top-floor studio apartment at Number 54 where my art-hero Vincent van Gogh once lived with his long-suffering brother Theo.

What’s left of my hair looked like a wet floor-mop; a glistening mixture of sweat and Boots high-protection sun-cream bubbled from my scalding scalp straight down the back of my open-neck shirt. Right, sez I, either I get the next plane back to Belfast where no heatwave is forecast before 2021, or I’ll get a haircut here.

So that’s how I met Raymonde, owner of Ray Coif at 35 Rue Veron, who marked my card in French about Montmartre while administering his Coupe d’Eté (severe summer cut) with an open razor; it was what Shakespeare would have called “the most unkindest cut of all” but it kept my head cool for the rest of my sojourn.

“Tell your readers not to come to Montmartre in spring and summer,” he said. “It’s too full of bloody tourists!” This last sentence was uttered in English, presumably picked up from his cockney customers when he worked in London.

I agree with him, even though, as a travel journalist and fully paid-up Paris-ite, I am essentially a tourist myself. It’s best to explore this unique corner of the Capital in the off-season, with fewer crowds and coaches to mar the Montmartre magic.

This summer,of course, Paris has been the main host city to EURO 2016 so the Green Armies of football fans soon found the popular Irish Pubs located on Boulevard de Clichy at the foot of Montmartre. That meant that ‘ordinary’ tourists from our part of the world may have been scared off by concerns that they would be kept awake in their hotels by midnight anthems like “Stand Up for the Men in Green” (stolen from Ulster Rugby’s “Stand Up for the Ulstermen”). So now’s the time to plan your off-season trip!

Paris has a beautiful Butte

MONTMARTRE reminds me of a Provençal hill village, only bigger and more frenetic. It’s a warren of narrow roads, winding alleyways, windows with shutters and steep stairways, surmounted by the dazzling white Basilica of Sacré-Coeur at the top of the 450ft high Butte (pronounced ‘booot’.)

Countless thousands of summer tourists come to sit on the steps at the summit and marvel at the panorama of Paris below. On the night of July 14, the French national holiday, about a half-million native Parisians also arrive there to see their tax-euros go up in smoke in a spectacular fireworks display around the Eiffel Tower far below.

It has sometimes been a bit of a damp squib for me, due to the jostling crowds of impolite foreign tourists who make it impossible to get a viewpoint. However, there is never a shortage of spectacular events in and around Sacré-Coeur.

Best of these is the annual Fete des Vendanges (Festival of the Wine Harvest) even though there’s only one vineyard about the size of two soccer pitches, producing just 1,500 bottles a year. It’s really just an excuse for a big three-day street party, and I really love its mix of music, food and great crack. I sample everything from ewe’s milk cheeses to marinaded mussels at the tented village of gourmet food stands from all over France. I am bowled over by the elaborate uniforms of the gastronomic fraternities on parade, such as The Friends of Field Mushrooms, the Perigord Truffle Hunters, Apple Brandy Appreciation Society and the Connoisseurs of Rhubarb Crumble (I made that one up, but if there was such a society I would join!)

The Festival is held in October, with a different theme each year. They often show movies like the Oscar-nominated and BAFTA-winning French cult classic ‘Amelie’ which was shot on location around Les Deux Moulins, one of my favourite Parisian café/restaurants, around the middle of rue Lepic. The two windmills after which the café is named, are Moulin Rouge — now famous as the easily-found rendezvous for the Green Armies (whose incessant chanting must have annoyed patrons enjoying expensive dinner-shows!) — and Moulin de la Galette which was painted by Van Gogh and Renoir during that wonderful era when bohemian Montmartre was the hub of the artistic movements that transformed the way everybody sees things to this day.

Museums of art and naughtiness

BEST PLACE to start your voyage of discovery is the Montmarte Museum in the district’s finest mansion, overlooking the vineyard. The painter Maurice Utrillo lived there with his mother Suzanne Valadon who was the lover and model of many aspiring artists who lodged there.

Through fascinating documents and artefacts, the displays relate how, from the mid-1800s to The Great War, the village was the hub of Bohemianism, a creative crucibel nurturing naughtiness as well as great art by residents such as Pissaro, Degas, Matisse, Modgliani, Derain and half the other painters I have learned about at Amanda Croft’s art history classes in the Ulster Museum. Picasso developed Cubism in his Bateau-Lavoir studio, which nowadays looks totally unremarkable. Before then, the Butte was mainly noted for mining gypsum – better known as Plaster of Paris (yes, that’s how it got its name).

Exhibits show how Montmartre was the heart of a racy entertainment industry that lured thrill-seeking Parisians to its dancehalls and cabarets, circuses and brothels. The 18th Arrondissement was an unusual mix of people – labourers enticed by cheap housing, artists and performers seeking fame and fortune, adventurous Parisians who strayed from their own bourgeois districts, and curious tourists – all contributed to the raucous spirit of Montmartre.

This is captured in the museum’s reconstruction of Utrillo’s favourite watering hole, Café l’Abreuvoir, where you can almost smell the absinthe on the breath of the realistic model of a goodtime girl at the bar, listening to a tape of Can-Can music. However, for me, the most engaging aspects of the museum are its all-year-round Renoir Gardens and lily-pond – a haven of serenity within hearing distance of the tourist traffic on the other side of its wall. It’s not far from two other havens I recommend, the intriguing Cemeteries where prominent Montmartrois characters are buried.

In total contrast to these places of quiet contemplation is the Museum of Eroticism down the hill at the gateway to Montmartre near raunchy Place Pigalle (known to the liberating WWII troops as Pig Alley), where peepshows and lap-dancing clubs are at the epicentre of the Parisian sex industry.

Unlike its lurid neighbours, this intriguing Museum has a serious intent, which is to display its collections of everything erotic from Ancient Greek sex toys and anatomically imaginative statues from every culture, to modern paintings, jewellery, explicit movies and unbelievable objects that I cannot describe here!

It’s a must-see for all of us who love Montmartre ( well, that’s my excuse anyway) because one of its six floors is devoted to the bawdy houses that flourished there at the turn of the 20th century. Many of the working girls became famous when they appeared in masterpieces by Toulouse-Lautrec who seems to have spent most of his time sketching them…

There’s nothing sordid about these exhibits so I only became uncomfortable when a party of giggling American high-school girls started whooping ‘awesome’ and ‘that’s really gross’ at a display of phallic objects that gave them a dose of the willys, so to speak…

Best places to soak up the atmosphere

FOLLOW the tourists to colourful Place du Tertre, world-renowned as the square where all the painters and caricaturists operate. Off season, when the local restaurants remove their alfresco summer tables in the middle of the square, the 150 licensed Montmartrois artists have more room to display their wares. I have never yet seen a painting being bought, though I often see queues for the most popular portraitists who really ‘draw’ the crowds. A 15 minute sitting results in a 50 Euro drawing of your nearest and (in this case) dearest.

Join the queue at the Tourist Office for a free map of the area and Montmartrobus his was a real boon to me, regularly taking me up the steep hill from our nice little apartment on rue Yvonne le Tac (almost next door to Abbesses Metro station at the bottom of the hill) to the top. Beside the Metro is a beautiful church, a children’s carousel and a much-visited Love Mural of blue tiles featuring the words “I love you” in every language except Ulster-Scots.

RESTAURANTS: Best of the places to eat on Place de Tertre is the oldest, La Mere Catherine, founded in 1793. This is where Danton wrote immortal words along the lines ”Eat,drink and be merry, for tomorrow we diet.” It is also claimed that the word ‘bistro’ was coined here after invading Cossacks banged their tankards on the counter shouting “Bistro, bistro”, Russian for “Hurry up, we need fast food”. An unlikely story, but the food (eg. ginger frog’s legs, tender duck, tarte tatin etc) is excellent and the ambiance is pure Parisian.

Around the corner is one of the most photographed local landmarks, the flower-bedecked Restaurant le Poulbot in the street of the same name. In spite of the warning on the door “Polite dog, Mad owner” this cramped little gem is a truly friendly family spot with a great lunch of rustic fare for 20 euros. Always packed.

I really like Cocquelicot at 24 rue des Abbesses. It’s a bakery specialising in great value breakfasts of oven-fresh breads and home-made jams plus great brunches. North African eateries are usually good for dinner, like the Bar du Teatre opposite the Teatre de l’Atelier where we enjoyed hearty Couscous Royale accompanied by refreshing mint tea served in a silver pot with sweetmeats.

CAFES: Hey, this is where today’s global café culture was born, so you really cannot go wrong when you sit down at a table on any street. Alas, if the temperature is below 10 degrees, the waiter may be reluctant to come out and serve you. Also, if you order an Americano, you may get a cocktail; an espresso with hot water is called a Café Allongé here.

SHOPPING: What a joy! As well as having more art galleries and souvenir shops than any other hillock on earth, speciality boutiques abound, covering everything from millions of different buttons to perfume bottles. Our family favourite is Pylones offering unusual gadgets (I bought a fish-shaped multi-tool for anglers), colourful cooking tools, and playfully designed deco items – all at very reasonable prices. For amazing value in clothing, fight your way through the crowds at Tati (pronounced ‘Tatty’ which may tell you something about the quality) on Boulevard Rochechouart at the bottom of the Butte.

ENTERTAINMENT: As the historic nightlife district of Paris, Montmartre has lots going on for every taste, from clubbing and cabaret to adult entertainment and theatre (mostly in French). As a lifelong jazz fan, I recommend the restaurant Autour de Midi where the music is cool and the food is hot!

APARTMENTS AND HOTELS: For the past few years we have been staying in superb apartments, such as our latest bijou pied-a-terre mentioned above, which we always rent from, a highly-recommended agency run by my Canadian friend Gail Boisclair. It specialises in holiday rentals around Montmartre. That’s why I have had no recent personal experience of local hotels, which tend to be what are now known as boutique hotels – euphemisms for small but overpriced. However, I have been checking around and three names keep coming up - Le Relais de Montmartre, Holiday Inn Garden Court and the Hotel Particulier de Montmartre.

GETTING AROUND a mini-mountain is easier with Montmartrobus and the Funicular Railway, as well as a Tourist Train. There are two Velib (municipal bike rental) locations; the one at the top is always empty as it’s easier to freewheel down the Butte than to cycle up it. Do not even think of bringing or hiring a car as parking is impossible.

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