One of Paris’ most famous – and infamous – neighbourhoods, Montmartre was synonymous with drinking, dancing and debauchery back in the mid-19th century. As it was located outside the Paris city limits, it was free of the city’s taxes and controls and evolved into a bohemian, artistic enclave. It was the home the composer Eric Satie and artists like Pissarro, Matisse and Renoir – many of them living in poverty in communes like Le Bateau-Lavoir, which you can still see in Place Emile Goudeau. Today the artists you’ll see are more likely to be caricaturists and painters capturing tourists in the Place du Thetre than Impressionists drinking absinthe in their atelier, but Montmartre still trades on its arty, edgy reputation.
Paris’ artists have now been priced further out of the city and Montmartre is one of the city’s most popular tourist spots, but you can still see signs of its artistic history… even if you have to battle a few crowds. Set at the top of a hill – the mont in the name – it was perfect for the windmills used to produce flour back when the area was just a village. Artists gathered at the windmills for bread and a glass of wine on the terrace overlooking Paris, and later the owners added dance halls and cabarets to keep them entertained – and spending money. One of the most well-known is the Moulin Rouge, where you can still have dinner with a side of can-can dancing, though 21st-century prices have risen to around €165 per person!
Another famous Montmartre windmill is the Moulin de la Galette, whose parties were immortalised by Toulouse-Lautrec and Renoir – you can see his painting ‘Dance at the Moulin de Gallette’ in Paris’ Musee d’Orsay, with another version sold for over $78 million, making it one of the world’s top five most expensive paintings. Today the Moulin de la Galette is a private property, but there’s a restaurant nearby under another windmill which uses the name if you want to be able to say you’ve eaten there.
Another slice of history in Montmartre is Paris’ only remaining vineyard, the Clos de Montmartre. Vines covered the hill since Roman times when there was a temple here dedicated to Bacchus, the god of wine. But much of the land was sold off for development, with just 1500m² saved by a group of artists in the 1920s. It still produces around 1500 half-litre bottles of wine each year and, although they are apparently not exactly France’s finest, their novelty value means they get snapped up when they are auctioned off for charity each year. You can visit the vineyard at the annual Fête des Vendanges – or harvest festival – a five-day street party each October which celebrates French food and wine, with parades and fireworks.
Montmartre’s most iconic sight though is the Basilica of Sacré-Cœur, towering over Paris from the top of the hill. It’s actually fairly modern, built between 1876 to 1912 to honour the victims of the Franco-Prussian war, and was built using travertine limestone designed to get whiter as it ages. Its mix of architectural styles were a bit controversial – with some people describing as being like a gaudy giant wedding cake! – but like the Eiffel Tower it’s grown on Parisians as time has gone by. Inside is a huge golden mosaic of ‘Christ in Majesty’ behind the alter and a crypt allegedly containing Christ’s heart. You can also climb to the top of the basilica’s tower for a great view over Paris, and even lower down on the terrace and gardens out front you can see far across the city. People sprawl over the grass on a summer’s day, picnicking and sunbathing, taking photos or bringing out their sketchpads to see if any of Montmartre’s artistic inspiration will rub off on them.