Magic Montmarte

Magic Montmartre

By Keith Hall
The two most obvious attractions of Montmartre are the huge Sacré-Cœur (Sacred Heart) Basilica and the nearby Place du Tertre, where artists display their paintings in outdoor stalls. However, they are only a part of what Montmartre has to offer.This small district has a maze of winding streets to explore, a long history and many exciting stories to tell.

At different times, the area around Montmartre has been a Roman settlement, a secluded religious centre, a war zone and a bohemian quarter for artists, writers and musicians. Renoir and Picasso lived and painted in Montmartre; Edith Piaf sang on its streets; and the composer Erik Satie lived and wrote his distinctive piano music there. The ill-fated Commune of Paris started here in 1871, while the encircling Prussian army prepared to invade Paris.

The very name of Montmartre gives a hint of the district’s turbulent history. Situated on a hillin the 18th Arrondissement, the area was originally named Mons Martis (Mount of Mars)since the Romans built aTemple of Mars on the hill. Thatname was later Christianised as Montmartre (Mount of the Martyr), to honour Saint Denis, one of the patron saints of France, who was beheaded there in the 3rd century.

As you explore the area, you will soon notice that Montmartre has reinvented itself many times over the centuries, giving rise to some quirkyhistorical ironies. Art shows up some of these ironies very clearly. The artists who lived in Montmartre in the past were often unrecognised for their talents, but have now become household names. Many were ridiculed and had difficulty exhibiting and selling their shockingly unconventionalworks. Today people flock to Montmartre to buy paintings which are much less likely to outrage public sensibilities.

Sacré-Cœur Basilica can also be looked at from several quite different perspectives. As its name suggests, the brilliant white building with its soaring domes and turrets is dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. But its origins actually lie in the bloody demise of the Commune of Paris and France’s humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian war.

Construction of the basilica started in 1875 as a penance for these failures, and was completed in 1914. These more political aspects of the building are reflected in the equestrian statues on the facade, which represent Saint Louis on the left and Joan of Arc on the right. These two saints had political and military roles, in addition to their religious significance.

The basilica is so overpowering that you could easily overlook the small church of Saint Pierre de Montmartre (St Peter of Montmartre), which is located just a few metres away. It claims to be the oldest church in Paris, with origins that date back to the 12th century, when it was part of a large abbey. According to legend, this church is where the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) was started. However in another piece of historical irony, the church was demolished during the French Revolution and rebuilt during the 19th century, so you could say that it is old and young at the same time.

It is also amusing to note that the “Mount” in Montmartre is actually just 130m high. However it manages to look quite prominent, since Paris is a fairly flat city. In fact the top of the hill is the highest ground in Paris. The view from the terrace in front of Sacré-Cœurrivals that from the Eiffel Tower, and has the advantage of being free. The basilica is also a significant landmark in Paris, since you can see it on the skyline from many parts of the city.

Today the main tourist centre of Montmartre looks prosperous and dignified, with tidy squares and colourfully painted buildings. It is hard to believe that this area was a sleazy district in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when struggling artists, musicians and writers shocked public morality with their bohemian lifestyle.

However, you don’t have to wander far before you find reminders of the old Montmartre. Within about 500m on the north and west side of Sacré-Cœur, you will find the Montmartre cemetery with the graves of many famous writers, artists and musicians; a small vineyard that still produces wine; the Lapin Agile (Nimble Rabbit) Cabaret, which used to be frequented by many local artists; Place Dalida, near the home of the famous singer and actress; and the Moulin de la Galette, which was featured in many famous paintings.

Heading eastwards from the basilica, you can see Erik Satie’s House and Le Bateau-Lavoir which was a home and meeting place for writers and artists in the early 20th century. The building faces onto a secluded, cobblestoned square with chestnut trees and a fountain. Picasso lived at Bateau-Lavoir for four years and painted his famousLes Demoiselles d’Avignonduring that time.

As you explore Montmartre, it is obvious that the district has not entirely lost its artistic cutting edge and still has the knack of shocking modern sensibilities. Graffiti and unauthorised art abounds in the streets, with a mixture of stencils and posters, including some political slogans. You will also find small mosaic images of space invaders, which are the work of the popular French street artist Invader.

There are a number of Metro stations within walking distance of Sacré-Cœur. To reach the basilica and Place Tertre on top of the hill, you can walk up one of the long sets of stairs, or take a ride to the top in the only funicular railway in Paris. For more information about Montmartre, visit

Photography by Keith Hall

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