My Memoirs of Montmartre

On my very first trip to Paris, many moons ago in 1976, one of the must-sees on my bucket list was the famed area of Montmartre, up on a hill 430 feet high, because it had three important features for me and my soul sister with whom I was travelling for the very first time to Europe.

These were the Basilica of Sacré Coeur, the Place du Tertre (External link) or the Montmartre Village central square, and the Moulin Rouge. The irony of my selection did not escape me – from the bastion of Catholicism to the birthplace of the can-can…

The great white domes of the Basilica of Sacré Coeur were visible from the air as we were coming in to land at Charles de Gaulle. I was all but bouncing in my seat, pointing out and practically yelling “I can see it, I can see it – that’s the Sacré Coeur!!!”. I was a bit of a history buff (still am) and was going to actually visit all the grand monuments of which I’d read so much. The Sacré Coeur was designed by Paul Abadie and its construction spanned almost four decades from 1876 to 1914, although poor Paul Labadie died in 1884 after the foundation was laid. Magnificent, spectacular, awesome (meaning inspiring awe and not the modern jargon of calling everything awesome) – no adjectives could describe the beautiful structure that soared above our heads. Bypassing the funiculaire, we decided to climb the steps, all the while muttering that it could have been the wrong choice! But the moment of glory? Lighting a candle in the Basilica for the first time was an indescribable feeling … I have done this every time I have visited Paris since (which is a fair number…) but that first time has stayed in my memory.

From the Basilica, we went round the back, where we were considerably startled by the mimes painted in white, before arriving at the Place du Tertres, the artists’ square. It was exactly as I’d imagined it, with artists setting up their easels for the tourists – we were on a shoestring budget, so reluctantly shook our heads to being painted, but stood by and watched their brushes flying smoothly over the canvases, being reminded of the time when Montmartre was the mecca of modern art.

By the 19th century, the butte was famous for its cafes and ginguettes (which is such a more elegant word for what is essentially a bar which also serves food) with public dancing and cabarets. Le Chat Noir became a popular haunt for writers and poets. Downhill to the south-west is the red-light district of Pigalle (External link) , which we had to visit with a little flutter in our stomachs because we were visiting a red-light area. The Moulin Rouge opened in 1889 in the Jardin de Paris, but after being destroyed by a fire, reopened again in 1921 in all its glory. It was the birthplace of the can-can, which is also why I so wanted to see it, having seen the movie Can-can with the impish Shirley Maclaine and the delightful Maurice Chevalier. Unfortunately, due to the fact that we were on a shoe-string budget, we were unable to go in – which I rectified about 30 years later, when I went for a dinner-show with another friend and my dream came true - to visit and sample the delights of the first French cabaret I had lusted over for such a long time.

The Moulin Rouge opened in 1889 in the Jardin de Paris, but after being destroyed by a fire, reopened again in 1921 in all its glory. ©Moulin-Rouge-D.Duguet

Much time has passed since my first visit and Montmartre has evolved significantly over the years, but the one thing that has always stayed constant in Montmartre? Its timeless appeal. The Sacré Coeur still continues to watch over Paris from its imposing height and is still one of the first monuments one sees when flights hover above CDG before landing.

You still have eager tourists striking a pose for artists at street corners and the Moulin Rouge continues to allure with its legendary Can-can. Yesteryear’s cameras have been replaced by trendy mobile phones and their equally trendy inbuilt cameras both of which, I do admit, do full justice in capturing the vibrant beauty of Montmartre perfectly!