Friday, 29 May 2009

Wandering Montmartre

Over the years I have read so many stories about the ‘Belle Epoque’ or ‘the beautiful era’ of Paris that spanned from the late 1800’s through until the first world war. It was an era of enlightenment, optimism, new technologies and exciting revolutions in Art. Significant to what was happening in Paris at the time was the outer area of Montmartre in the 18th arrondissement, which continues to be easily identified by the wonderful white domed Basilica of Sacre Coeur. This is where many of the great artists of the 20th century began their careers and remains an absolute must see for anyone remotely interested in the history of fine art. Jules and I decided to join a walking tour of the area and on a lovely warm day we stood waiting for our tour guide in front of the Moulin Rouge. While the iconic red windmill still remained from the days when the dance hall became the spiritual home of the ‘Can-Can’, it is now a very different establishment. Yet all those years ago it played an important role in the history of art, particularly with the likes of Toulouse Lautrec who often frequented its doors to capture glimpses of the risqué social nightlife of the times.

Eventually our guide arrived and we were soon on our way, but before heading up the hill we made a quick stop at the nearby Montmartre cemetery to pay our respects to some of the areas most prominent citizens, including the renowned painter Edgar Dagas and the singer Dalida, who apparently still receives bucket loads of flowers everyday from admirers some 25 years after her death. To be honest, Jules and I hadn’t actually heard of her prior to the tour, but our guide highlighted her stature by claiming that she had once polled second behind Charles De Gaulle as the person who had the greatest impact on French society.

We eventually began our walk upward; along cobble stoned streets and passed classic shuttered architecture that had not particularly changed over the ensuing years. We walked by the studios of Monet, Lautrec and Van Gogh, each indicated with a small plaque at the entrance. The area is now leafy and quite refined, which is a far cry from how it must have been when it was a haven for impoverished artists. More in keeping with the past era is the Moulin De Gaulette, which still has its old windmill (originally used for grinding local wheat for bread), which became known as the site for a popular open-air dance hall. The surrounding garden, filled with laughter and good cheer, would be depicted in Monet’s masterpiece ‘Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette’ in 1876 and in 1900 would inspire a young 19 year-old Spaniard called Pablo Picasso. Continuing our walk we headed toward Le Bateau-Lavoir, the communal studio that Picasso shared with Amedeo Modigliani. Our guide tells us that at the time, the two were so poor that they had to sleep in a single bed in shifts…how their fortunes would change!

As we headed in the direction of Sacre Coeur, we walked past the lodgings of composer Eric Satie where he composed the hypnotic composition ‘Gymnopaedies’, one of Jules’ favourite classical pieces. The building is near The Montmartre Vineyard, which is surely one of the hidden treasures of Paris, with neat rows of vines sitting on a small sloping block. Being the only remaining Parisian vineyard and producing only a miserly 1000kg of grapes a season, its wine has become some of the most sought after in France. From here we took the final stroll upward into the busy streets surrounding the famed basilica with its many restaurants and wine bars. The focal point is Place du Tertre, where local artists maintain the traditions of the area and continue to remind us of the generations of artists who once lived and worked there. Today it is a haven for tourists, keen to pick up a water colour souvenir or to have their portrait sketched. For us it’s a place to soak up the atmosphere of Montmartre before wandering over to sit on the steps of Sacre Couer and enjoy one of the best views of Paris.

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