Montmartre is a neighbourhood in Paris steeped in art history and culture and ever evolving to produce a haven for artists, writers and other creative people.
I had the opportunity to explore Montmartre having no prior knowledge of its historical and cultural significance. It was a journey of total discovery. I got off at the Montmartre subway stop and started climbing up the long, winding staircase up Montmartre hill. The artistic exhibition of Montmartre started right from there with tiled murals and interesting artwork all along the spiral walls.
The staircase opened up into a square. It was a bright and sunny day and after a couple of days of unpredictable, rainy Parisian weather it was just perfect. The square at first glance was like your typical European town squares albeit, without a central fountain. However, the eccentricity of the neighborhood is visible just below the surface. There was a public art installation that day to highlight the treatment of animals in zoos.
From the square I just started walking up and down the different roads that converged there. A neighborhood is a homogenous place with all the streets and different areas maintaining the same look. Not Montmartre. Every street was different. And since it is a hill, the slopes made for some very picturesque views, almost as if the culture of the place is being reflected in the cityscape.
Montemarte is a hill in the north of Paris. It is famous for the Basilica of the Sacre Coeur at its summit and also for its night clubs and being an artistic neighbourhood. It was initially a rural village filled with windmills and vineyards. Eventually, due to rapid growth of Paris it became a part of the city but still retained its old charm with its old buildings, narrow cobbled streets, street side cafes and trees everywhere. Known for its revolutionary politics and underground culture, its liberal reputation lured students, writers, musicians and artists to the area. Some of them include Henri Matisse, Salvador Dali, Claude Monet, Piet Mondrian and Pablo Picasso.
The thing that caught my attention were the amazing storefronts. Each designed and done up in a different way, ranging from the classic to the quirky. Since it is a hill, there were many beautiful steps and staircases. There were street musicians along the landings singing and strumming their guitars out of sheer love of music. People often gave them money for the music but that wasn’t their main interest. There was graffiti everywhere. Some with great beauty and some outright profane. The whole place, true to its arty characteristic just stands out and catches your eye as there is a surprise on every corner.
As I walked around I came across a small park. It was your basic park with a play area for children, benches for adults, some landscaping, etc. But true to Montmartre standards, it did not stop there. There was a wall with some graffiti which was lined with cobalt blue tiles with variations of the word ‘love’ written in every language imaginable.
I made my way to the top from where the view of Paris city is breathtaking. The Basilica of Sacre Coeur is located here at the very highest point of the hill. It is a Roman Catholic church which started in 1914. A huge row of big steps leads up to the church. The steps, in true European fashion serve not just as a means of vertical transport, but also as a public gathering place. You can see hordes of people sitting on the steps, hanging around with friends, couples spending time together, the solitary people with their books or guitars enjoying the sunshine and just taking the atmosphere in. The day I went there, the Basilica was closed unfortunately so I couldn’t go inside. The building however was magnificent and the pale colour of the travertine used for its construction contrasted with the bright blue sky beautifully.
From the Basilica it was time to go down. What better way to do it other than taking the Funicular. It is a funicular railway that negotiates the steep slope for people who can’t or don’t want to climb up and down the 300 plus steps to the top of the hill. It traverses the distance in under a minute and a half.
From there it was straight to the Place du Tertre, the central square of Montmartre. It is the busiest and most commercial area of the hill. It has typical touristy stuff like artists who paint your portraits on the spot, street musicians performing for money, restaurants and cafes, souvenir shops selling key chains, post cards and other paraphernalia which was just quirky enough for me. I became the typical tourist as I bought posters and postcards to take back home with me.