Montmartre is a charming neighbourhood in the 18th arrondissement of Paris that is known for its cobbled streets, the stunning white Basilica of the Sacré-Coeur that crowns its namesake hill, and for its credentials as a former artistic hotspot at the turn of the 20th century.
Montmartre still retains its bohemian vibe, even as mobs of tourists ascend its streets on a daily basis. There is a lot of history and culture to soak up in the area, which is how Neil and I spent a beautiful summer day.
A glance up Rue Cortot.
Montmartre has been inhabited since at least the Gallo-Roman period around 250 C.E. The Romans had temples in the area dedicated to Mars (God of war and agriculture) and Mercury (God of commerce, communication, luck, tricksters and thieves; he also guided souls to the underworld). Thanks to these temples, this hill district may have been known in Roman times as “mons Mercury” (Mount Mercury) and “Mount Mars.”¹
View over Paris from the summit of Montmartre. The hill/butte is the tallest point in Paris at 430 feet (130 metres).
The current name of Montmartre comes from the Latin Mons Martyrum (Martyr’s Mountain) and is sourced in the story of Saint-Denis, the patron saint of Paris and France. Saint-Denis was the first bishop of Paris in the 3rd century. He and two of his companions were arrested by the Romans for preaching their faith to the residents of Lutetia (the Roman city that predates Paris, founded in 52 C.E.). The three men were taken to the top of the highest hill in Paris (Montmartre) and beheaded. According to legend, Denis picked up his head and carried it as he walked a few miles from the butte, preaching a sermon the entire way. The spot where he actually died was marked by a small shrine that later became the Basilica of Saint Denis, where the Kings of France chose to be buried.
Saint-Denis is the statue shown holding his head in the photo below. This is from one of the portals that decorate the doors of Notre-Dame on its west façade.
In 1133, Louis VI (1081-1137) purchased a site on Montmartre that contained the ruins of an old Merovingian-era (450-750) church. There, he established the Royal Abbey of Montmartre, a Benedictine monastery. The building, the gardens, and the fields belonging to the Abbey covered most of Montmartre. The Abbey included an adjoining church, the Church of Saint-Pierre de Montmartre, which was consecrated in 1147. Louis VI also had a small chapel, the Martyrium, built on the site where it was believed Saint-Denis had been beheaded. Although the Abbey was destroyed in 1790 during the French Revolution, the Church of Saint-Pierre survived. It is still standing, and is one of the oldest churches in Paris.
The Church of Saint-Pierre, which was part of the Montmartre Abbey. It is often overshadowed by its newer and larger neighbour, the Basilica of Sacré-Coeur, which is located just a stone’s throw away in the east.
The Clos Montmartre vineyard is all that remains of the Abbey. The white building houses the Musée de Montmartre, which I’ll cover in a separate post. The vineyard still produces about 500 litres of wine a year. The wine is auctioned off at a festival held the first Saturday in October.
By the 15th century, the north and northeast slopes of Montmartre contained a village, vineyards, gardens, and peach and cherry orchards². Mills were built on the western slopes starting in 1529. They were used to grind wheat, barley, and rye. There were 13 mills at one point, but by the late 19th century there were only two left.
In 1635, Montmartre Abbey opened up part of its grounds to the public as a central village square, now known as the Place du Tertre. In 1790, during the French Revolution, the Abbey was demolished and a new town hall built upon its former location at the Place du Tertre. This new town, the commune of Montmartre, remained outside of Paris city limits. Its main industries were wine-making and gypsum mining. Montmartre would be later annexed to the city of Paris in 1860.
The Place de Tertre in the morning, before the artists and the crowds descend upon it.
The heights of Montmartre made it an ideal vantage point for military operations. In 1590, Henry of Navarre placed his artillery at the top of the butte during the Siege of Paris and fired down at the city. He was hoping to seize control of Paris and the throne of France. He was unsuccessful at the time, as the arrival of a Spanish relief army broke Henry’s siege by bringing supplies to the starving citizens.
Postcard depicting Henry of Navarre and the Siege of Paris (1590).
In 1814, the War of the Sixth Coalition saw the invasion of France by Russian, Austrian, and Prussian forces. Russia occupied Montmartre from March 30-31, and bombarded the city during the Battle of Paris. The battle ended on March 31 when the French surrendered, and Napoleon was forced to abdicate.
Russian infantry storming the butte of Montmartre.
In March 1871, Montmartre became the scene of a revolutionary uprising. For context, the Franco-Prussian War had just ended with France’s capitulation at the end of January 1871. Paris had been under siege by the Prussian army for four months. During this time, radical units of the National Guard (and the working and lower-class citizens who made up their number) agitated against the French government, demanding the election of a democratic commune. Civil tensions continued to simmer after peace with Prussia was concluded through the signing of an armistice on January 28. The French government and the National Guard found themselves at odds over the possession of 400 cannons, which had been partially funded by the citizens of Paris through public subscription. A revolution was brewing, and both sides of the coming conflict wanted their hands on those weapons. The National Guard relocated the cannons to the parks of working-class neighbourhoods, including Montmartre, where they had the most support.
Cannons on Montmartre, overlooking the city.
Barricade at Montmartre.
I should note that, although the French government had the support of the French army, that army was still recovering from the Franco-Prussian war. Most of the force had been cut off from Paris during the siege, and many of the soldiers had been captured by Germany as prisoners of war.
Now that the siege and the war were over, the army’s numbers were slowly starting to rebuild as the soldiers and released prisoners made their way to Paris; however, the soldiers were still heavily outnumbered by the radical National Guardsmen. Additionally, the terms of the armistice had required the disarmament of the French army, but not the National Guard. Numbers and access to weapons were two major advantages that the National Guard had at this point over the French army and the national government. In spite of this, the French government decided it couldn’t afford to wait for the army to gather more strength.
On the morning of March 18, the French government sent two brigades of French soldiers to Montmarte to recover the greater number (170) of those disputed cannons.
The cannons at the summit of Montmartre on March 18, 1871.
A group of revolutionary Guardsmen were waiting for them, and a confrontation erupted. As shots were fired, a crowd from the community gathered in support of the National Guard. Chaos immediately ensued: the army mutinied, two generals were captured and executed, the uprising spread to other neighbourhoods, and French government officials fled Paris.
The National Guard took control of the city and held their desired election. Their elected members made up the Paris Commune, which took office on March 28; they ruled Paris for the next two months. On May 21, the French government returned with a renewed French army and retook Paris during the “Bloody Week” of fighting. It is unknown how many people died during the conflict, but it is estimated to be around 10,000. Montmartre saw heavy fighting on May 23 when around 350 people were captured and shot by the French army. The violent civil war concluded on May 28.
In the aftermath of this bloody revolution, the neighbourhood of Montmartre began to take on the shape that it is now most known for. It was decided that a large church would be built at the highest point in the city, at the summit of Montmartre (near where the National Guard had stored their cannons). This church was the Sacré-Coeur Basilica, a Roman Catholic minor basilica dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It was built from 1879-1919 and was financed by public donations. Politicians and clergy floated a few sanctimonious purposes for its construction, such as suggesting that the new church would allow the French to be forgiven for all the sins they had committed since the French Revolution. It was also claimed that the new church was symbolic of national penance for French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the violence of the Paris Commune. To me, it seems more likely that the church was built in the city’s most rebellious neighbourhood to remind them who was in charge. It also occupies the former park space that had been used to house the cannons of the National Guard. Whatever the case, the Basilica became a popular landmark, and today it is one of the most visited monuments in Paris.
Construction of Sacré-Coeur.
At roughly the same time that construction of the Basilica was underway, Montmartre began to emerge as a lively artistic community. The period between the end of the Franco-Prussian War and the outbreak of World War I is known as the Belle-Époque (1871-1914).
During this time, Montmartre became famous for its cafés, dance halls, and cabarets. Le Chat Noir was opened in 1881, and was a popular place for writers and poets. The Moulin Rouge was founded in 1889, and it became the birthplace of the French can-can.
Artists were drawn to the area by its cheap rents and convivial atmosphere. Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Pablo Picasso, and Vincent van Gogh (to name a few of many) lived, had studios, and worked in Montmartre. Many of these artists left after the outbreak of World War I, moving onto the district of Montparnasse, but their legacy remains.
Renoir’s Bal du moulin de la Galette (A Ball at the Moulin de Galette), which he painted while living in Montmartre at 12 Rue Cortot (today, the location of the Musée Montmartre).
The (in)famous Moulin Rouge cabaret, which was initially founded in 1889. The original building burned down in 1915; it reopened in 1921. You can read more about the Moulin Rouge in my post on the Musée de Montmartre.
All right, with the history covered, let’s move onto our tour!
Neil and I began our tour by taking transit to the Abbesses metro station. Then we made our way to Le mur des je t’aime (the Wall of Love), located in the Jehan Rictus garden square.
The wall measures 40 square metres (430 square feet) and consists of 612 plates made from enamelled lava. It was made in 2000 by Frédéric Baron and Claire Killo.
The phrase “I love you” is repeated 311 times in 250 languages.
How many languages do you recognize?
I like the inclusion of the phrase in American Sign Language.
Walking up the steps of the Rue Foyatier.
If climbing 300 or so stairs isn’t your thing, you can take the Montmartre Funicular. The dome of Sacré-Coeur can be seen peeking out from behind the trees.
The Basilica. The statues in front of the church are of King (Saint) Louis IX (the guy who had Saint Chapelle built) and Joan of Arc.
Various street views.
I love a brick windowsill full of potted geraniums.
Can we please live behind this door?
Colourful café tables and chairs.
Local street market.
More geraniums! I love the cute little pots on the sides of the window.
More stairs! A common site in Montmartre.
Some beautiful apartment buildings with tiny balconies.
A different angle.
This balcony looks super sweet!
All of that stair-climbing and geranium-stalking makes one hungry. We grabbed a couple of sandwiches at this cute boulangerie.
The Cabaret Au Lapin Agile (The Nimble Rabbit), shown below, is a famous Montmartre cabaret that has been around since 1860, when it was called Au rendez-vous des voleurs (At the rendez-vous of thieves). In 1875, French artist and caricaturist André Gill painted a sign for the cabaret that showed a rabbit jumping out of a pan. Local residents began referring to the cabaret as “Le Lapin à Gill” (Gill’s Rabbit), which gradually evolved into the new name, “Cabaret Au Lapin Agile.”
A better angle of the cabaret (taken at a different time by someone else, so the paint is a different colour).
A reproduction of the sign created for the cabaret (the original was stolen in 1893).
The cabaret circa 1880-1890.
The picturesque La Maison Rose. The date of the house’s construction is unknown, but it was probably built before 1850.
The house around 1870.
The house in 1887.
In 1905, the house was purchased by Laure “Germaine” Gargallo Pichot, wife of Catalan painter Ramon Pichot Gironès and a former model of Pablo Picasso (Gironès and Picasso were good friends). Germaine was inspired by the colourful houses in Catalonia, and decided to paint her house pink. The couple opened a restaurant, La Maison Rose. It was frequented by many artists and residents of Montmartre, including Picasso.
Laure Germaine in front of the house with Ramon Pichot in the window, taken between 1910-1920.
The house in 1920.
When Germaine passed away in 1948, the house was purchased by the grandmother of the current owner. Although it was closed when Neil and I visited, the restaurant has since reopened (and it looks like a really cute place to eat!).
This house is located to the left of La Maison Rose (you can see it in the picture of La Maison Rose from 1920, above). It belonged to Henry Lachouque (1883-1971), a French historian and military Commander who served in World War I. Lachouque was decorated with the Croix de Guerre for his military service. His area of study was Napoleon and the First Empire. His interest is reflected in the two eagles that appear on the entry gate to the residence; the French Imperial Eagle was the standard for Napoleon and the Grand Army.
This plaque reads: “Here lived the Commander Henry Lachouque, Historian of Napoleon and the Great Army.”
The house also contains a sun dial which reads, “When you will ring, I will sing.” This is in reference to the nearby bells of Sacré-Coeur.
A cute pink building located to the left of Lachouque’s house.
Another beautiful Montmartre house, this one located on Rue Cortot.
Neil and I visited the Musée de Montmartre, shown below, which I’ll cover in another post.
Le Consulat was frequented by Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
A picture-perfect window.
A cute pink scooter.
We are now in the Place du Tertre, the heart of the Montmartre neighbourhood (and cram-packed on this beautiful summer day!).
There are lots of prints of paintings and advertisements from the Belle-Époque period available.
An Eiffel Tower keychain available in every colour you can imagine! (I should have grabbed a sparkly pink one from the bin located towards the top right).
Covered patio space for the restaurant Au Cadet de Gascogne.
If you’re unable to climb the steep hills and stairs of Montmartre, there is a little train that tours the neighbourhood.
This sculpture is known as Le Passe-Muraille (the Passer through Walls). Le Passe-Murraille is the title of a story by French writer Marcel Aymé, and features a character named Dutilleule who discovers that he has the remarkable ability to pass through walls. The statue is located at the Place Marcel Aymé, which is named after the writer. In the story, Dutilleule is a man from Montmartre who uses his new-found power to get revenge on someone who bullied him, burgle houses, avoid the husband of a married woman whom he’s having an affair with, and eventually break out of prison. The story ends with him getting permanently stuck in a wall; hence, the statue in the photo below. People like to grasp one of the hands of the statue and pretend that they are trying to pull him out, which is why it’s so shiny.
A nearby view of the Eiffel Tower.
Another patio with an impressive assemblage of foliage.
To wind up our tour of the Montmartre area, I wanted to hunt down its remaining two windmills. The two windmills have separate identities and histories, but are commonly both referred to as Le Moulin de la Galette. This is a little confusing, especially as one of them is more often referred to by that name than the other one, but I’ll do my best to distinguish between the two.
The first windmill I’ll discuss is Le Moulin Radet (shown above). It is the one that can be most easily seen while touring Montmartre. It was built in 1717. Today, it can be found on top of a modern bistro that is called Le Moulin de la Galette, but this was not its original location. In 1915, the Moulin Radet was at risk of being demolished, but it was saved by an association called the Friends of Old Montmartre. The owner of the windmill, Pierre-August Debray, offered the windmill to the Vieux Montmartre Society on the condition it be moved to another site. It was transferred to the present location in 1924. In 1958, Le Moulin Radet was named a Historical Monument. In 1978, it was restored. In 2015, the new and modern bistro named Le Moulin de la Galette was opened at its base. (I’m emphasizing that this bistro is new and modern to distinguish it from the historic cabaret and dance hall, which I’ll discuss later. They are not the same thing, although they share a name. Again, confusing!).
The second windmill is the more famous of the two. It was built in 1622 and was originally known as Le Moulin Blute-fin; the French verb bluter means the sifting of flour for the purpose of separating it from the bran. Later, this specific windmill would become known as Le Moulin de la Galette although, as I’ve said, the name Le Moulin de Galette is also used to refer to both of the windmills. To keep them straight for my own purposes, I’m going to refer to the first one we discussed as Le Moulin Radet and this one as Le Moulin Blute-fin/de la Galette.
Sadly, Le Moulin Blute-fin/de la Galette is now located on private property. It’s really hard to see and photograph. Apparently, you can get better shots of it in the winter time when there aren’t as many leaves to block it. The two photos I have below are the best I could get.
A little laughable, isn’t it? Other people have been a little more fortuitous in their photographic pursuit of this elusive windmill.
Both Le Moulin Radet and Le Moulin Blute-fin were purchased by the Debray family in 1809 (the windmills were both still known by their original names at this point). The picture below shows both of them around the year 1885. Le Moulin Radet is in the background (to the left), Le Moulin Blute-fin is in the foreground (on the right).
The Debray family used the flour they ground to make a galette, a flat brown bread that they served to visitors at the windmill with a glass of milk. The bread was so tasty and popular that the Debray family started referring to Le Moulin Blute-fin as Le Moulin de la Galette.
A galette des rois. (May or may not be similar to what was served at the windmill).
There was a tragic turn of events in 1814 during the Battle of Paris. Russia occupied Montmartre from March 30-31 as part of the War of the Sixth Coalition (which would see the abdication of Napoleon). Three male brothers of the Debray family lost their lives while defending the windmill. One of the men shot a Russian commander. His reprisal was swift and brutal: the Russians killed him, cut his body up into pieces, and then hung them on the blades of the windmill. Yikes! Later, the mother of the three dead brothers buried them in the Cimetière du Calvaire in Montmartre, and placed a red windmill on their grave. Supposedly, this red windmill is the source for the name of the famous cabaret, Moulin Rouge. This grisly scene was repeated during the Siege of Paris in 1870-1871 (part of the Franco-Prussian War), when the Prussians killed Pierre-Charles Debray and also nailed his body to the blades of the windmill. Yikes!
A postcard of the windmills in 1820.
Let’s move onto more pleasant aspects of the windmill’s history. In 1830, the Debray family started serving wine instead of milk at the windmill, and turned it into a cabaret. It was a popular move, and attracted an increasing number of Parisians to the area. Montmartre was accessible to Parisians via a train or a one-hour walk, and they enjoyed coming to “the countryside” to enjoy the local Montmartre wine and the fresh bread. In 1834, a dance hall was introduced. The name Le Moulin de la Galette was then used for all of the structures on the Debray property: both of the windmills, the restaurant/cabaret, and the dance hall. In addition to serving as a restaurant and dance-hall, Le Moulin de la Galette has also served as an open-air cafe, and even a television studio.
A postcard of Le Moulin de la Galette in 1840.
A postcard from 1850.
A poster from 1895.
The dance hall in 1898.
The Moulin Blute-fin/de la Galette and its dance hall have both served as a source of inspiration for many prominent painters such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir (see his “Bal du moulin de la Galette further above in this post), Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Maurice Ultrillo, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Maurice Utrillo (1883-1955) was one of the few famous Montmartre painters to actually be born there.
Here are some beautiful flowers to finish up the post.
Thank you for reading!
¹ The Temple of Mercury may have been where the Moulin de la Galette now stands, and Temple of Mars where the Church of Saint-Pierre is located (right beside Sacré-Coeur). I read that, prior to the Romans, a sacred oak grove was located at the top of Montmartre where Druids worshipped the god Teutates.
² One resource I’ve come across in trying to determine what Paris used to look like is a Plan of Paris that was created around 1550. It was done by Olivier Truschet (engraver) and Germain Hoyau (designer). The original engraving was done in colour and on wood. You can find it on Wikipedia Commons and zoom in on the area you are interested in. I suggest checking it out for yourself! You can zoom in on specific areas with remarkable clarity.
From that map, below is what I found for Montmartre in 1550: N ← S ↑ E ↓ W
Unfortunately, the map ends right at Montmartre, and only shows the southern (right) slope, so there aren’t any details to be had of what Montmartre looked like to the left (north) of the church. If you zoom out a bit from Montmartre and look at the area located to the east, I think it would have looked very similar: windmills, farms, trees, undeveloped areas. (Montmartre is in the bottom left of the picture). N ← S ↑ E ↓ W