The 18th arrondisement of northern Paris is located on the Right Bank of the Seine River. Its land area is about 2.3 square miles (a sliver over six square kilometers). The population is on hundred eighty five thousand and the area is home to about seventy thousand jobs.
The distinctive Moulin Rouge (Red Mill or windmill) is a major highlight of this historic district. It is one of the world’s best-known nightclubs or to use the French term, cabaret. The Moulin Rouge was built in 1889 by the owner of the Olympia, Paris’s oldest music hall located in the neighboring ninth district. You can’t miss this building because of the imitation red windmill on the roof. Josephine Baker, Frank Sinatra, Mistinguett, and Edith Piaf and many other famous entertainers regularly played the Moulin Rouge. The story has it that Elvis had a crush on a can-can dancer and never went to Paris without stopping at the Moulin Rouge.
This cabaret’s most unusual star was undoubtedly Joseph Pujol, who performed under the name Le Pétomane. His act consisted of “singing” from an unexpected body opening. His “songs” included the French National Anthem, La Marseillaise, and an imitation of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. I’m told Sigmund Freud used to catch his act. Believe it or not, for many years Pujol was the highest-paid entertainer in France. A present-day British comedian Mr. Methane dressed like a superhero does the same sort of thing, but to my knowledge has not played the Moulin Rouge.
This historic cabaret, arguably the site where striptease was born, has been immortalized in paintings by Toulouse Lautrec and to a lesser extent by two films nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award, the 1952 version starring Jose Ferrer and Zsa-Zsa Gabor and the 2001 version starring Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman.
Butte Montmartre is a hill about four hundred feet (one hundred thirty meters) high not very much more than a hop, skip, and a jump away from the Moulin Rouge. Its height and natural beauty have attracted religious ceremonies since time immemorial. Montmartre was probably used for druid ceremonies way back when and formerly hosted a temple to the Roman god of war Mars. Saint Denis, the Bishop of Paris and the patron saint of France, founded a church there before his martyrdom in the mid-Third Century. His church, the relatively unknown Saint Pierre de Montmartre, claims to be the founding location of the Jesuit order of priests. You are more likely to visit the hill’s other church, the Basilica du Sacre Coeur (Basilica of the Sacred Heart) described below.
The area itself was the site of the first Paris Commune insurrection in 1870-1871 and its former gypsum mines serve as unmarked tombs for many partisans of this French revolution. The whole affair was pretty bloody and the Archbishop of Paris was one of its many martyrs. When Paris was rebuilt in the Eighteenth Century by Napoleon III and his minion Baron Hausmann, the poor people of Paris were driven out of the city center to Montmartre and other parts of the outskirts.
From the late Nineteenth Century until the end of World War One Montmartre was home to the artists and their milieu. Among those who hung their hats in Montmartre were Salvador Dalí, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso and Vincent van Gogh. The list goes on and on. In later years the artistic center of Paris, and in fact the world, switched from Montmartre to Montparnasse in the south of Paris. In 1965 in his famous song La Bohème the popular French singer-songwriter Charles Aznavour tells the story of a painter reminiscing about his youth in a Montmartre that has ceased to exist: Je ne reconnais plus/Ni les murs, ni les rues/Qui ont vu ma jeunesse/En haut d’un escalier/Je cherche l’atelier/Dont plus rien ne subsiste/Dans son nouveau décor/Montmartre semble triste/Et les lilas sont morts (‘I no longer recognize/Neither the walls nor the streets/That had seen my youth/At the top of a staircase/I look for an atelier/Of which nothing survives/In its new décor/Montmartre seems sad/And the lilacs are dead’).
Montmartre is no longer bohemian. But what is? If you stroll around the Place du Tertre you won’t have any trouble finding artists, some of whom are struggling. Many renowned artists and other cultural figures such as Jacques Offenbach and Francois Truffault are buried in the Cimetière de Montmartre (Montmartre Cemetery).
In 1873 Paris city council expropriated land at the summit of Montmartre for the construction of the Basilica. The foundation stone was laid in 1875 and the church was opened for services in 1891. The Basilica was only completed in 1914, and formally dedicated after the end of World War I. Go to top of the dome for a spectacular panoramic view of Paris, which lies mostly to the south. The church and its surroundings have often starred in films, most recently the 2001 movie Amélie. You may want to take the funicular (cable-car) to get to the top of the hill.
Among Montmartre’s museums is the Musée de Montmartre, the house where the painter Maurice Utrillo lived and worked in a second-floor studio. Several other well-known artists including Pierre-Auguste Renoir lived here. In 1990 his painting Bal au moulin de la Galette, Montmartre featuring local people sold for more than $78 million. You might also want to stop by the Espace Dalí, a museum devoted to the famous Spanish painter Salavdor Dalí. More extensive collections of his work are found in Figueres, Spain and Saint Petersburg, Florida. Another museum is the Musée de l’érotisme in the nearby Pigalle section of the district. Do you need a translation?
When we launched this series we promised you a Paris vineyard. The fifteenth arrondissement in southern Paris also hosts a vineyard. But Montmartre’s vineyard is much more famous. Local intellectuals planted the vineyard in 1934. They chose a northern exposure (is Paris really that hot, temperature wise?) and organized the first grape picking a year after the planting, about three years too early. This ceremony attracted both the President of the French Republic and the Minister of Agriculture. Except during World War II, every October the grapes are picked and wine is made in the cellar of the Mairie (the local City Hall). Local artists paint labels for the bottles, sold in April at a charity auction. Yet one more reason to visit this Paris and Montmartre in the spring.
Of course you don’t want to be in Paris without sampling fine French wine and food. In my article I Love French Wine and Food – A Rhône Valley Crozes-Hermitage I reviewed such a wine and suggested a sample menu: Start with Foie Gras avec Gelée de Viognier (Goose Liver Pâté with Viognier Jelly). For your second course savor Chevreau à l’Ail et Herbes Sauvages (Baby Goat with Garlic and Wild Herbs). And as dessert indulge yourself with Granité aux Pommes et Calvados (Apple and Calvados Ice). Your Parisian sommelier (wine steward) will be happy to suggest appropriate wines to accompany each course.
Levi Reiss has authored or co-authored ten books on computers and the Internet, but to be honest, he would rather just drink fine Italian, French, or other wine, accompanied by the right foods. He teaches classes in computers at an Ontario French-language community college. He knows what dieting is, and is glad that for the time being he can eat and drink what he wants, in moderation. His central website is www.wineinyourdiet.com devoted to the health and nutritional aspects of wine and its place in your weight-loss program. His global wine website is www.theworldwidewine.com. Visit his other websites devoted to Italian wine, Italian travel, and Italian food.