Standing above the city, the gleaming white basilica Sacré-Coeur is nearly as iconic as the Eiffel Tower it looks down upon. The neighborhood of Montmartre (in which the Sacré-Coeur can be found) has always stood apart from the rest of Paris, not just as the large hill in the city’s northern 18th Arrondissement, but as the home to artists, revolutionaries and outsiders who have played an important part in the unique history of Paris. These streets hold wild stories and a unique perspective around every corner.
Perhaps the neighborhoods most recognizable sight, the Sacré-Coeur stands atop the butte (hill) Montmartre and is the highest place in the city of Paris. The tower is famous for its bright white structure, designed with the heavy pollution of the early 1900s in mind, the stone is self cleaning so it has retained its original glory.
The choice of Montmartre to host the Sacré-Coeur was no accident and was not because of the it’s place atop the hill. It is a penance for the revolutionary history of Montmartre. Originally a separate village from the metropolis it looks upon, in the 1800s Montmartre was a destination for the outsiders of French culture and thinkers with eyes on revolutionary change. In 1871 a radical political movement known as the Paris Commune took control of the hill and ruled the city for two months. Eventually the French Army violently defeated the revolutionaries. The Sacré-Coeur stands as a tribute to this dark time and the Prussian siege of Paris that predated the uprising. During its construction the basilica was seen as a black eye by the revolutionaries and artists who still called Montmartre home.
Despite this dark period in the history of Montmartre the village is known most widely as a place of joy and exuberance. Long a nightlife destination, the well-to-do and the outcasts of Paris were welcomed alike to its bars and cabarets. Known worldwide, the Moulin Rouge is the prime example of this. Home of the French Can-Can dance, the club has always been a destination for its tantalizing dancers. The building has inspired curiosity and merriment for the entirety of its more than 130 years in the city, hosting everyone from dignitaries and artists to visitors the world over. Its name, Moulin Rouge (translated to Red Windmill) is a tribute to Montmartre, known for the many windmills that once occupied the hill.
The laissez-faire attitude of Montmartre has always been its draw. At the end of the 19th Century and beginning of the 20th Century it held what was likely the highest concentration of artists in Europe. Visionaries like Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Vincent van Gough, Salvador Dali and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec all either lived within this small neighborhood or were regulars on its streets. At the time it was a more rural area offering a retreat from the city and inspiration with its winding streets and many bars, clubs and salons which played host to new ideas and new artistic expressions. The lively nature of the neighborhood was captured best by french artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. His unique style created some of the most iconic images of late 19th Century Paris and captured the energetic life of Montmartre.
Today’s Montmartre is very different from the one frequented and painted by Toulouse-Lautrec, however Montmartre is still major destination for those looking to have a good time. The Pigalle district, located on the southern foot of the hill, is still a popular bar district. Once the red light district of Paris, Pigalle has changed. A few lingering sex shops and strip clubs can still reside on the main Boulevard de Clichy, however walk a block either way and some of the best cocktail bars of Paris can be found in an increasingly “hip” area. Just last month France played host to the Euro Cup and each game day the bars of Pigalle overflowed with passionate supporters of every country. French fans mixed with the visiting spectators and, if you were lucky, you might have caught a glimpse of some charming antics by the Irish supporters.
For me, there is no neighborhood more magical than Montmartre. It’s not the Sacré-Coeur nor Moulin Rouge that keep me endlessly walking the hill of Montmartre, but it’s the winding streets that truly draw me in. Even today, it somehow feels apart from the rest of Paris. Walk 5 minutes from any of the traditional tourist destinations and you’ll stumble upon something unexpected. A windmill appears between two buildings, a park hidden up some steps, a peaceful square or some street art reminding you of the long and beautiful artistic history of the area. Montmartre truly is an unique part of Paris. It’s my favorite neighborhood in Paris, however I’m a bit biased. It’s the neighborhood I call home.
Author : William Lounsbury
William is a photographer at Aperture Tours and leads tours in Paris. A professional photographer specialising in photojournalism, William enjoys to get off the beaten track and shoot spontaneous moments as they are presented to him.