Tucked away in one corner of the city of Paris is the neighborhood of Montmartre – a hill in the north of Paris, long known for being the creative hub of artists, and in more recent memory, made popular by movies such as Amélie and Moulin Rouge.
The name Montmartre is believed to have come from the latin name Mons Martis, meaning the mountain of Mars. Some say it comes from Mons Martyrum, the mountain of the Martyr, with reference to Saint Denis, the first bishop of Paris that became its martyr patron.
The area developed as a humble village surrounded by vineyards and windmills. Montmartre was divided into two parts – the Lower Montmartre was an area known for its cheap wine and entertainment, while the upper part was a quiet residential area.
The lower part soon transformed into a bohemian village district, becoming home to many artists and writers, for whom Montmartre became a muse. When the windmills became redundant, they were transformed into cabarets. The cabarets and cafe-concerts became favorite spots of the artists and Montmartre soon became a place for escape and sexual freedom. The popularity reached its heights in 1889, when the Moulin Rouge opened.
Despite the urbanization, Montmartre managed to retain some of its distinct characteristics such as the old buildings, steep and narrow cobbled streets, and the rustic windmills.
The tradition of entertainment still lives on today. The area of Pigalle is most famous for being the red light district of Paris. Many cabarets, most notably the Moulin Rouge, and erotic shows continue to attract visitors to the area. The Place du Tertre, where a once penniless Picasso lived, is also a reminder of the time when Montmartre was a mecca of artists, as even today every morning artists set up their shops ready to paint the tourists who flock the area in large numbers.
The best way to explore the village is on foot. You could either book a walking tour, or grab a map and start at the base of the village and make your way up the famous Basilica du Sacré-Coeur. Anvers is the nearest metro station that gives you access right to the base of the village. You will immediately notice the difference in the character of Montmartre and central Paris. The walk uphill is steep, but reaching the base of the Basilica on foot is quite manageable if you are young and fit. Alternatively, you can even take a mini train ride that goes around the neighborhood and up the Basilica.
When you reach the base of the Basilica, the sheer beauty of the white-domed church will take your breath away. Sitting at the highest point in Paris, it offers breathtaking views of the city and in my opinion, is one of the most beautiful churches I have seen. The steep stairs greet you to take you up the church. You can also opt for a funicular ride up.
We walked up the Basilica, stopping at every few steps to soak in the views of the city as we kept climbing up the hill. The white building of the church, lush green lawns, and clear blue skies make a perfect picture, and you know in that moment why Montmartre was the muse to the great artists.
As we reached the steps of the church, a surprise awaited us – the sheer number of tourists who were there! Don’t believe me? See the picture above! Beautiful musical notes filled the air and we joined the crowd to see a small band play. We had gone in the week between Christmas and New Years, and got treated to a beautiful Christmas fair, with stalls serving yummy waffles and crepes too!
The Basilica is built in Roman architecture and took over 40 years to build — and it is nothing short of divine. The inside of the church is even more spectacular, too bad that photography isnt allowed inside. If you go at night, you will find the Basilica beautifully illuminated, and from the pictures that I have seen online, I definitely want to visit it once again to see the Basilica bathed in the night light!
From here, we took the mini train that takes you around the neighborhood and an audio guide introduces you to the hill-topped district. At just 6 euros per adult and 4 euros for child, the ticket is reasonably priced and the ride itself is very picturesque. It took us around the residential neighborhood, passing a vineyard on our way, and then going past the beautifully built French houses. Going past the narrow, cobbled streets, you then come down to the lower part of Montmartre, passing through the red light district and a series of cabaret places lining the streets. The train also takes you past the Montmartre Cemetery, where many artists, painters and literary figures have been laid to rest, among them the composers Hector Berlioz and Jacques Offenbach, painter Edgar Degas, and novelist Alexandre Dumas.