Paris attracts tourists from all over the world, many of whom visit the city looking for the artistic legacy for which the ‘City of Light’ is famous. The picturesque neighborhood of Montmartre has long been the city’s artistic center, at one time home to Picasso, Utrillo, Toulouse-Lautrec and others. Towards the end of the 19th century, Montmartre was a village located outside the city, and painters, sculptors and craftsmen were attracted to the area because of its proximity to the city and cheap rents. Today, Montmartre has been swallowed up by Paris, although it retains much of its village like atmosphere.
Most visitors to Montmartre inevitably end up in the touristy but picturesque Place du Tertre. The square is surrounded by cafes and restaurants, and is also full of painters of varying levels of skill. You may have to firmly turn down the requests of the many portrait painters who are well known for being persistent, although a self-portrait or caricature makes an excellent souvenir. One of the most famous and historic eating places in the square is the restaurant ‘A la Mere Catherine’, once the haunt of Russian soldiers. While waiting to be served, they would often yell out ‘bistro!’ meaning ‘quickly!’ – and the word appears to have stuck.
This hilly neighborhood is also famous for its stone staircases, or escaliers and the nearest staircase is often the shortest distance between two points here. The photographer Brassai captured the stone stairways in some of his photographs of the 1920s and 30s, as well as various other aspects of the seedier side of the city. Montmartre is also one of the best places in the city to enjoy spectacular views over Paris, and on a clear day views extend almost 30 miles. People often meet on the stairs immediately in front of the Sacré-Cœur cathedral, and this is also a good spot to enjoy some impromptu street entertainment.
A good place to get an overview of the area’s artistic legacy is by visiting the small but fascinating Museum of Montmartre, located a few hundred yards from the Place du Tertre. The museum is housed in a 17th century house, where Renoir once had a modest studio, and produced some of his most famous paintings. The lower floor of the museum captures the history and artistic legacy of the area in rooms of old photos, paintings and drawings. The museum’s upper floors contain exhibits relating to the artists who occupied the house at one time or another. The museum is usually uncrowded and can be seen in less than an hour. Visiting the museum is a bit like looking through a particularly well-stocked attic.
A few minutes stroll from the museum will take you to the Place Emile-Goudeau, one of the delightful and charming smaller squares of the neighborhood. At no. 13 is the Bateau-Lavoir, a small art studio that many artists, including Picasso and Modigliani once called home. Picasso painted one of his most famous and controversial paintings, Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon here, a painting widely considered to be one of the first Cubist paintings. The original building was burnt down but replaced in 1978 and still has about 25 artists and sculptors working here. You can see – and purchase – their work which is displayed in the large showroom. Another building of artistic interest close to here is the building in Rue Gabrielle where Picasso had his first studio in Paris.
Towards the top of the butte, not far from the Montmartre vineyard, you can still find the ‘Pink House’ the subject of one of Utrillo’s most well-known paintings, at 2 Rue de l’Abreuvoir and something of a local landmark. Windmills are another unique feature of the area and have been immortalized on canvas many times. On the corner of Rue Lepic and Avenue Junot you can still see the picturesque windmill, Moulin de la Galette, now part of a restaurant. The windmill was the subject of one of Renoir’s most famous paintings, which can be seen in the Musee d’Orsay.
Perhaps the most famous Montmartre artist of them all was Toulouse-Lautrec. He managed to accurately capture the twilight world of the prostitutes, artists and of course the famous dancing girls at the Moulin Rouge. The show is not as scandalous as it once was but a visit to the spectacular floor show at the Moulin Rouge is still a unique- if expensive – Parisian experience. The distinctive red windmill sails still turn on top of the building, making this perhaps the world’s most famous nightclub
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