Montmartre revisited

Paris, France.  It was cold and rainy in Paris today. So, what to do? Let’s take a three-hour walking tour up and down the hills of Montmartre.

Once a gathering place for artists because of the low rents and cheap eats at all the rustic cafes, it is now a fully gentrified area filled with very fine bakeries, fruit and vegetable stores, shops displaying the finest cheeses and meats and, of course, countless clothing and high-end cosmetic stores. This is not to say that this area is lacking in charm. There is charm by the tons. Small parks dot the area. The once-humble cafes are now sparkling, with beautiful awnings and spectacular ivy and climbing flowering vines covering the walls.

The tour focused on the former homes and studios of now-famous artists. There’s Picasso’s first apartment there. There’s Renoir’s home and studio over there. Gauguin stayed there. Vincent Van Gogh’s brother Theo lived in that building. Toulouse-Lautrec lived in that amazing third and fourth floor apartment with a huge window down that street (because he was subsidized by his rich parents). And they all would meet in that cafe or that one or the one across the street. Wherever they could get the cheapest glass of wine or where the owner would take a painting in lieu of payment for the dinner bill.

We were also shown the spots where various movies were filmed — like the grocery store scene in Amélie — and where books took place — like the wall from The Man Who Walked Through Walls (also a movie).

There are still glimpses of windmills that once dotted the hills and a couple of ancient vineyards that still produce a few hundred bottles of wine every year that can be purchased at very high prices, even though the wine itself isn’t very good.

The artistic spirit lives on. There is an anonymous street artist who has taken to making plaster casts of himself with different expressions and then secretly adhering them on walls all around Montmartre. They have now become valuable and people have tried to chisel them off the walls, ending up destroying them instead. Mostly, however, they have been painted or embellished by additional flights of fancy. Another anonymous street artist has taken to putting little statues of humming birds here and there.

Other than these contemporary renegade artists unofficially placing their art around, there is at least one official art installation called the “I love you wall.” This gigantic ceramic mural adorns a wall in a small park near the Abbesses metro stop at the top of Montmartre, which incidentally sports one of the last remaining fully intact art nouveau entrance structures complete with glass cover. The mural grew out of a local cafe owner who asked all foreigners (and a few French natives) who entered his cafe to write out “I love you” in their language. He ended up with nearly 400 different versions, including braille and sign language, that ultimately got published in a book.

The different versions were then reproduced on this ceramic mural. There are little pieces of red scraps littered among the various versions of “I love you.” If you visually piece together the red scraps, they form a heart. Couples line up to have their pictures taken in front of the mural. Nearby is one of those fences where people have secured padlocks to prove their devotion to each other. It would be interesting to know how many of those locks have outlasted the relationships.

The tour ended at the grand Sacred Coeur, with its sweeping views over Paris. Even in the pouring rain, this area of Paris retains its magic.


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