Paris. Montmartre – a sphere in its own right


The Making of a Bohemian Microcosm

Montmartre evolved following a massive urban reconstruction and relocation scheme initiated by a great man of the 19th century: Napoleon III. Together with his ambitious town planning prefect Baron Haussmann, he aimed at creating a mundane Paris of dazzling allure and wanted it to become „the most beautiful city of Europe“ – not without granting spacious plots of land in prime locations to Haussmann, his many friends and financial supporters. By rigorously stomping unsightly areas into the ground and by replacing humble housing by posh manorial edifices and narrow crooked alleyways by grandiose and airy boulevards and squares, Paris’s face was substantially lifted and embellished – albeit at the expense of the less privileged population, who became early victims of gentrification.

Sacre Coeur - the icon of Montmartre. Photographer : Jacques Lebar

Sacré Coeur – the icon of Montmartre. Photo: Jacques Lebar

Original inhabitants, thus being driven into the outskirts, took refuge in peripheral districts, one of which was Montmartre – still affordable and attractive and offering a wonderful free view upon the so gorgeous city. The iconic Basilica of the Sacré Cœur was erected between 1876 and 1912. Its white dome has become a landmark clearly visible from many vantage points, and just below it, artists of varying talent still set up their easels amidst the tables and colourful umbrellas of the Place du Tertre. Montmartre is officially a historic district, which is serviced by a funicular railway and designated buses.

Place du Tertre: A life dedicated to art.

Place du Tertre: A life dedicated to art. Photo: Marc Bertrand

The 18th Arrondissement around 1900: Infamous and dubious

Since Montmartre lay outside the city boundaries and was known as a tax-free haven, the area quickly developed randomly into a hub of free-wheeling and decadent entertainment, with the Moulin Rouge and the Au Lapin Agile becoming the most popular ones. Moreover, Montmartre hill featured a small but treasured vineyard in the Rue Saint-Vincent, wholeheartedly looked after by local wine-making nuns who busied themselves in reliably securing a never-ceasing oenological source of replenishment. The wine production is being upheld to this day and each year, a grand feast is celebrated in the second week of October. The wine may bear the reputation of not being eligible for the discerning palates of self-declared connoisseurs, but is bravely consumed for the sake of a dear tradition.

Flouting all Conventions: A Bohemian Realm for Artists

At the end of the 19th century the district of Montmartre became a major artistic centre. Artists’ associations were founded and painters, including Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Suzanne Valadon, Pierre-Auguste Renoir or the minute aristocrat Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec – just to name a few – drew constant inspiration from their controversial neighbourhood. They voluntarily adopted a bohemian lifestyle and moved far beyond the reach of the dreaded bourgeoisie. Penniless Pablo Picasso created (now priceless) pieces of art in a dilapidated shack in the early 20th century. Theirs was a life of extreme abstinence, if not of merciless poverty, their chosen motifs always reflecting the surrounding milieu, the joy and hopelessness prevailing in their illustrious quarter. Authentically documented on canvas were often misfits and thieves, jugglers and drunkards, empty-eyed prostitutes, exhausted dancers clad in crisp tutus (Degas) or scenes at seedy cabaret establishments. Toulouse-Lautrec’s distinctive programme placards of entertainment taking place on Montmartre (e.g. Aristide Bruant) have lost nothing of their appeal over the past century. The last of the bohemian Montmartre artists, Gen Paul, died in 1975. In La Bohème, singer and songwriter Charles Aznavour recalls a painter’s youthful years in a Montmartre that is no more. A most popular song back in 1965: Je ne reconnais plus ni les murs, ni les rues…

Oh, là là: Meeting at today’s Montmartre

Just off the hill-top, Espace Dalí exhibits a collection of masterpieces by Salvador Dalí, another inhabitant of Montmartre about a century ago. This electrifying quarter in its entirety resembles a piece of art, whose countless facets are well worth studying streetwise. The Pigalle, the red-light and amusement district, has been attracting and intriguing millions of curious visitors from all over the world for many decades – with the legendary Moulin Rouge enjoying undiminished attention: Exit at Blanche Métro station.

Moulin Rouge - an establishment famous the world over.

Life is a cabaret! The Moulin Rouge – an establishment famous the world over. Photo: Marc Bertrand

Here are some suggestions – suitable not only for meeting planners

Cabaret for 60 – 1,500 persons (800 dinner/1,000 cocktail)

Moulin Rouge, the „Red Mill“, opened in 1889, still accelerates people’s heartbeat when the racy skirts-hoisting Can-Can dance – once considered most obscene and frivolous – is on show. Todays shapely legs are flying just as high and sightly troupes frequently expose more flesh than the Can-Can ever did. The „Féerie“ at the Moulin Rouge consists of 80 artists, including 60 so-called Doriss Girls (named after the German dancer and choreographer Doris Haug). Amongst them, they share no less than 1,000 extravagant and costly costumes shimmering in bright colours and adorned with light-reflecting rhinestones or iridescent sequins – all hand-made in the most prestigious Parisian workshops, feathery head-gear included.

Receptions for 100 to 180 persons

L’Espace Montmartre, a listed building, is situated below Sacré Cœur and only a few steps from Place du Tertre. Built for the Exposition Universelle in 1900, the venue now boasts a huge loft measuring 180 s.qms and offers a panoramic view of the city of Paris with its impressive Eiffel Tower.

Steeped in history: A centuries-old restaurant for 15 to 150 guests

« Aimer, manger, boire, chanter » (Love, Eat, Drink and Sing) is written on the façade of the restaurant La Bonne Franquette, which has been in existence for centuries. It used to be the meeting point of artists such as Pissarro, Sisley, Cézanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir, Monet, Zola or Vincent Van Gogh…

Rue Cortot...

Rue Cortot. Photo: Marc Bertrand


The ****Terrass Hotel offers 99 rooms and suites, seminar rooms, bars, and „The 7th“ on the 7th floor, featuring a stunning view over the city. The Sacré Cœur and the Moulin Rouge are just a few steps from this hotel on the Rive Droite, as are a number of art galleries, fashion boutiques and inviting patios. Located close to the Haussmann-Opéra district, the **** Mercure Paris Sacré Coeur Montmartre (305 rooms and suites) provides easy access to the charming Montmartre neighbourhood. The basilica Sacré Cœur and the Moulin Rouge are only a stone’s throw away, with opera, department stores, Champs Elysees, Les Invalides and the Stade de France all within a 10 minute’s ride by metro.

 Montmartre served as filming location for La Môme (La vie en rose), about the life of French singer Edith Piaf, and of Amélie, the story of a wondrous young Parisian woman or of Moulin Rouge, starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor.

Montmartre served as filming location for La Môme (La vie en rose), about the life of French singer Edith Piaf, of Amélie from Montmartre – the story of a wondrous young Parisian woman and of Moulin Rouge, starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor. Photo: Amélie Dupont

More info for planners: France Convention Bureau

All images © Paris Tourist Office.

Header photo credit: José Serur Yedid