“Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”
It’s hard to imagine a more prolific place and time for artists than Montmartre in the Belle Époque. From around 1872 to 1914, the high hill in Paris’ 18th arrondissement was home to a proverbial Who’s Who of the world’s greatest painters. Pablo Picasso, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent van Gogh, Maurice Utrillo and Paul Cézanne set up studios here, working among the windmills, vineyards and narrow winding streets often recreated in their paintings.
I have vicariously traveled to this part of Paris a hundred times or more, fascinated by so many of these famous works. But this was my first time actually being here. I’m always a little in awe of walking the same streets or passing through the rooms of houses where people I’ve admired once worked or lived. It’s as if past and present are meeting in one very fleeting moment.
Herb and I headed out early, riding the Métro from Palais Royal Musée du Louvre to Charles de Gaulle Étoile and transferring to the 2 line to the Anvers station. The business crowds began to disperse as we traveled further north, and it looked as if we might be treated to another tourist-light day.
The first sight that comes into view on the “Mount of Martyrs” is the brilliant white dome of Sacré-Coeur. The Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris, constructed between 1875 and 1919, looks out over the city from the summit of Montmartre. It’s the second highest point in Paris, after the Eiffel Tower. We stopped by the carousel at the base of the basilica before climbing the more than 200 steps to reach the entrance.
Beginning Our Walk in Montmartre
From Sacré-Coeur, we began our walk through Montmartre’s picturesque cobblestoned streets, starting at the Place du Tertre – the neighborhood town square – where outdoor cafés were setting up and nearby souvenir shops were opening their doors.
Images of the artists who lived and worked here are posted on street signs and painted on buildings near the square, a reminder that even though Montmartre is spinning with the history and romance of the Belle Époque, it’s a busy 21st century tourist destination. And despite the current lack of crowds, I was especially glad we had arrived early.
I had made a list of places to find, which often required several attempts to locate as we wound our way around the hilly landscape. First on my list was rue Saint-Rustique, the oldest street in Montmartre. Hidden between Le Consulate coffeehouse and La Bonne Franquette bistro, the narrow pedestrian lane is actually more of a passageway than a street. It’s incredibly charming, to be sure, but it’s the view at the end that is the real stunner.
I waited while a man who I assumed was a tourist was finishing taking a photo of the iconic view, and I was caught by surprise when he stopped to speak with us…in a beautiful French accent. It turned out he was a local and wanted to tell us about a few other Montmartre spots that we shouldn’t miss. But it was his first words before saying hello that impacted me in a way I will never forget:
“Even if you live in Paris, you are always grateful.”
We continued downhill to the lovely rue de l’Abreuvoir in search of the pink and green-shuttered restaurant called La Maison Rose. We backtracked uphill on rue des Saules and headed down again on rue Lepic, where the windmill at Moulin de la Galette makes an impressive appearance. And after a couple of wrong turns, we found the quite hidden Place Marcel-Aymé and its whimsical sculpture of a man passing through a wall.
Musée de Montmartre
Our next stop was the Montmartre Museum at Number 12 Rue Cortot. The 17th century building is the oldest house in Montmartre and was once the home and studio of Renoir as well as Utrillo and his artist mother Suzanne Valadon. The museum was founded in 1960 and contains a permanent collection of paintings, posters and drawings signed by Toulouse-Lautrec, Utrillo, Valadon and other artists. Signage and displays tell the story of the Montmartre artists colony, and Utrillo and Valadon’s apartment and studio are recreated on the top floor.
Le Bateau-Lavoir and van Gogh’s House
Back on rue Cortot, we wound our way downhill toward the busy rue des Abbesses in search of the studio where Picasso had set up shop. Known as Le Bateau-Lavoir – the washhouse boat – the former piano factory on Place Émile-Gondeau was home to about twenty artists’ studios in the late 1890s.
Le Bateau-Lavoir stretches across one side of a cobblestoned square that overlooks cafés on a street with views of the city. In 1970, a fire destroyed the building, leaving only the façade. It was rebuilt in 1978.
A sign near the door gives a brief history of the building and includes a quote from Picasso:
“We will all return to Le Bateau-Lavoir. We were only really happy there.”
Continuing down the hill, we made our way to 54 rue Lepic, where van Gogh lived with his brother Theo from 1886 to 1888. The bright blue door and inscribed plaque made it easy to spot!
The I Love You Wall
Before leaving Montmartre, we stopped by the I Love You Wall that decorates a small park off the Place des Abbesses. Created by artists Frédéric Baron and Claire Kito, the mural features 612 squares of enamelled lava, on which “I love you” is written 311 times in 250 languages. According to the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau website, the splashes of red represent “parts of a broken heart, symbolizing the human race which has been torn apart and which the wall tries to bring back together.”
Instead of taking the Métro back to our hotel, we decided to walk. The weather was continuing to spin a delicious mix of summery skies and autumn colors, and the gradual downhill slope made the trek fairly easy. We passed through beautiful neighborhoods – unsure of where we exactly were – where sidewalks were busy with Parisians enjoying the cafés and going about their weekday lives.
It was mid-afternoon by the time we reached the Galeries Lafayette in the 9th arrondisement. Paris’ iconic department store is known not only for its high-end fashion, food and home furnishings, but also for its spectacular Art Nouveau dome and rooftop views of Paris. Housed in a beautiful late 19th century building that takes up an entire block on the grand Boulevard Haussmann, it’s a beautiful spot to take a break and take in the city.
Looking up from the store’s second level, it feels as if you’re standing in a grand historic opera house. Gold and crimson “box seats” curve upwards on every floor until they reach the dome. Runway-like ramps complete with well-dressed mannequins cantilever into the empty space, adding an element of fashion to the mix. The beautiful glass dome shimmers above, casting a watery blue glow over the stunning space.
Our final stop of the day was the Galeries Lafayette rooftop terrace. There is no charge to enter what is arguably one of the loveliest places to look out over Paris. I knew there would be rooftop views of the Palais Garnier opera house and the Eiffel Tower, but I was surprised to see the life-size bright red and blue Paris Mon Amour sign. We waited in line for a turn at getting a photo – exchanging the favor with the group ahead of us – and ended the day with an unexpectedly wonderful souvenir.