Montmartre: The Other Paris

I was walking along  Rue Lepic, telling my traveling companion how much I loved this particular area of Paris. After all, I explained, Van Gogh had lived with his brother on the same street we were walking, Gaugin and Degas had painted masterpieces a few doors down, and La Chat Noir, France’s most famous nightclub of the 1800s had been re-imagined and reassembled in its original spot. I remarked that it was my favorite spot to stay in Paris when a man next to us blurted “Montmartre isn’t Paris. It’s it’s own special place”. He was right.

Paris always has seemed to me to lack the intimacy of some of my favorite cities like Bruges, Venice, Strasbourg and Amsterdam. Walking to its attractions is nearly impossible since its sites are scattered far enough apart to wear out any metro card. Montmartre has a more local feel than the rest of Paris. It’s got it’s share of sex shops, burlesque shows and people who look eerily like Keith Richards, but look past all that and explore the side streets and you’ll be rewarded. The area has two huge Parisian attractions as well, the Basilica of the Sacré Cœur and of course it’s crown jewel, the Moulin Rouge.

The Basilica is one of the must-sees of Paris. Visiting the area is not necessarily about the church itself, but the walk up the hill that gives you an unrivaled view of Paris. It’s a great place to start your morning or watch the sunset.The cobblestone streets nearby might lead to the biggest tourist trap in Paris, but it’s a fun tourist trap. There’s little sidewalk cafes that serve escargot, crepes, French onion soup, quiche Lorraine and all the other stereotypical Franco-food you came to eat. The waiters are actually nice and don’t make you feel like you’re an annoying tourist even when you are. Musicians play solo concerts on the street for tips or CD sales. What’s not to love?

When you think of art being created on a street, Paris might be a likely place that you picture in your mind. There’s no shortage of Parisian artists that can paint you, sketch you, or cut an instant silhouette of your profile faster than you can order a crepe. Imagine you’re sitting in a cafe while a goateed Frenchman wearing a beret creates a masterpiece starring you! It sounds cliché, but cliché IS a French word and when in France, do as the French do! If art isn’t your thing, the nearby shops will be happy to sell you little music boxes that play “La Vie en Rose” or scarves, berets, magnets and everything else that might seem remotely French.

Moulin Rouge translates literally to “red windmill” which helps explain the large red windmill rotating endlessly in front of the one of the world’s most famous and timeless venues. The club is open 7 nights a week and usually runs 2 shows a night. I wasn’t sure what to expect from a show like this. Would it be anything like the movie named after it? Would I be subjected to hours of can-can dancing? It turns out that the Moulin Rouge had a great variety of acts in its show “Feerie” and I was pleasantly surprised and never bored.

It’s a burlesque show at it’s core, so it’s not a family show, yet it’s not particularly erotic in spite of the bare chested dancers flitting around. The show is about the music, the dancing, the costumes and the novelty acts that connect everything together. The show had a very unique juggling show, ventriloquist act, amazing skating cirque performers and 50 dancers in costumes filling the stage at any given time. What was it missing? A woman swimming with giant pythons wrapping around her in a giant clear aquarium? Oh yeah, they had that too! It was a little bit of Vegas, but stayed true to its French roots. There’s an early show and an 11 pm show if you don’t want to have your entertainment cutting into your sightseeing.

You might have seen the hugely popular French film Amélie. Much of the movie was filmed on the street that borders Moulin Rouge at a little cafe called Café des 2 Moulins, where the main character works and it’s still there, minus the actress. Nearby there are lots of small cafes, bakeries and fruit stalls with tubs brimming with ripe red strawberries and giant sheaves of plump white asparagus. Venture down a side street and find a bar that serves absinthe, the drink of choice for the artists that roamed the same streets in the 19th century. You might even see the green fairy.

La Chat Noir was the most famous nightclub  in Montmartre and the place to be seen if you were in Paris in the late 1800s. Pablo Picasso was reportedly devastated when he arrived in Paris only to discover that it had shut its doors before he’d ever had an opportunity to visit the establishment. You can’t hold a good name down for long, so La Chat Noir was rebuilt and updated for the times on the original spot of its former glory. It’s a lovely place with live jazz bands and the famous cat plastered everywhere.

Montmartre has some of the most reasonably priced hotels in Paris and it’s only 15 minutes from Notre Dame. Stop in for a night or two and get lost on the narrow backstreets and see a show at the Moulin Rouge. You’ll discover an entirely different Paris.

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