“The most beautiful places are those that reveal layers of time. They accrue forms uniquely fitted to that place. Every corner in a city carries the long history of the city embedded in it like a hologram, glimpses of which unfold as we stroll by it.”
– Kevin Kelly, Technophilia
It has been a season of returns for me, the cobwebby memories of my first travel experiences brought back to life by the crazy travel schedule of my Autumn. In Quito, I fell in love with the chaos and colour all over again. In Montevideo, the contrast of my memories from living there in 2003 versus the crumbling concrete and graffiti left me reeling. Now I am in Paris, a place I first visited in 1993 with my mother and returned to alone in 2001, during a yearlong Masters degree in Aix-en-Provence.
As human beings, we connect to places differently. To me, Paris is a serious city, the undeniable gravitas of its tumultuous history overshadowing anything else. That’s not to say Paris brings me down – to the contrary, Paris lifts me up, tenderly brushes the dust off my palms and says “it’s really not all that bad, now is it?” Faced the whispers of seven disparate and often unsteady ages, any of my worries dissipate into the cobblestone and wrought iron gates of the city. Despite the weight of its past, or perhaps because of it, Paris makes me feel more alive. And what better way to begin a renaissance than on the streets of Montmartre?
Joined by Gray from Solo Friendly and Marlys from Paris Buff, I shook off the stale remnants of jetlag and meandered through the twisted streets of the 18th arrondissement as a soft afternoon light encased everything in a shimmering gold glow.
Montmartre, steeped in history, immortalized in art and rising over Paris from the North, is one of the more beautiful districts of city. With the steep stairs of Rue Foyatier tumbling down to the district below and Sacré Cœur standing guard over the 18th arrondissement, stoic and ashen, it remains one of my favourite places to wander when in Paris.
The original “hill of the martyr”, an homage to Saint Denis who was decapitated atop it around 250 AD, was used during 1590’s Siege of Paris as a launching pad for Henry IV’s artillery. However, the sordid, bohemian Montmartre of impoverished artists and musicians only took root in the early 19th century, when Napoleon III enlisted Haussmann to turn Paris into an unrivaled splendour. Evicted from their homes (the land was ‘donated’ to Haussman’s supporters), swaths of Parisians were relegated outside city limits – to La Villette, to Clichy (now a big shopping area) and to Montmartre.
Blissfully free of Paris’ laws (and taxes), the area began its ‘descent toward depravity’, with iconic cabarets like Le Chat Noir and Moulin Rouge ruling the day. Artists like with Pissarro, Picasso and Modigliani soon set up residence in the district. Others lived elsewhere but kept their studios on the Butte – van Gogh, Matissee, Renoir, Degas, Ultrillo and and the area’s visual ambassador in my mind, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Poster for “Tournée du Chat Noir”, by Théophile Steinlen.
Pale Sacré Cœur was built by public contribution in the early 20th century, an act of contrition after the events of the Paris Commune in the late 1800s and a memorial to those who perished during the Franco-Prussian War. The original decree from the Assemblée Nationale chose the site in part as a symbol of hope after the events of Paris Commune, and in part to “expiate” the sins of France after its infighting and deaths in the 1870s. Designed by Paul Abadie (already renowned for his restoration of the St-Front Cathedral in Périgueux), the architect died in 1884 before the Basilica was completed. It was finished in 1914.
Montmartre remains a fascinating place. Movies like Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie have gone a long way in keeping the district fresh for a whole new generation. But for me, entranced by what those worn cobblestones must have seen over the years, the weight of thousands of sleepless (and many of them alcohol-fueled) nights, merely going to Montmartre suffices. All you have to do is close your eyes, think of a time gone by, and imagine a city outside a city, the birthplace of a generation of artists that would remain imprinted on Fance’s cultural landscape for centuries to come.
For a thorough walking tour of Montmartre, see Matt Barrett’s Paris Guide on the area.
Currently in Rome, but next up will be a few more pictures of Paris and then a tapas-tastic tour of La Latina in Madrid.