Paris is an every year destination for Mrs Wilbur & I and after years of staying in various arrondissements, we now usually find ourselves stopping in the 18th, in the area of Montmartre.
Montmartre is the ‘village’ of Paris, the former hang out of the avant garde of the likes of Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, Monet & Picasso.
I have written about Montmartre before as you can read here, so I will concentrate on our ‘firsts’ on this visit.
We stayed in a tiny loft apartment on Rue Veron, smack bang in the centre of it all, the part the locals frequent rather than tourist central around Place du Tertre & The Sacré Cœur.
Though the studio flat was tiny, it had the definite feel of an artist’s abode, light and airy thanks to the large windows and with a lovely creaking parquet floor.
Airbnb, £150 for three nights, sorted.
Montmartre is home to Paris’s oldest cabaret, Au Lapin Agile. Active since 1860 and favourite hang out of the Bohemian set.
The tiny venue holds about 30 people, a far cry from the touristic grandiose of Moulin Rouge or Crazy Horse. Lapin Agile is the home of authentic, intimate cabaret, having started life several years before the Can-Can had been dreamt up.
We were thrown together in one room with the artistes sat at a table in the centre of the room dominated by wood. The lights were low, the decor dark and the trappings rustic.
We were entertained at first by a very talented pianist, before the troupe filed in. Average age 60+, you could tell that cabaret was in their blood, Lapin an addiction.
They certainly would not have grown rich in monetary terms for their vocation. There were 15 of us in, paying €28 a head including a drink. That would not have gone far between 8 performers and the receptionist/barman/waiter plus the venue upkeep of course.
We were treated to over two hours of entertainment, French drinking songs, bawdy tales (words only partially understood but inference totally recognisable) and classic covers of the likes of Jacque Brel, Edif Piath and Dalida. They started slowly but built us the evening wore on and the cognacs took hold, so by the end they were in full blown raucous mode.
We were treated to solos by each performer, most notably the Piaf like accordionist and the pianist who could easily have been mistaken for Michel le Grand.
This was cabaret at its earthy roots, a complete contrast to the €150 a pop, stage managed affairs elsewhere in town.
Make sure you catch it some time and book ahead as places are of course limited.
Third up on our quartet of first time experiences was the Musée de Montmartre. Housed in several very old residences, with smaller dwellings and workshops arranged around the pretty Jardins Renoir. The residences once housed the studios of renowned artists such as Renoir, Bernard, Dufy, Camoin, Valadon & Utrillo.
First up a film show of the history of Montmartre from windmills & hillside vineyards to downtrodden suburb to artistic haven and finally to one of Paris most popular and sought after quartiers. Told through the eyes of Suzanne Valadon (1865-1938) actress and artist’s model turned artist herself, in fact the first female artist to be admitted into the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts.
The permanent exhibition focuses on the artistic, telling the history of music, dance, theatre, cabaret, circus and painting.
The museum houses original artwork of the former residents and billboard posters for the likes of Le Chat Noir Cabaret and the cabaret artist Aristide Bruant in his iconic black cape & chapeau and red scarf. Images that have been reproduced millions of times on postcards, coasters, fridge magnets, prints et al and are familiar to us all.
We then took tea and cake in the Renoir Gardens, a tranquil place filled with lemon and fig trees, fragrant lavender and lily pond, an area of sanctuary overlooking the area’s largest remaining vineyard & Northern Paris. It was a real suntrap, no doubt part of the attraction for those 19th century artists.
Next up the temporary exhibition housed in the main house, la Manson du 12 rue Cortot. This was right up our street being the history of film featuring Montmartre itself with its steep stairways, gas lamps, cobbled streets, atmospheric squares and ancient windmills as a co-star.
From the first silent movies, to black & white classics and on to more contemporary features such as wonderful Amelie (‘Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain’ to be exact), iconic 1960 Shirley MacLaine/Frank Sinatra/Maurice Chevalier musical Can-Can, even more iconic song & dance flick ‘An American in Paris’, directed in 1951 by Vincente Minnelli, scored by Ira & George Gershwin and starring Gene Kelly & Leslie Caron, enjoyable Woody Allen period romp ‘Midnight in Paris’ and, ahem, Baz Luhrmann’s musical adaptation of ‘Moulin Rouge’ – not my favourite ever film you may gather.
We were treated to original film reels, promotional posters and iconic props from the films themselves.
A brilliant 45 minutes of film nostalgia featuring doomed romances, rooftop love affairs, relationship break-ups, tearful girls ascending flights of steps and speeding cars. The theme in just about all of them was love, apt for the most romantic arrondissement in the city of love itself.
La Manson also housed a further treat in part of the original atelier of Valadon, Utrillo & Utter. Huge windows let the sun stream in and bathe the room in bright light. Laid out much as it would have been in the early 20th century, it needed little in the way of imagination to see visions of artists flourishing their brush strokes as a partially nude model lay on the chaise lounge.
The cinematic exhibition is on until 12th January 2018 and is well worth a visit – click Musee for details. Well worth the €11 entry fee.
Our final debut port of call was the lavish Montmartre Cemetery. We have always resisted cemetery visits in the past, but perhaps fuelled by seeing Castro’s tomb in Cuba earlier this year, we decided to pay a visit.
Entry was free and a notice board contained a map of the large necropolis highlighting the final resting place of all the notables such as Berlioz, Degas, Alexandre Dumas, Nijinsky and Dilada.
We took one of the laminated guides and made a beeline for the graves of the Ukrainian born ballet dancer and the Egyptian born model turned entertainer, both of whom made their fame & fortune in the city where they now lay. Both graves bore their sculpted likenesses and both were festooned with well wisher flowers buzzing with insect life.
Shortly afterwards, our latest visit came to an end with a drink in Les Deux Moulins on Rue Lepic, a cafe made famous as the one where Amelie worked as a coffee waitress in the film that bears her name.
A bientot, a sweet adieu until the next time.