Tuesday 15 October 2013

Paris, France III: Strolling through Montmartre

Montmartre means "mountain of the martyr" and is derived from the martyrdom of Saint Denis whom you'll encounter later down in the post. This hill, reaching 130 meters, was where original inhabitants of Paris were driven to when Napoleon III decided to make Paris the most beautiful city in Europe. So they established their own 'town' in Montmartre and since it was outside the city limits, free of Paris taxes, the hill quickly became a popular drinking area. Along with liquor came entertainment, such as the famous like Moulin Rouge and Le Chat Noir (The Black Cat). Artists such as Pissarro, Toulouse-Lautrec and Renoir also began calling Montmartre home.

To better appreciate and understand this area, I joined a walking tour. This time I chose Discovery Walks and I enjoyed walking with their guides so much that I joined their tours in almost every city that I went to. The guides are all local and the group wasn't as big as Sandeman tours so you can actually hear all the stories and ask questions.

We started at Moulin Rouge (right outside Blanche metro station) where the can-can was born. Can-can was originally introduced as a seductive dance by the courtesans, soon it evolved into a form of entertainment of its own and led to the introduction of cabarets across Europe. Our guide shared with us the story of La Goulue, one of the most famous can-can dancers. La Goulue means "The Glutton" because of her habit of picking up a customer's glass and downing its contents while dancing past their table. She was at her peak during the 1890s and became the highest paid entertainer of her day. The famous painting of her titled La Goulue was done by Toulouse-Lautrec (above). However, due to some changes in management (or something I'm not too sure), her show was closed. Suffering from depression, she drank heavily and dissipated the small fortune she had accrued while dancing. Alcoholic and destitute, she returned to Montmartre selling peanuts, cigarettes, and matches on a street corner near the Moulin Rouge. No one recognized the severely overweight and haggard former Queen of Montmartre. :(

OK moving on to happier stories. He brought us to Café des 2 Moulins where Amélie was filmed. She works in this cafe in the movie and they've kept it exactly the same so as to attract visitors. We just popped in to take a peek. Oh it took its name from the two nearby historical windmills, Moulin Rouge and Moulin de la Galette (see below).

This is the house of an Egyptian singer based in France named Dalida (Place Dalida). She had a successful career but a dismal personal life. Her first fiance committed suicide days after the wedding was announced, she tried to kill herself too but failed. Then just months later, she was impregnated by an 18-year-old Italian student. The abortion surgery left her infertile. Her ex-husband, one of her lovers and her close guy friend all committed suicide as well (not together). Dalida herself committed suicide by overdosing on pills and left behind a note which read, "La vie m'est insupportable... Pardonnez-moi." ("Life has become unbearable for me... Forgive me.")

There is a plate beside the door (see the gray plate in the picture?) which was engraved with "Dalida a vécu dans cette maison de 1962 à 1987. Ses amis Montmartrois n'oublieront pas." ("Dalida lived in this house from 1962 to 1987. Her friends in Montmartre will not forget her.") Since her life was so tragic, it was said that anyone who passed by this house for the first time are all cursed. But not to worry! The solution is just a few steps away. Simply do what the man is doing, and you'll be curse-free.

Then we passed by the Moulin de la Galette but I can't remember what our guide said about it. I just know that it's the other famous windmill in Montmartre. Ah, according to Wiki, this windmill was used to produce flour and later converted into a dance hall and frequented (and immortalised in paint) by Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh. Above is Impressionism's most celebrated masterpieces Bal du moulin de la Galette by Renoir.

Interesting sculptures we saw! Le Passe-Muraille (left) "The Man Who Walked through Walls" was based on a story by Marcel Aymé. The story is about a man named Dutilleul who lived in Montmartre. One day, he discovered that he possessed the ability to walk through walls! Imagine that! He went to see a doctor about it and was prescribed two pills as a cure. Somehow, he didn't eat it immediately.. But anyway at first he had no inclination to use his ability but that changed when his new boss began to make his life miserable at work. Dutilleul began using his power to play tricks on his boss, eventually driving him mad. Dutilleul then started using his ability to rob banks and jewelry shops. He even allowed himself to get caught in the act since he could just escape anyway. Soon, he grew tired of the lifestyle and dreamt of going to Egypt to try the more challenging walls of the pyramids. But he fell in love with a married woman and lost all interest in leaving Paris. Dutilleul used his power to enter her bedroom and spend the night with her while her husband was away. One fatal morning, he had a splitting headache and took two pills he found in the bottom of his drawer. His headache went away but later that night, as he was leaving his lover's house, he noticed a feeling of resistance as he was passing through the walls. It turned out that the pills Dutilleul had thought were aspirin were, in fact, the medicine his doctor had prescribed for him a year earlier. As he was passing through the final outer wall of the house, he noticed he was no longer able to move. The medicine had taken effect and Dutilleul ended up trapped in the wall, where he remains to this day.

Statue of Saint Denis who was the first bishop of Paris in the third century when Paris was still very much a Roman city. He got off the wrong foot with some local priests and so the Roman rulers of Paris had him arrested. He was brought to the highest hill in Paris, Montmartre, where he was to be beheaded. But he did not die there, story has it that he picked up his own head and walked six (some say ten) kilometers to the North, preaching a sermon the entire way. The site where he stopped preaching and died was marked by a small shrine that developed into the Saint Denis Basilica. You can supposedly see see his statue carrying his head frequently around Paris, such as on the Notre Dame but I didn't notice..

The well-known pink La Maison Rose restaurant. And what did you know? There's a vineyard in Paris! But our guide said that he has never drank wine produced there because the air in Paris is very polluted, so the quality of grapes (and hence the wine) won't be good.

We also passed by Place du Tertre where many artists set up their easels each day. Even though they are mainly targeted at tourists, Place du Tertre serves as a reminder of the time when Montmartre was the mecca of modern art. Picasso, Vlamenck, Derain, Soutine, Modigliani, Van Gogh and countless others lived and worked along these narrow streets.

And finally... Basilica of the Sacré Cœur where you get a free view of Paris. For a small fee, you can climb up to the top but I didn't. Oh and almost everyone told me to be wary when going up the stairs to Basilica of the Sacré Cœur because there might be people trying to tie wrist bands on you and forcing you to pay. So that's another reason why I decided to join a walking tour - to hide behind our guide. :p

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