I love Montmartre. I love the quiet, meandering back streets, the miniscule, avant-garde cinemas and theatres, the quirky boutiques and cafés. I love the views of Paris to be had from its street corners and terraces. I love how steeped in history (art and otherwise) the whole area is. I love that every time I go vintage shopping there I return with multiple treasures. I love the charming stone staircases, bordered with precarious, unreal-looking apartment buildings. I love how, even though Montmartre is very much attached to the rest of Paris these days, it still has an entire atmosphere and identity of its own.
But sometimes I hate Montmartre.
Just like any other monument-dominated, picture-perfect Paris site (I’m looking at you, Notre Dame and Champ de Mars) parts of Montmartre can be absolute tourist traps. Sacré Coeur has a stunning panorama of the city, and the basilica itself is beautiful too. But the crowds are overpowering and the petty thieves mean you can never really relax when you’re there. Red light districts can be interesting historical districts in themselves, but the gaudy sex shops and brothel fronts of Pigalle, at the bottom of the hill, are classless to say the least. The Place du Tertre, once the hub of impressionists and bohemians, is now filled with hordes of tourists, painters selling overpriced watercolours of the Moulin Rouge and cafés that charge five euros for a sugar crepe.
A stone’s throw from the mayhem of the Place du Tertre, I had always assumed the musée de Montmartre was a part of the Montmartre I tried to avoid. I could not have been more wrong.
Like the Maison de Balzac, the musée de Montmartre is in a house. (Living in a tiny fifth-floor studio in a dense cluster of apartments has given me a profound appreciation for the space and privacy of actual houses.) The museum runs temporary exhibitions (Eugène Delâtre and Alfredo Müller were showing when I visited), as well as a lovely permanent collection of Montmartre rarities. There are etchings and posters from the wonderful Toulouse Lautrec and his contemporaries, charcoals, pastels and paintings and photographs of Montmartre back in the days when it was just a gentle village outside the city bounds. There are histories of the district’s infamous dance halls, cafés and cabarets, as well as those of its even more infamous residents (artists, musicians, writers, courtesans, can-can dancers, prostitutes, bohemians, despondent addicts of that hallucinatory liquor, absinthe, and various combinations of the above). There’s even an installation with the original bar from one of those absinthe haunts.
Comptoir original, l’épicerie du 14 rue de l’Abreuvoir
But what sets this museum apart is not so much what’s inside the house, but what surrounds it. The musée de Montmartre is nestled in the heart of some of the lushest, most tranquil and natural-looking gardens I’ve seen in all of Paris. There are flower beds, arbours and lawns like any pretty Paris park, but further back in the property, there are also overgrown pockets of greenery, tucked-away bee houses, winding stone pathways, a miniature vineyard and even a fenced-off, cat access only (cat access only!) maple and chestnut reserve.
Others may try to warn you off Montmartre. If all they ever saw was the Sacré Coeur/Pigalle/Place du Tertre side of the district, then I can understand why. But don’t be discouraged by these luckless travellers. If you get off at the metro in the charming Lamarck Caulaincourt area instead of Anvers, Pigalle or even Abbesses, snap up a flaky pastry from the boulangerie Gontran Cherrier, wander through the calm side streets and find your way up to the quaint oasis of the museum, I promise you will fall in love with Montmartre, just as I have.