Parisians view Montmartre as San Franciscans do the Haight/Ashbury – home of a vibrant historical moment that has become a parody of itself through excessive gentrification and tourism. Nevertheless the history cannot be denied and for those eager to venture off the beaten path it can still offer a quaint look back on a more Bohemian time.
Montmartre is the tallest point in the greater Paris area and is just north of Paris proper. It is primarily known for the white-domed Basilica of the Sacre Coeur on its summit, another, older church, Saint Pierre de Montmartre, which claims to be the location at which the Jesuit order of priests was founded and as a hot nightclub district. But it’s historical roots are deep.
Since Montmartre was outside the city limits, free of Paris taxes and no doubt also due to the fact that the local nuns made wine, the hill quickly became a popular drinking area and developed into a centre of free-wheeling and decadent entertainment at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. The Moulin Rouge and Le Chat Noir became seedy nightime mainstays.
The cheap rent, Bohemian energy and free-flowing alcohol attracted another class of people – artists. Many artists maintained their studio here or worked around the community of Montmartre such as Salvador Dali, Claude Monet, Piet Mondrian, Pablo Picasso, Camille Pissarro, Henri Matisse, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Vincent van Gogh to name just a few.
By the end of the 19th century, Montmartre was the center of art in Paris and by extension one of the world centers of creativity. As is almost always the case, a moment gives way to history and creative energy migrates from one location to the next. But it is always nice to take a peek back and see the shadows of what once was.