Explore sex, death and art on your walk through Paris
By Liz Jensen|
This circuit takes in the best of the quartier, but it begins with a little soupçon of the worst. Pigalle is well known as the sleaze district of Paris, but it's also an area where people live. Any side street off the Boulevard Clichy will contain slices of normal everyday France in the form of a bakery, residential blocks, churches, schools, tabacs. But to catch a fleeting glimpse of the notorious 'street of sex', leave Pigalle metro and head left up Boulevard de Clichy. View Time Out Paris Walks: A walk through Montmartre in a larger map
Pigalle is best at night, when the neon lights and hookers are out in their regalia. By day, the almost triumphant tackiness of the district is less obviously displayed, but there's still plenty going on. Note the way most of the signs – SEX SHOW, SEX CENTRE, PEEP SHOW – are in fact in English!
If you're in the mood for a more academic sex tour, sample the Musée de l'Erotisme, which is open both day and night, and boasts exhibits from all over the world. Just past Blanche metro you will see the red of the Moulin Rouge, sequin-infested home of cabaret and cancan.
Death comes next – but in the nicest way possible. Leave the boulevard, turn right at Corcoran’s, a typical olde-worlde Irish pub with its air conditioning and big-screen TV, and enter Avenue Rachel. This leafy residential avenue leads to the famous Cimetière de Montmartre, resting place of many of France’s great and good, including Zola, the Guitry family, Foucault, Truffaut, Stendhal, Degas and Offenbach – and a few monsters too, no doubt.
As you enter the gates, you can ask the guard for a map of the cemetery. This piece of paper is not entirely worthless, as it will give you an idea of the layout of the avenues; but frankly, if you want to track down a particular grave, you’d be better off using a divining rod. Just past the gates you’ll find yourself in the oldest and most dismal part of the cemetery, where once-dignified sepulchres huddle under an iron road bridge roaring with traffic. But the deeper you go, the more magical it becomes – an oasis of tranquility in the frantic cacophony of the city. Some of the tombs and sepulchres are tended with the bright flowers of recent grief, while others are dilapidated, flaking and blackening away, eroded by weather, pollution and neglect.
The cemetery is criss-crossed with gravel walkways, but head first for the grassy roundabout just beyond the entrance. Directly opposite, you'll see a little flight of steps. Climb these, passing the Fragonard plaque as you go, and come face to face with the salmon-coloured marble of Emile Zola's tomb. Then, returning down the same steps, head along Avenue de la Croix. Just after it begins to slope downwards, turn right into the Avenue de Montmorency and the tomb in the shape of Cleopatra's Needle; then take a left down the steps into Avenue Samson, then right into Avenue Tunnel. Just before this avenue turns right at the perimeter wall, you'll see to your left the tomb of Foucault (of pendulum fame). Continue right into Avenue Montbello and up a dark tunnel of chesnut trees until you hit an abrupt dead end, marked by a bench and a water-pump. Behind the bench, though, you'll see a narrow flight of steps, from the top of which you get a sweeping view of the cemetery.
Next, descend the steps and turn left into Avenue Cordier (note the surnames of David on the tombs to your left – this is the Jewish part of the cemetery) and continue along it, stopping to admire the simple white tomb of the artist Victor Brauner and his wife Jaqueline, which features a striking sculpture of two heads, one mirroring the other, and the celebratory inscription: 'Pour moi peindre c'est la vie, la vraie vie. MA VIE' (For me painting is life, true life, MY LIFE). For an antidote to its white minimalism, continue along the Avenue Berlioz, where you'll see Berlioz's eerily dark tombstone adorned with his profile in bas-relief. Opposite, a double-headed tomb bears testimony to a more recent past. Here lie the children Yankel, Mala and Haia Krys, and Chaia and Rivka Chwer, deported and killed by the Nazis in 1942 simply "parce que vous étiez juifs" (because you were Jews).
Avenue Berlioz returns you to the road bridge – beneath which more graves are unhappily crammed – and exits again on to Avenue Rachel, where you can turn left and retrace your steps past the Moulin Rouge. Once there, turn left again into Rue Lepic, where the uphill struggle on the Butte Montmartre begins. The shops on the right-hand side are best: exquisite patisseries, butchers' shops with lolling ox tongues on display, grocers groaning with succulent plums and giant strawberries. And if you look across the road from the hairdresser's, you can see the blackened little armature that marked an earlier entrance to the Moulin Rouge. If you're hungry, there is a choice of little cafés and takeaways on this section of Rue Lepic - including the Délice Lepic, a very simple no-fuss Chinese food stop. Note, too, one of the idiosyncrasies of Paris street-cleaning: the gutter system that sluices water down the curbsides. Its flow is channeled by rolled-up pieces of carpeting, repositioned at intervals. Crude though it is, the system works impressively on these urban hillsides.
In the old days, when this was all windmill-strewn countryside, the long, snaking Rue Lepic used to be the pathway for carts carrying gypsum, the basic ingredient of plaster, down from the quarries in Montmartre. It's hard to imagine, but Montmartre contains a maze of underground tunnels, making it prone to subsidence – hence the tight building restrictions, which have allowed the area to keep a vestige of its rural past. If you turn right at the fishmonger's on the corner of Rue Lepic, you are now on Rue des Abbesses – so called because it once led to the Women's Abbey of Montmartre, nicknamed the 'the army's whorehouse on the hill' following the seduction of the abbess in 1590 by the besieging Henri de Navarre.
Looking across Rue des Abbesses, you'll see Rue Tholoze, the street you're headed for. High above it, on the opposite hillside, you can also spot a replica of the Moulin du Radet, immortalized by many artists (notably Picasso and Renoir). It was onto the sails of the original mill that a miller was nailed in pieces in 1814, as a punishment for having shot an attacking Russian soldier in the head. The miller's only surving son later turned the mill into a dance hall.
Mount the steep Rue Tholozé, and climb the stairs at the top to rejoin Rue Lepic, taking a right at the mill. Soon you'll see the second of les deux moulins (both replicas) – all that remains of the 40 or so mills that once stood on the hilltop (or 'butte') of Montmartre. Beneath this one, the Moulin Radet, there is now a restaurant. Cross and head up Rue Girardon, then turn immediately right into Rue Norvins, stopping at Place Marcel-Ayme to look at La Passe-Muraille, a witty, joyful surrealist sculpture by Jean Marais of a man walking out of a wall (after Marcel Aymé's 1943 short story of the same name). This area is packed with quiet, charming little streets, and there's always a clamour of birdsong from the trees. But while there's still a hint of the countryside here, it doesn't last long.
As you head up Rue Norvins, the street begins to sprout easels and souvenir shops: you are nearing the Sacré-Coeur and the butte’s pinnacle. You can jettison yourself out of this small but vigorous tourist pocket by avoiding the rest of Rue Norvins, which leads to the rampantly tacky epicentre of Montmartre’s tourist trade, the Place du Tertre. Instead, follow Rue des Saules to the left, stopping to eat at the small but exquisitely situated La Maison Rose (which serves a terrific view along with its good food). You may be reluctant, after all this climbing, to head downhill; but allow yourself to be seduced into it by the prospect of seeing a real vineyard, slap bang in the middle of Paris. This is the famous Montmartre Vineyard, planted in 1933 in memory of the wine industry that thrived here in the days when the Lapin Agile on the corner was the haunt of many a famous local drinker. The grapes are harvested and made into a wine that is said to double your urine output. The field itself may be miniscule, but it’s lovingly tended; in summer its lush green is flecked with the mauve and white of delphiniums, lobelia, iris and saxifrage – and not a weed in sight. Which is all the more surprising when you see that right next to the vineyard, along Rue St-Vincent (follow it), is the Jardin Sauvage Saint-Vincent, which as a designated conservation area is encouraged to sprout as many weeds as it likes.
After this little pastoral detour, it’s time to head back uphill and into the thick of the butte; so turn right after the Jardin Saint-Vincent and head up Rue de Mont-Cenis, with its broad stairs decorated by iron banisters and lampposts. It’s another steep haul, but an extravagant view from the top’ll reward you. You’ll also see, to your left as you face uphill, a huge white water tower. This is a famous Paris landmark, stunted sister to the nearby Sacré-Coeur. It’s surrounded by tree-shaded benches where street artists gather to sketch portraits, making it a good place to stop and rest for a bit of a voyeurism. Along the Rue Cortot opposite is the Musée de Montmartre, a charming 17th-century manor that pays homage to local residents such as Modigliani, Toulouse-Lautrec and the composer Charpentier.
It starts getting very tat-encrusted again around here, and this time there's no avoiding it; so head left down the Rue du Chevalier-de-la-Barre (you can buy a stupendously good baguette to take away on the corner) and emerge into the shadow of the eye-popping edifice that is the Basilique du Sacré-Coeur. Buskers, cameras, hawkers, street theatre, accordions, tour buses, beggars, ice-cream, pickpockets: all human life and its myriad leisure accoutrements are here at the foot of the white whale that is the famous basilica. Like many cathedrals, the Moby Dick of the Paris skyline emerged in the wake of a bloody piece of history – in this case, Paris's capitulation to the Prussians, followed by the 1871 Paris anti-government uprising known as the Paris Commune.
The Archbishop of Paris ordered work to begin in 1877, as a flamboyant act of Catholic contrition to apologise for the 'crimes' of the left-wing locals. Hardly surprising, then, that it has always sparked controversy. While many see the monument's whole moral foundation as reactionary, others also object to it on architectural grounds, saying its dazzling whiter-than-whiteness renders it an excruciating eyesore. Infuriatingly for them, the stone of the basilica secretes calcium when it rains, enabling it to bleach itself automatically. (The same process also means that it is very slowly dissolving, so there's hope for the building's critics in the long term.) 'A monstrous efflorescence' was how Emile Zola described its bulbous artichoke domes; you shudder to think what he might have made of his own tombstone back at the cemetery.
Inside its massive portals, the grandiosity of the Archbishop's scheme is reflected in a gloomy, cavernous interior that holds you in its sombre thrall, but doesn't have the dizzy chutzpah of the icing. That said, it's the perfect place to light a candle and cleanse your soul after the profanity of Pigalle, should the need grip you. And to prepare you for the ordeal that is to come: the big climb up to the Dome.
Some people will tell you it isn't worth climbing up the Sacré-Coeur, 'because you can see everything from the bottom'. Take our word that they are lying (but be warned: even for someone relatively fit it's a long schlep). From up on the Dome, all of Paris lies spread before you, and you can finally begin to get a real sense of the scale of the capital. What's more – and this is the real advantage of being at this height – you can actually see where the city ends, as the buildings give way to the green hills at the city's perimeter. There are pay-telescopes all around the balcony of the Dome, with which you can zoom in on any part of the city you like. But there are plenty of landmarks to see with the naked eye including, most obviously, the Tour Eiffel, theArc de Triomphe, the Louvre, Notre-Dame and the massive, blocky rectangle of the Gare du Nord.
When you've taken in the whole eyeful, descend the narrow staircase marked 'Sortie' and you'll emerge (very dizzy) back in the basilica, where for a couple of euros you can light a candle to give thanks for your safe arrival back on land. Heading out of the front portals, climb down the broad flight of steps and get a wonderful view of the whole edifice of the Sacré-Coeur from Square Willette – named impishly after the local artist who yelled 'Vive le diable!' at its inauguration.
We've had a bit of sex. We've had quite a lot of death. But so far, not a great deal of art – which is all wrong, because art is really what Montmartre is most famous for. To remedy this, begin your descent by heading past the funicular railway at the foot of the Sacré-Coeur and take the little passage called La Chappe (basically just a flight of steps), then turn right into the quiet Rue Gabrielle and follow its curve. The shabby and unremarkable No. 49, marked by a small plaque, is where Picasso had his first studio in Paris in 1900. From there, follow the path of the majestic painter into Rue Ravignan, where you'll emerge into a sloping square dappled with horse chestnut trees. This is Place Emile-Goudeau, site of the famous Bâteau-Lavoir, the old piano factory where Picasso, Braque and Juan Gris invented Cubism. Although the original building no longer stands, the site itself still houses artists' studios.
The stairs at the bottom of the square take you to the continuation of Rue Ravignan; follow its right-hand pavement, pausing at the small flight of steps to look up and left for your first sight of the final landmark of your walk, the peculiar church known to locals – for reasons that will become clear – as ‘St-Jean-des-Briques’. Head for this church (real name St-Jean-de-Montmartre) down Rue des Abbesses, stopping to take in the full weirdness of its façade from the pretty, bustling Place des Abbesses.
When the church was finished in 1904 – well before the consecration of the Sacré-Coeur in 1999 – it must have looked like pure science fiction. As the first ever church to be constructed from reinforced concrete, it is an anti-symphony in man-made materials. Clinging to its brick façade are cement sculptures, tile mosaics, and pillars and decorative balconies barnacled with glazed ceramic discs, the dull sheen of which brings to mind the scales of a dinosaur. But it’s a place that grows on you, and some prefer it to the pompous complacency of the Sacré-Coeur. Inside it is stranger still: a rather ominous, theatrical atmosphere prevails in the brown cavern of the main hall, which is adorned with more ceramic studs, spiky iron chandeliers and stained glass windows, including one of the grimmest grim reapers you'll ever see (to the left of the organ).
Escape from all the doom and gloom by stepping out through the huge carved wooden doors and into daylight, to find yourself facing the Abbesses Metro – one of the prettiest stations in Paris. Its art nouveau joie de vivre will put the spring back in your step for the final few paces of your walk, which ends by plonking you on a handy bench amid a cluster of bars, cafés and brasseries in the Place des Abbesses. From here, another Paris beckons.
Au Lapin Agile 22 rue des Saules, 18th (01.46.06.85.87). Shows: Tue-Sun 9pm.
Au Petit Creux 8 rue du Mont-Cenis, 18th (01.46.06.39.61). Open: daily 10.30am-11pm. Closed: 29 Nov-24 Dec.