Artful Montmartre

Special to The Times

Sitting high on a wall in Montmartre with all of Paris at my feet, I watched an elderly woman emerge through her garden gate on the street just below, struggling with a bulky load of canvases, a folded-up chair and an easel. Stealthily I followed her, up tiny Rue des Saules and its vine-draped shops and restaurants, up Avenue Junot, where, at 10 a.m., tourists were just beginning to converge.

I followed her to Place du Tertre and had a little laugh. This old village square, as charming as can be, is hands-down one of Paris' most touristy sites. Artists set up their easels here daily, enticing tourists with images of the city.

On previous visits to Paris, my disdain of crowds, especially tourist crowds, kept me away from this historic hilltop quarter with its old-fashioned feel.

But on this drizzly day last November, with talk of war with Iraq and the worsening tensions between France and the U.S., I felt far away from the world's woes, content to believe that I had found a true local artist. She seemed to give a speck of authenticity to the stories I'd read about Montmartre's arty heyday.

From 1860 until the 1950s, the heavyweights of the art world -- Renoir, Cezanne, Pissarro, Monet, Manet, Matisse, Picasso, Van Gogh, Seurat, Modigliani, Utrillo, Toulouse-Lautrec -- flocked to this provincial quarter, lured by low rents, fine light, cafes and plenty of tawdry brothels and cabarets (including the Moulin Rouge). In creaky old ateliers, these artists gave birth to Impressionism, Postimpressionism and Cubism, catapulting Paris to the pinnacle of the art world.

Who wouldn't be inspired by this quarter atop Paris' highest hill? Away from its touristic core, diminutive lanes edge flower-adorned, tumbledown houses; steep stone steps lead to hidden cobbled squares; and jaw-dropping views of the city wait around every turn. It wouldn't seem far-fetched to come upon Maurice Utrillo sitting on a street corner, capturing the cabaret Au Lapin Agile in oils. Or Pablo Picasso stomping down a narrow sidewalk, contemplating his next move in "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," which he painted here in 1907, ushering in the age of modern art.

I realized, as I stood on touristy Place du Tertre, that there are two Montmartres: the tourist attraction with its postcard stalls, ersatz artists and Americanized menus, and the small medieval hilltop village, colloquially called La Butte, to this day an artist's inspiration.

And so, on a different day, I decided to return with some Parisian friends, Gerard and Muguette Dubois, to seek out the second Montmartre, the old Montmartre of artists -- La Butte.

From Montmartre's most recognizable site, the bone-white Basilica of Sacre-Coeur, with its grandiose Byzantine domes looming over the capital, we ambled down Rue St. Pierre and Rue du Mont Cenis to a modest square lined with picturesque buildings. A plaque on one, Les Coulisses restaurant, indicated that painter Suzanne Valadon and her son, Utrillo, dined here often between 1919 and 1935.

Close by stands the Romanesque St. Pierre de Montmartre, one of the oldest churches in Paris with parts that date from the 12th century, though you wouldn't know it from its severe 19th century facade. We saw a nun heave open the big wooden door and, curious, followed her inside. Sunlight streamed through stained-glass windows into the Gothic nave, its stone walls aglow with white light, arches curving gracefully overhead. I looked closer and noticed the walls seemed to bend inward.

"The tunnels and quarries beneath the church undermine it," Muguette whispered in response to my perplexed look. Gypsum and limestone have been mined from deep within the butte since Roman times, one of the reasons why developers have not built here. Suddenly fearful that the historic building might collapse, I felt the need to leave.

Perfect light, and tourists

Thus boned up on the area's ancient history, we proceeded to Place du Tertre and its pageantry of artists (no more than two per square meter by law). I spotted my woman artist gesturing to a baseball-capped visitor, her vibrant oil scenes of Provencal flowers apparently under discussion. Glimmering with fairy lights, shady plane trees and colorful old buildings -- mostly crowded tourist cafes and restaurants -- surround the square. It once drew artists for its optimum light; now the artists are lured by tourists in quest of souvenirs. Much of the artwork is negligible and many of the artists are not even French, but they keep alive, if superficially, the artistic reverie.

I followed my friends up Rue Poulbot to tiny Place du Calvaire, with a view over the city. And little by little, as we wandered off the beaten track, the second Montmartre began to emerge, the same Montmartre known by Monet, Pissarro and Picasso. I saw it in the peeling walls filigreed with ivy, in dark passageways leading who knows where, in pocket parks with mossy statues.

Life in these back streets goes on as it always has. A white-haired, ponytailed violinist played melancholic Beethoven on a street corner. A young boy rushed home with a baguette under his arm. A garbage man emptied a bin with the Sacre-Coeur as a backdrop. An elegantly coiffed woman grasped a long leash as her sweater-draped dachshund joyfully sniffed beds of begonias and petunias.

Old Montmartre resides not only in the quarter's back streets but also in several former artist haunts. Their residences, cabarets, restaurants and studios stand to this day. Some are simply marked by plaques; others are museums or businesses.

We moseyed up Rue du Calvaire and Rue des Saules, past a clutch of souvenir shops and pseudo-art galleries belonging to the first Montmartre, to A La Bonne Franquette. A plaque indicates that this inn was a popular artists' rendezvous. Its interior courtyard is featured in Van Gogh's "La Guinguette" (1886), hanging in the Musee d'Orsay. To the left of the inn, the cobblestoned Rue St. Rustique, lined by provincial houses, is Montmartre's oldest street.

We ventured on to the Musee du Vieux Montmartre on Rue Cortot, a fabulous neighborhood museum in a 17th century manor that was once residence to many artists, including Renoir and Utrillo. Bringing to life La Butte's glory days in unassuming modesty, the collection includes 19th century Montmartre porcelain, photos of the hill's old skyline dotted with windmills, fading maps, costumes of Moulin Rouge dancer Jane Avril, a selection of Toulouse-Lautrec's posters and much, much more. A video sets the tone, describing the Montmartre that once was.

One room is dedicated to Aristide Bruant (1851-1925), whom you see on Belle-Epoque souvenirs throughout modern-day Montmartre. Thanks to Toulouse-Lautrec's drawings, the chansonnier is instantly recognizable in his black jacket, long red scarf and wide-brimmed hat. His songs helped make legendary the cabarets and dancers of La Butte's grittier side.

Continuing on our way, we passed by the picturesque Vigne du Clos Montmartre's neat rows of grapevines, the omnipresent domes of Sacre-Coeur rising beyond. Vineyards have been cultivated in Paris since Roman times -- once 40,000 acres covered the city. This one was planted in 1933 to commemorate those lost to time. The crush takes place every October, yielding 400 bottles of a sourish brew that's sold to raise money for local pensioners. The gate was locked; without knowing someone connected with the vineyard, you can visit only on Saturdays in summer.

Opposite the vineyard, on the corner of Rue St. Vincent and Rue des Saules, stands an ivy-covered, rose-colored cottage straight out of a Beatrix Potter illustration. Surprisingly, this is Au Lapin Agile, the oldest Montmartre cabaret and historically one of the raunchiest. It was opened in 1860 as the Cabaret des Assassins and bought by Bruant in 1903. Picasso spent many evenings here (he paid for one meal with one of his Harlequin paintings, now worth millions), as did others who attained fame -- poets Paul Verlaine and Guillaume Apollinaire, painter Modigliani. It's still open, beloved by tourists, who sing along to French folk tunes and music hall ditties. Admittedly it's touristy, but there's something enchanting about sitting on the wooden benches admiring walls covered with works by Fernand Leger, Andre Gill (onetime owner of the cabaret) and by Bruant.

We ambled down Rue de l'Abreuvoir, with its quintessential old houses -- including La Maison Rose, a pink bungalow in which Picasso lived briefly in 1902. Now it's a mediocre bistro.

An old quarry road, Rue Lepic, took us farther down the hill, the scenery changing from residences and art galleries to shops, restaurants, cafes -- and windmills, reminders of a time when the hill was cluttered with their wooden arms clacking in the breeze.

On the corner of Rue Lepic and Rue Girardon stands Moulin Radet, now gracing the entrance to an Italian restaurant. The more famous windmill, Moulin de la Galette, is steps away, opposite Rue Tholoze. Looking forlorn on a hillside, this brown wooden structure with its spindly arms dates from 1640. It reached a low point in its history in 1814, when its owner, Pierre-Charles Debray, was crucified on its blades for trying to stop the invading Cossacks. By the 1870s, the Galette had been converted into a popular open-air dance hall, a favorite of Monet, Degas, Cezanne and, above all, Renoir, who danced here nearly every Saturday. One of Renoir's most famous paintings, "Le Moulin de la Galette" (1876), is considered a masterpiece of the beginning of the Impressionist movement. It now hangs in the Musee d'Orsay.

Corot, Bonnard, Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh, among others, also painted the mill. In fact, farther down the street, at No. 54, I noticed a plaque indicating that Van Gogh lived on the third floor with his brother, Theo, from 1886 to 1888.

Birthplace of the cancan

Rue Lepic makes a wide sweep, taking you farther down the hill, past a row of typical Parisian markets purveying all kinds of tempting fare: pyramids of fruit, piles of pungent cheese, glistening fish snuggled in beds of ice, crusty baguettes, mouthwatering pastries, rainbows of flowers.

One of Paris' most famous cafes stands nearby, the Bar Lux at No. 12, with its beautiful 1909 facade and 1910 mosaic showing a turn-of-the-century Place Blanche, but we didn't stop there. The Duboises had a different place in mind. We proceeded on Rue des Abbesses, taking a quick detour up Rue Ravignan to Place Emile Goudeau and the site where the wooden Bateau Lavoir -- a block of studios once inhabited by Picasso (he moved from his blue to rose period here), Gauguin, Matisse, Max Jacob and many others -- stood until destroyed by fire in 1970. It's since been rebuilt with modern art studios. The odd name comes from its resemblance to the ramshackle laundry boats on the Seine.

We continued on Rue Yvonne le Tac to a corner brasserie, L'Esterel, at Rue Tardieu and had a cozy fixed-price repast -- French onion soup, followed by pink trout and apple tart -- topped with a bottle of rose.

Afterward we debated about visiting one last landmark. But how could you visit Montmartre without stopping by the Moulin Rouge, so sumptuously depicted in Hollywood's 2001 Academy Award nominee? With its red windmill all neon-lighted and its dinner shows drawing crowds of tourists, this 19th century kitschy cabaret-restaurant at the foot of Montmartre is where the cancan originated, where Toulouse-Lautrec made his name as an artist, where Montmartre gained its Belle-Epoque reputation for bacchanalian frenzy. In the entrance hall we studied the holographic images of exuberant dancers, but we didn't enter.

It seemed over the top, this gaudy rendition of what used to be, this epitome of the first Montmartre. I yearned for the quietude of yesteryear, for the Montmartre the artists would recognize. I smiled. Now I knew where to find it.

*

In Montmartre, painting the town red

GETTING THERE:

From LAX to Paris, Air France and Air Tahiti Nui offer nonstop flights. United, Delta, Continental, Northwest, Lufthansa, Swiss and US Airways offer connecting flights (with change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $696.

Montmartre is in Paris' 18th arrondissement. At the foot of the butte, Boulevard de Clichy and Place Pigalle are seedy, and women should not venture there alone at night. Metro stops are Blanche or Abbesses. The funicular on Montmartre's south slope, between Rue Tardieu and Rue St. Eluthere, is the easiest way up and down the steep butte. It delivers you to the base of Sacre-Coeur. Fare: $1.40.

Tourist train: A miniature train offering 40-minute guided tours of Montmartre leaves from Place Blanche (next to the Moulin Rouge).

TELEPHONES:

To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 33 (country code for France) and the nine-digit local number. If calling within France, add a 0 before the 1.

WHERE TO STAY:

Hotel Melia Confort Blanche Fontaine, 34 Rue Fontaine; 1-44-63-54-95, fax 1-42-81-05-52. An 18th century hotel built in two parts, one building with 49 rooms and an independent pavilion with 17. Many rooms look out on an interior courtyard. Metro stop: Blanche. Doubles $162-$259.

Hotel Prima Lepic, 29 Rue Lepic; 1-46-06-44-64, fax 1-46-06-66-11, www.hotel-paris-lepic.com/index.html. Thirty-eight rooms of country charm, with trompe l'oeil murals that recall the Montmartre of yesterday, rattan furniture and art on the walls. Metro: Blanche, Abbesses. Doubles $102-$135.

Terrass Hotel, 12 Rue Joseph de Maistre; 1-44-92-34-14, fax 1-42-52-29-11, www.terrass-hotel.com. Montmartre's only luxury choice, this plushly renovated hotel was built in 1913; rooms have views of the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe and Opera Garnier. Doubles $243-$267.

WHERE TO EAT:

Le Basilic, 33 Rue Lepic; 1-46-06-78-43. Traditional French cuisine in a rustic but charming building with an ivy-covered entrance. Three-course meal $20-$24. Metro: Blanche.

Restaurant La Cloche d'Or, 3 Rue Mansart; 1-48-74-48-88. Closed Saturday and for lunch Sunday, and in August. Classic French meals served until 5 a.m. Actors hang out here after the nearby shows. Singing. Three-course meal $32. Metro: Blanche or Pigalle.

Le Moulin a Vins, 6 Rue Burq; 1-42-52-81-27. Closed Sunday, Monday and for lunch Tuesday, Thursday and Friday and in August. Bistro with a good wine list. Three-course meal $27. Metro: Abbesses.

WHAT TO SEE:

Cimetiere de Montmartre, entrance at Avenue Rachel off Boulevard de Clichy. Opened in 1825, this cemetery, with its elegantly carved tombstones, features such celebrities as Dumas, Rodin, Zola (in a huge red marble monstrosity), Stendhal, Degas, Nijinsky and Francois Truffaut.

Espace Montmartre Salvador Dali, 9-11 Rue Poulbot (around the corner from Place du Tertre); 1-42-64-40-10. More than 300 works by the Catalan surrealist artist.

Au Lapin Agile, 22 Rue des Saules; 1-46-06-85-87, www.au-lapin-agile.com. Open 9 p.m.-2 a.m. Closed Monday. Cabaret shows for tourists.

Moulin Rouge, 82 Blvd. de Clichy; 1-53-09-82-82, www.moulinrouge.fr. The famous cabaret features dinner at 7 p.m., followed by shows at 9 and 11.

Musee du Vieux Montmartre, 12 Rue Cortot; 1-46-06-61-11. Open 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Paintings, lithographs, documents and more relating to the area's unruly and bohemian past.

TO LEARN MORE:

French Government Tourist Office, 9454 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 210, Beverly Hills, CA 90212; France-on-Call hotline (410) 286-8310 (for brochures) or (310) 271-6665, fax (310) 276-2835, www.franceguide.com.

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