The magic of Montmartre.

‘I don’t believe in things like that — fairies or goblins or magic or anything. It’s old-fashioned.’
‘Well, we must be jolly old-fashioned then,’ said Bessie. ‘Because we not only believe in the Faraway Tree and love our funny friends there, but we go to see them too — and we visit the lands at the top of the Tree as well!’.

Excerpt from ‘The Magic Faraway Tree,’ by Enid Blyton.

As a little girl, I devoured pages of Enid’s books with the same enthusiasm I showed for cake and ice cream. Dame Washalot, Moonface, Silky the fairy, Mr Watzisname and the Angry Pixy, along with Fanny, Jo and Bessie (and later in the piece, cousin Dick), would join me under torchlight as I turned page after page, licking my lips at each and every mention of treacle. And, Hey Presto! It was Elisabeth Allan and her constant outrage and sheer determination displayed during her adventures at Whyteleaf School, that stirred an interest for midnight feasts and pot roasts in my ten year old self.

In our garden at home I would climb trees in search of my own faraway land and characters, and I also believed (with a fairly strong degree of certainty) that fairies did exist at the bottom of the driveway.  When I wasn’t pottering about in my tree house built at the top of the oldest tree in the garden, I was lighting fires in my garden below and boiling a billie ready for another fresh brew of tea.

The imagination was fertile, to say the very least.

After I boarded the packed Line 4 at Odeon on Saturday morning destined for the northern reaches of Paris, I scanned the mass of swaying bodies that made up the populous of our carriage. African women chatted non stop in full colourful dress, reaching for their market trolleys with every jam of the brakes; a grey haired man sitting opposite me stared out the window longingly, his pink and red paisley cravat tucked neatly into an even pinker shirt; two young boys read the Quran in long white robes ready for the Mosque, and two very bossy women argued about whether they would leave the metro at Barbés, ‘c’est le marché aujourd’hui,’ one croaked at the other, she wasn’t about to get caught up in all of the bother that is the foot traffic of the Saturday market.

As we drew in at St Michel, about seven unicorns stepped into the carriage and spoke at rapid pace about life ‘en general’ as they sensibly sipped red wine out of plastic cups. Of course they weren’t real unicorns, rather, nice catholic French boys celebrating the imminent nuptials of their friend, who, for the record, wore fairy wings across his back and a diamanté crown on his head.

I particularly adored listening to them speak about life ‘en general’ as they nodded earnestly with each sip of their vin rouge, all whilst wearing silver sparkling unicorn horns atop their very French heads.

Stepping off the metro at Barbés, I found myself swept up into the swarm that was the foot traffic predicted by the bossy woman earlier, before I switched to Line 2 for just one stop — station Anvers on Boulevard de Rochechouart — the hectic thoroughfare that runs through the heart of Montmartre, in the 18th Arrondissement of Paris.

Montmartre, or in Latin, ‘Mount of Mars,’ is primarily known for its artistic history and breathtakingly romantic vistas, complete with buildings whose individual appeal leans away from the uniform style of Haussmann. Originally not officially part of the City of Paris, these buildings are made even more fabulous with their array of colourful window shutters. Montmartre is also home to the brilliant white domes of the Basilica of the Sacré Coeur found on its summit, which are striking from every angle regardless of where you stand in Paris. There is also the Moulin Rouge, the cabarets, and more recently, the seedy, sex fuelled nightclub strip that is Boulevard de Rochechouart.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, and at the beginning of the twentieth, during the Belle Époque, many artists had studios in or around Montmartre, including Amedeo Modigliani, Claude Monet, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, Henri Toulouse Lautrec, Piet Mondrian, Pablo Picasso, Camille Pissarro and Vincent Van Gogh.

On this hill overlooking the city of Paris, you can just imagine the artists of the twentieth century in a village environment, in muddy lanes and broken down shacks inspired by the circus and silent movies — close to the locals still dancing the night away in the Old Moulin de la Galette, with dancers and clowns and spontaneity set amongst libertine lifestyles and a love of popular culture. Whilst the twenty-first century has seen this hilltop haven become gentrified, popularised and quite often, heaving with tourists, the magic still exists.
The same could be said for so many corners of Paris. It is true, this city is a living museum.

And, I will add, if fairies and goblins were indeed real, I believe they might just be paying 18th Arrondissement prices in rent.

Rushing through the masses and whizzing up the stairs toward the exit of Metro Anvers, I met up with Ruby Boukabou, a new friend in Paris who I first found under Tracy Moffat’s famed piece ‘Something More,’ at the Sothebys preview of pictures late last year.

Ruby is dynamic as she is energetic and when she’s not tap dancing her way around Paris, she can be found leading tours through Montmartre — a more recent venture that she embarked upon after writing several guides to this magical city. Her gold tap shoes are never far from reach, and following a quick pit stop at La Halle Saint Pierre, where one can find artworks created by ‘outside artists,’ (those not formally trained), we began our walk along the winding streets and up towards the back of the basilica.

At the top of seemingly thousands of steps leading up to the basilica, a man with a cello strapped to his back smiled up at us before tipping his hat as I took a quick photo of my ‘guide’ and her tap shoes for flyer promoting another new project, ‘Tap for Beginners’. (I may or may not have been invited, watch this space.)

In that moment, I cast my mind back to the first time I scaled those steps many years ago before making a mental note that on each visit, the magic remains the same.

A bridal party, complete with a bride in full ceremonial dress of beaded head wear and mountains of tule, posed under the romantic, sun hazed shadows cast from the domes of the basilica, as their guests chatted under the walls that frame the Square Marcel Bleustein Blanchet. In this pretty park children squealed and daffodils bloomed around its edges, a sign that spring is indeed upon us.

As we continued on our meander through cobblestoned streets featuring endless window shutters in a palette of a thousand colours, I also delighted in the abundance of street art — a gaggle of pink flamingos danced alongside us while mournful faces cried tears in shades of pink and purple. Poetic political slogans were painted alongside messages of love and spray painted bunches of flowers. A pair of trousers once dipped in wax emerged ridged from a wall housing a beautiful ‘maison,’ more reminiscent of a wedding cake than a home. A simple plaque in the gateway of this impressive building informed that this was once the home of Dalida, fondly remembered as an iconic darling of the French music scene.

Further along, under the watchful eye of the Musée de Montmartre, the vines in the ancient Vigne du Clos stood obediently in rows right down to where we stood on Rue Saint Vincent, and the late afternoon birdsong was made even more pleasant with a warmer than usual breeze in the air. I felt as though I’d been transported to another world. The shutters on every building had been flung open following a freezing winter, welcoming abundant light, and I think the words ‘when I grow up, I’ll live here,’ were uttered more than just once.

Further down the hill we admired Le Bateau Lovoir, Picasso’s studio for many years, and moments later, witnessed a Spanish tour guide almost implode as he spoke with unhinged enthusiasm in front of the blue door where Van Gogh once lived with his younger brother, Théo.

In the early evening we reached Rue des Abbesses, where mass was in its infant stages when we entered the Church of St Jean Montmartre. A passionate member of the parish resplendent in a neatly zipped up puffer jacket, conducted hymns from the lectern with erratic hand movements, while the priest wore more traditional garb decorated in the finest hues of magenta and gold.

We delighted in the enthusiasm of our conductor, before to retiring to a rooftop bar with endless, breathtaking views spanning the entire city — a hard earned Aperol Spritz in hand.

As several million lights twinkled below, the tower lit up in her usual hourly display of sparkling magic. In that moment, I concluded that magic does indeed happen. Or maybe, in the words of Enid Blyton, I’m just ‘jolly old fashioned’.

In closing, and on the topic of magic, this is my final Parisian piece for a month and on Friday you will be delivered the first of many ‘pinnings’ from Morocco, beginning with Marrakech, as I embark on a long awaited journey through the magical souks, medinas, mosques and everything that is Berber and beautiful.

Watch this space, I feel as though a fairy might be just about to cross my path.

Pictured: the beautiful café la Maison Rose, Montmartre, where we enjoyed afternoon espresso and gâteau au citron.

One thought on “The magic of Montmartre.

  1. Hi Pin, love the photo of La Maison Rose. That is almost next door to the house I lived in while studying le francais commercial at the Alliance Francaise, in 1976. My address was 6 Rue de l’Abreuvoir, Montmartre XVIIIme, literally two doors down on the same side as your Maison Rose. There is a vine-covered high wall and a door in the wall which leads to a garden inside, a gate lodge with a passage underneath, and then the XVIIIth century maison along the further edge of the inner garden. My landlady was Madame de la Neziere, she was ancient and creaky like her cat, and her house, and her lodger Monsieur Guyader who lived under the ancient creaky stair. Everything was musty, dusty, faded, motheaten but oh so elegant somehow in that extraordinary warren de lapin. Monsieur Guyader only washed once a month. And so did Madame. She was horrified when I ran water into the bath each day. Un grand drame avec une grande dame, toujours au sujet de l’eau gaspille!
    Anyway your photo reminded me of that house. Love reading about Marrakech too. I know that feeling of trying to conjure up the romance of a place long dreamed of. It happened to me in the Camargue, south of France, where i wanted to see the wild white stallions galloping freely over the coastal wetlands and dune grasses…But they were chubby slow ponies, pushed along by bored locals, trying to make them trot for the army of tourist photographers who wanted to capture that moment of salty spray flung up by fleeing hooves. The ponies were bored too, and kept stopping to eat. Sigh. Such a disappointment!

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