I liked staying at Montmartre. My room was at the Hotel Literaire Marcel Aymé, a charming property belonging to the Best Western group. Apart from the comfortable corner room, from where I could watch (and hear) all the action in the street below, I liked the fact that it was one of the best literary hotels in Paris. Jules Renard wrote in his diary, “Add two letters to ‘Paris’ and you get ‘paradise” and he could not have been closer to the truth. Indeed no city in the world has inspired artists, especially men of letters in the same way as the French capital and it has been the playground of some of the biggest literary giants. People like Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo, Marcel Proust, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and others like them have called Paris home. Nearly all have been inspired, exasperated, disgusted, and enchanted by the French capital city. There’s something about Paris, its cobbled streets, its panorama of gabled roofs, its riverbank, its raucous markets, its crowded cafes, and brasseries, that get the creative juice flowing. So it is quite natural that the city hotels should capitalise on the link between Paris and literature and being a lover of letters, I obviously chose a literary hotel that fitted my budget.
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Hotel Literaire Marcel Aymé in Montmartre
Located at the heart of Montmartre, the Hotel Literaire Marcel Aymé is dedicated to the author of the Contes du Chat Perché, the Traversée de Paris and the Passe-Muraille – Marcel Aymé. He spent most of his life in Montmartre and the district inspired many of his works. At the hotel, his characters and snippets from his books are reproduced through vintage posters, photos, and quotes. There are more than 500 books, including original editions and translations. It was no wonder that a lot of my time was spent reading and people watching from my window. I had a corner room that overlooked a small crossroad. A steep cobbled path snaked up to the summit and all four streets were lined with cafes, bars, boutiques, and restaurants. Tinkle of glasses, laughter, and gossip could be heard until late hours of the night and I liked the way the light from a neon sign poured into my room.
Passing through the hallowed quarters of Art
I liked Montmartre very much. To me, it was a little village where the residents knew each other, socialized with each other, and the visitors fell into a set of regular habits. For example, during my entire stay, I got into the habit of getting my morning cafe au lait and croissant from the same boulangerie, having my dinners at the same restaurants in rotation, and usually walking the same trail. I preferred the Blanche metro station to the Pigalle and familiar faces greeted me during my walks. I liked the idea that the places that I walked through, had coffee, looked at from my window had been experienced by some of the greatest artists in the world in the same way and it gave me great pleasure to read historical snippets of the sites and houses in Montmartre. Inside my head, I tried to imagine Montmartre through these artists’ eyes, and every time, I passed a windmill, a cabaret, a cafe, or a studio, it gave me a thrill of passing through the hallowed quarters of Art.
Montmartre – Van Gogh, Monet, Manet, Renoir
Artists contributed to the modern Montmartre. Attracted by its rustic charm, ample light, and low rent, they thronged to this hilltop commune. Here they painted, made friends, took lovers, had tragedies, experienced success, tasted failure, and got inspiration. Great names like Delacroix, Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Sisley, Pissaro, Cezanne, Gauguin Lautrec, and Van Gogh lived, ate, and worked here and they gave Montmartre its unique edgy character. Their favourite cafes, cabarets, and studios still exist and it was at le Bateau Lavoir that modern painting was born. A wooden building on Place Ravignan, the studio le Bateau Lavoir was built in 1899 and it had about 10 artists studios. Its perfect lighting made the studio very popular and the artists overlooked the basic facilities that included no running water, freezing temperatures in winter, and hot temperatures in summer, it was a popular place because of its light. Though today, their paintings crown the galleries of the best museums in the world, at that time Montmartre offered them what they needed to create these masterpieces — community of like-minded people, cheap food and living, light, rustic charm of fields and poppies, and a rough, common band of neighbours. These included prostitutes, boarding house ladies, bargirls, and cabaret dancers. These characters who lived on the fringes of the society at that time chose Montmartre for the cheap costs and they inspired these artists as lovers and muses.
The red light district and the working girls of Montmartre
“From the days of the pilgrimages, in the Middle Ages, Montmartre has always been a spot where barriers are dropped and pleasures are indulged.” That was Montmartre until the 19th century. Before that Montmartre was an independent commune located just outside Paris. In 1860, the wall that was built before the French Revolution as a means of collecting taxes on all goods coming into Paris was demolished and Montmartre was added into the 18th arrondissement of Paris. The wall ran along Boulevard de Clichy and Boulevard de Rochechouart forming a southern boundary of Montmartre. Being outside the walls, which Montmartre and the northern side of Boulevards de Clichy and de Rochechouart were, meant that food and drink on the Montmartre side of the wall were duty-free. Although avoided by many Parisians of that time, Montmartre lured revelers with food, drink, loose women, bohemian crowd, and titillating shows. Over the years, this Montmartre turned into an alluring mix. Working-class Parisians and provincials sang, danced, and entertained; the middle-class people watched and consumed whilst the artists set and recorded the scene. Bourgeois customers’ money powered more entertainment arenas and thus arrived in Montmartre, the circus, the dance halls, the cabarets, or artistic cafés. In all of these venues, there was prostitution which the respectable bourgeois considered part of the attraction of Montmartre. This is the world showcased by Toulouse-Lautrec in the 1890s. Here everyday moral boundaries got obscured by smoke and alcohol, the carnival atmosphere, the novelty of electric illumination, and the uproar of music and dance.
The cabarets and cafes of Montmartre
This glimpse of Montmartre that can be seen in Lautrec, Picasso, and Degas’s paintings still exists today and I love its contemporary story of Lapin Agile. The name of this cabaret came from a sign painted by the artist Gill showing a rabbit jumping out of a cooking pot. It is believed that whenever Picasso went for lunch there, he paid with a painting. The owner accepted them as payment at first but soon began asking Picasso why he didn’t sign his drawings, which would have made them more valuable. Picasso answered: “Because I only want to buy lunch, not your whole restaurant.” Au Lapin Agile was also famous as a watering hole for the unsavoury characters and it was once called the “Assassin’s Cabaret”.
A sacred site for druids, Romans, and the French royalty
Montmarte, however, was not always a place for fun and frolic. The top of the hill of Montmartre was once a sacred religious site of the druids. Then during the Roman rule, Montmartre became the location of many temples dedicated to gods Mars and Mercury, ‘Mons Martis’. The first Christian chapel was built on the same site in 270 AD. In the Middle Ages, a royal Benedictine abbey founded by King Louis grew up around the chapel. During the French Revolution, the abbey was dismantled and its occupants executed. After that, Montmartre became a place for the working class who toiled in its stone quarries, gypsum mines, windmills, and vineyards.
Montmartre of today
Today, all these glimpses of Montmarte’s past can still be seen either as masterpieces or at well-preserved locations. You can go on walks to discover them or simply enjoy the cafe, restaurant, and cabaret scene of Montmartre. It is indeed one of Paris‘ most famous districts. Encircled by busy boulevards, this commune that cascades down the slopes of the ‘Butte’, has retained its village-like atmosphere remarkably well. Get prepared to be charmed with intimate squares, winding narrow streets, tiny terraces, secret gardens, and long stairways.
Follow the rest of the France series
- PHOTO ESSAY OF OUR SPRING BREAK EUROPE ROAD TRIP
- A LOVELY FRENCH SPRING IN DORDOGNE
- MIXED IMPRESSIONS OF CARCASSONNE IN FRANCE
- CLIMBING THE GIGANTIC DUNE DE PILAT
- THE CLICHE AND INTREPID IN PARIS
For a more local perspective of Montmartre, check out this post by Frenchmoments
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE