Montmatre contains the best and worst of tourist Paris. The views from the Butte Montmatre across the flat cityscape are amazing whilst the tacky delights of the Place du Tetre and Pigalle hit new lows. Every tourist eventually clambers up the mount if only because the Sacre Coeur stares down on them from everywhere else in Paris. This is an area with a rich artistic heritage. Living on the Butte were artists such as Seurat, Van Gogh, Zola, and Picasso; and not forgetting Toulouse Lautrec hung out at the Moulin Rouge at the foot of the hill. Despite being on the tourist circuit for generations, Montmatre is worth a mornings wander especially when you get away from all the tourists and wander the backstreets which are rather rural and very charming.
The Butte Montmatre is the highest point in Paris and always stood outside the city walls. It was always a rather rustic area with cobbled streets, thatched houses and open spaces. It was a famed working-class quarter which took the influx of people forced out from Haussmans demolition of homes to build Le Grandes boulevards. During the 1870 Prussian invasion the residents rose up in a proletarian uprising and the barricades went up in Montmatre. Sacre Coeur church was built to atone for the sins of the residents, most of which were put up against a wall and shot by the establishment. Now it is not a very delicate tourist attraction and the only place in Paris which makes my blood boil due to overkill. But the views are lovely and the Sacre Coeur when lit up at night looks like it is floating on air from a distance.
Reaching it is easy. The nearest metro is Abbesses but this involves a very steep walk uphill on cobbled streets. Easy to walk is Anvers which is on Boulevard de Rouchchouart. The streets around here cater for masses of tourists and you will find enough bureau de changes'' and hotels to suit anyone. Then you can follow the hordes up Rue Steinkurque which is hemmed in with clothes factories,textile stalls, and baguette sellars (things are a little cheaper up here then the centre, 10F for a bacon baguette?). At the top is the top Butte Montmatre topped by the Eglise Sacre Coeur (Church of the Sacred Heart). The church itself is at the summit and you have to ascend three levels of gardens with the view getting better as you ascend. The basilica itself is a sort of byzantine domed construction made out of a brilliant white marble which gets even whiter in the rain. All in all, the Sacre Coeur reminds me of a wedding cake perched on the top of a hill.
The view from the summit is spectacular and worth the climb. A small balaustrade seperates you from the drop and you can see Paris stretching in swathes around you. It''s white buildings and green rooftops are very photogenic with the Tour Eiffel and Tour Montparnasse visible in the distance. Inside is very light and airy and a huge gilt portrait of Christ with his arms outstretched decorates the dome. Spend as much time as possible in the Eglise as the tourgroups only spend about five minutes in here before heading off to the Place du Tetre. This is a little way off to the west and is tourist Paris at its most horrendous. I''ve been there twice and the last time I came away shaking my head at the place. It is a small square with pretty buildings but crushed under the tourist trade. Overpriced restaurants line the sides, portrait artists rip off the tourists and souvenir stalls sell plastic miniature Eiffel towers. Worse are the sheer numbers of tourists. Each stepping on each others toes trying to get a perfect shot of the Sacre Coeur. The last time I was there I saw a fight between a German and Australian tourist because one pinched the others cafe seat. It was not a pleasant sight.
But if you head north or west from the Place du Tetre you can leave it all behind and have Montmatre to yourself. The backstreets around the Sacre Coeur are charming and remeniscent of rural France. Rue du Saules descends very sharply downhill and was lined with balconied apartments leading to a small vineyard (see photo). Just opposite was the Lapin Agile brassiere and an old windmill, a throwback to the time when Montmatre was rustic. If you spend time wandering this area you will find cobbled streets, hidden gardens and deserted zinc bars. A much better find then the Place du Tetre.
If you can continue walking downhill you will be in Pigalle, the famous risque area. Buses on Boulevard Clichy will take you down to the Arc de Triomphe. But this is more workaday then the rest of Paris with a TATI department store and numerous sex-shops and prostitutes (if anyone has read these journals the recurring theme is Napoleon and prostitutes). The Moulin Rouge is on the corner of Boulevard Clichy and Place Blanche and if you want to spend 150 Francs on women dancing and throwing up their skirts - who can blame you? You would be in esteemed artistic company if you did?