Abra Dunsby gets a local’s insight into the charming, characterful quartier of Montmartre on a new Urban Adventures walking tour.
When I lived in Paris, I remember chuckling at befuddled tourists as they drank overpriced coffee in Montmartre’s Place du Tetre, clutching a doodle they’d bought from a beret-wearing peddler.
Meanwhile, I’d sneak off to a deserted cobbled side street for a cut-price espresso and to mooch around the boutiques, feeling smug with my local knowledge.
Urban Adventures is clearly kinder than I once was. Its new two-hour Hidden Montmartre tour bypasses the tourist throngs, allowing visitors to discover the quiet spots of this unique and creative quartier.
We meet our guide Tim in Pigalle, where the gaudy red windmill of the Moulin Rouge looms beside the sex shops. In the 1700s there was a wall here, marking the limits of the city and its tax controls.
Montmartre was just outside the wall, making it cheaper and more relaxed in outlook, hence its “le village” moniker.
“The best places to drink were outside the wall – that’s where the dancehalls were, the restaurants, and of course, the prostitutes,” Tim says.
Years later, Montmartre has cleaned up its act, and is now one of Paris’s most beautiful and expensive arrondisements.
We begin our cultural pilgrimage at Le Grenier à Pain, where locals queue patiently for their daily bread.
“This bakery won Paris’ Best Baguette competition twice – the winner gets to deliver bread to the Élysée Palace for a year,” Tim tells us, as I alternate between mouthfuls of crunchy baguette and flaky, buttery croissant.
Carb loading complete, we pass the Art Deco splendour of Abbesses metro station, stopping to take a snap of the Café des 2 Moulins restaurant that featured in the film Amelie.
Le Bateau-Lavoir provides further celebrity credentials, although you wouldn’t know it from its humble shopfront exterior. Pablo Picasso lived and worked here in the early 1900s.
“At the time he was so poor that he’d offer restaurateurs drawings or paintings in return for a warm meal,” says Tim.
On Rue d’Orchampt, we see the less-than-modest home of another famous Montmartre resident, Dalida.
The story of the French singer is a tragic one: she married three men who all committed suicide, then ended her own life. She is buried in the nearby Montmartre cemetery, and we see her statute in Montmartre square.
As we climb the steep Rue Lepic, Tim points out the two remaining (replica) windmills. This hill was once dotted with around 17 of them, as lower taxes meant grain was cheaper here, and they’ve featured in paintings by resident artists Renoir, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec.
Climbing further, we admire cobbled streets dotted with houses framed by painted shutters and draped in ivy.
The perfectly tended Montmartre Vineyard is an unexpected tour highlight. It still produces wine today, and though undrinkable, the tradition honours the area’s once thriving wine industry.
Further on, a rusty gate shrouds a wild mass of thick greenery. The Jardin Sauvage is Paris’s very own secret garden, Tim tells us. It’s home to a diverse ecosystem, and opens occasionally for guided tours.
Tim ends with the pièce de résistance, the fabled white-marble Basilique de Sacre Coeur, which we approach from the back of the Butte de Montmartre hill, rather than climbing the tourist-clogged steps.
“Parisians hated the building at first because of what it represented,” says Tim. After France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, revolutionaries established the Paris Commune in Montmartre in protest against a government charged with making peace with Germany.
The French and Germans united to crush the movement, and the subsequent building of the church came to symbolise the triumph of the Catholic conservatives over the republican revolutionaries.
In time, the Parisians grew to love the Sacre Coeur, which is no surprise given that its views of the city are spectacular.
As I say goodbye to Tim and walk down the hill past the hawkers flogging bracelets and mini replica Eiffel Towers, I’m content in the knowledge that I’ve seen the best side of Montmartre. Now your clients can too.