As confinement plods on into mid-May and our stay-at-home resolve gets severely weathered, we’re becoming either increasingly grateful or teeth-clenchingly resentful of where it is we’re stuck for the duration. ‘Jackpot! You’re in Paris!’, you might think. But don’t forget that as abundant as the city’s charms are, life here generally comes with a tiny shoebox-sized home to lay your head in. It isn’t all chic addresses, brasseries and coffee on a terrace every day you know. There’s also a distinct lack of green space, and what little postage stamps there are, are closed for the forseeable future. Plus in France our confinement rules are stricter than many, so forgive us Parisian residents for not waking up each morning filled with the joys of spring for being cooped up in the City of Lights during a global pandemic. Still, there are the fresh croissants…
That all aside, and despite the 21m² digs I find myself confined in (complete with annoying neighbours, dingy courtyard view and no outside space) I must count my blessings to at least be nestled within the 18th, even before I moved here my favourite arrondissement of Paris. I might be towards the rougher part of it, but happily contained within my allowed 1km radius (never before have I felt quite like a tethered goat) is a big chunk of the hallowed district of Montmartre, and you bet your ass I’m taking fully advantage of it during my pitiful hour of day release (of course entirely necessary and I’m more than happy to toe the line, plus all the stairs work those buns like nothing else).
Montmartre is such an integral part of Paris that it’s often a stand-alone reason to come, though in many people’s minds it doesn’t extend much further than Sacré-Coeur, Place de Tertre and their surrounds. Partly true, though in reality it’s a lot bigger than you might expect (officially established by the City of Paris in 1995) with Rues Clignancourt, Custine and Caulincourt, and Boulevards Barbès and Clichy nicely fencing it off (see hokey picture of my portable paper map, right).
Though as is the case with the wider city itself, it is all too easy to lazily distill it and call it to mind as just a paint-by-numbers sum of its greatest hits and most famous sites. Well it is this, that elevated part of the Paris that was the centre of the Belle Epoque and all of the colour and artistry that went with it, a humble hill where penniless painters found their fame and endless cabarets and nightclubs provided the music. Many tourists head up to the Place de Tertre, take a selfie on the steps of the basilica, and think they’ve done it.
I started this blog with the intention of drawing attention away from the more obvious tourist traps, to try and set fire to that wretched list of things in Paris to do (and Instagram about – ugh the plague) that leads you to believe you’ve really seen the city. Waxing lyrical about one of the top three famous parts seems a complete about-turn from my perspective, but although sky-high property rates have kicked out the penniless painters, this remains one of the best places in the city where you needn’t spend a dime to fully appreciate the magic of Paris.
Strolling along the undulating, wiggly streets makes a wonderful difference to the wide and noisy boulevards elsewhere, and there simply isn’t a part of the city better for strolling around without having pay extortionate entrance fees and queue with a thousand other culture seekers. Most of what there is to see presents itself on the outside, and there are days’ worth of sights to see for free, including (amongst others) the ‘I love You’ wall, Clos Montmartre vineyard, the two cemeteries Saint-Vincent and Montmartre, and the crowning glory of Sacré-Coeur. And the point is that you really don’t need to have an intention to see anything, just walking around the streets and absorbing the unique spirit of the place is as uplifting for the soul as any part of Paris.
It’s certainly keeping my spirits up at this crazy difficult time. Bon courage tout le monde, and see you on the other side!
(We’ll delve properly into the history of the area and various stops along the way in future posts, I hope you’ll join me!)