I’ve always loved a city with a nice butte; a place to leave behind the troubles of the city, while looking down on them… reflecting. Or partying… Either way, the best cities of my life have had buttes: Eugene (Skinner’s Butte and Spencer’s Butte), Portland (Mt. Tabor), and of course, ol’ Paris (Montmartre). Since I was a young girl, the mystique, charm and excitement of the idea of the old Bohemian lifestyle, forever epitomized by the history of Montmartre, has been a source of intrigue for me. It certainly influenced my decision to learn French in the first place, as it has my taste in art. As I walked across the artist’s square, which is situated on the very top of the hill, I imagined the old masters – da Vinci, Renoir, Monet, Picasso, van Gogh – sitting around discussing the new wave of post-impressionist art as they sketched or painted masterpieces. Then of course, at night fall they would catch the hottest show at Le Lapin Agile, the infamous cabaret. You would be sure to find Toulouse Lautrec at the Moulin Rouge with his special VIP seating, for which he painted posters that capture the decadent and sometimes indulgent lifestyle of la culture boheme.
While I was studying abroad in Angers, France, the Willamette crew and our accompanying professor went on a nice week vacation to Marseille and then to Paris for our break in between the September stage and the regular semester. For this trip, each of us had to choose some aspect of either city and give a “Passion Tour”, in which our aim was to teach ourselves and the rest of the group a little more about these particular cities. My immediate thought was Montmartre, and I was actually excited to be doing a little bit of research on this captivating community of Paris. It turns out that back in the day (the 19th century), Montmartre was not even within Parisian city limits, and thus the inhabitants were free from taxes. To make things even more exciting, the local nuns made their own wine; in fact, Montmartre is home to the only legitimate vineyard in Paris to this day. Therefore, cheap booze and plenty of it (along with isolation and neglect from the Parisian government) led to the development of a new lackadaisical and free-wheeling lifestyle that can be seen portrayed in movies like Le Moulin Rouge. The cabarets and the beautiful views of the city attracted performers, singers, and artists alike who drew inspiration from the locality. Lest we forget the Basilica of the Sacre Coeur, which is the massive white structure that dominates the hill. It is made out of travertine stone, which contains a mineral that actually becomes whiter with age. Even cooler: gypsuim stone mines honeycomb the entire hill, including beneath the basilica, such that it rests on about 40 pillars just to remain standing.
Out of everything that we were able to see while visiting Montmartre, the Museum of Montmartre was my absolute favorite. The museum is inside of a large house which was once Renoir’s first Montmartre residence, and which also overlooks the vineyard. Inside there is original artwork of the many posters made for the Moulin Rouge by Lautrec, among other famous paintings that embody the bohemian life. There were also some great processual paintings that showed the development of Montmartre as a community; from a grassy hill to a thriving township.There are even original photographs taken from inside of cabarets! Over all, it was a really amazing experience, especially since I came prepared with historical references. I think that my Willamette crew appreciated, almost as much as I, the energy and the history of the butte, and we all descended just a little bit more liberal than when we had arrived.