Windmills, Vineyards and French Tragedy

I spent my last afternoon in Paris, wandering the winding, hilly cobblestone streets of Montmartre. I signed-up for a 2 hour walking tour through Classic Walks Paris. My guide for the afternoon, Connie, dubbed it the “Stair Master Tour” due the multiple trips up, down around the hill crowned by the Sacre Coeur Cathedral. It could also be called the “Tour of Artistic Tragedy”. Montmartre was home to famous artists, singers and writers including Van Gogh, Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, Pissaro, Renoir, Utrillo, Matisse, Dalida and many others. Our afternoon walk started out in front of the famed Moulin Rouge.

The reason that the cabaret is topped by a windmill (Moulin) is that Montmartre was dotted with them back in the day. A handful still remain atop the hill.

After taking in the Moulin Rouge, we walked to the Montmartre Cemetery. The Montmartre Cemetery open roughly around the same time as the Pere LaChaise Cemetery that I had visited the week before. When it opened, the cemetery was on the outskirts of Paris and now, the city has grown around it and in some cases over it.While Montmartre has its share of famous citizens (primarily artists, actors and writers who lived in Montmartre including Edgar Degas, Alexandre Dumas, Dalida), it houses many families of the non-famous. Unlike most US cemeteries where you buy a plot and it’s yours forever, you only lease plots in most Parisian cemeteries. Your family has to renew the plots on a regular basis, to keep the bodies interred there permanently. If someone fails to renew and pay for the plot, eventually the bodies will be removed and moved to a central grave or crematorium for permanent storage. The plot will then be released to someone else.

One of the most famous recent denizens buried in the Montmartre cemetery, is Dalida, a legendary French singer that committed suicide in 1987 at the age of 54. Born in Egypt in 1933 to Italian parents, she was the first French female singer to have a record go diamond and recorded 55 gold records through her career. Despite her fame, Dalida was a tragic figure. Her first husband committed suicide after she left and divorced him for a painter Jean Sobieski (the father of actress Leelee Sobieski). After that relationship ended, her new lover Italian singer Luigi Tenco also committed suicide. She attempted suicide at this point as well. Later another lover, Richard Chanfray committed suicide 4 years before her death. Finally, in 1987 Dalida successfully took her own life through an overdose of sleeping pills. Immensely popular nearly 20 years after her death, her fans keep her lavish grave surrounded by flowers.

A note of interest, her psychiatrist, died two years later and is buried just down the row from her. His grave is one of the odder monuments there. His family had a plaster cast made of his face an it adorns his grave.

After leaving the cemetery we wandered into a pretty park watched over by a headless statue of St. Denis, the first Bishop Paris. So, the story goes, Bishop Denis was beheaded by the Romans. After his beheading, legend says that Denis picked up his head and walked several kilometres, all the while preaching to his followers, before finally collapsing at the current site of the Abbey of St. Denis. Canonized by the Catholic church, Denis is the patron saint of headaches and stomach problems, celebrated with a feast day on October 9th. The hill of Montmartre takes its name from his and his companions martyrdom (“Mont” refers to the French word for Mountain and “Martre” a Martyr–officially mountain of the martyrs.)

From the little park, we walked to the only vineyard left in Paris. It is owned by the arrondissement government and the grapes are harvested yearly. The wine is sold as a fundraiser for the arrondissement.

As we wandered up and down the hill, we visited a number of artists dwellings including that of Van Gogh and Marcel Amyé.

Marcel Amyé is a famous French write who wrote the tale of “The Man Who Could Walk Through Walls” (Le Passe-Muraille). In the book, Dutilleul, a civil servant who worked for the Registry Ministry, discovered that he could walk through walls due to a problem with his thyroid. After a number of adventures, Dutilleul accidentally took some medication prescribed by his doctor to correct the conditions and found himself stuck in a wall after a tryst with a new lover. A statue (of sorts) honors Amyé’s character outside Amyé’s former home.

As you wander through Montmartre, you get unexpected tantalizing glimpses of Sacre Coeur as you get closer to the top of the hill.

But, before you arrive at the Basilica, you wander through a square of active artists selling their paintings.

Finally, you arrive at the top of Montmartre. On top of the highest hill in Paris rests the Basilica of Sacre Coeur. Sacre Coeur is relatively new, having only been finished in 1914 on the eve of WWI. In addition to it’s perpetually white, self-cleaning edifice (it’s built of travertine stone containing calcite which whitens when it gets wet), it’s world famous for the mosaics that decorate the inside. Sadly, it’s original stained glass windows were blown out due to bombings of the surrounding areas during WWII. While quite stunning, the stained glass windows are not original. Sacre Coeur is also know for having the longest running prayer service without interruption in existence (The Perpetual Adoration of the Sacred Sacrament). It begin August 1, 1885 and continues today, day and night.

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