Montmartre, Paris, is a fashionable yet non-commercial escape

My kind of place: The Parisian district is another side to the French capital if you avoid the tourist traps, writes Olivia Gunning Bennani.
The streets of Montmartre, Paris, are filled with cobbles and steps, such as these near the Lamarck-Caulaincourt Metro Station. Atlantide Phototravel / Corbis
The streets of Montmartre, Paris, are filled with cobbles and steps, such as these near the Lamarck-Caulaincourt Metro Station. Atlantide Phototravel / Corbis

Why Montmartre?

There’s a Montmartre apart from the one where tourists traipse up and down the Sacré Coeur’s steps, and it’s that Montmartre that I love. I too find the blanched basilica just beautiful, but there’s more to Paris’s 18th arrondissement.

It’s allowed little of the commercial world in. Non merci to department stores, franchises or multi-screens. Montmartre has held on tight to its local, shabby chic and quirky creativity, and with a smile. Lay aside accusations of French snobbery and sulkiness – Montmartre will prove you wrong.

A comfortable bed

The 18th isn’t a five-star district, so don’t expect all-the-trimmings spa hotels. The best idea is a short-let flat in one of the Montmartre’s adorable apartment buildings. Chances are it’ll be small yet wonderfully laid out with a little balcony. Look out for period features, such as a cheese cavity (cheese wasn’t supposed to be kept in fridges, but in a cool hollow in the wall) or an old-fashioned lift, with draw-across door. It’s fun to do as the French – get up, nip out to a boulangerie, pick up some warm croissants and take them home for a newspaper-and-coffee breakfast. Studios Paris (www.studiosparis.net; 0033 1 4259 4305); prices depend on size and period of travel. Expect to pay no less than €450 (Dh2,264) for four nights.

If you prefer hotel life, Hôtel Particulier (www.hotel-particulier-montmartre.com; 0033 1 5341 8140) is a bijou place hiding out behind a pétanque ground – that odd game that the French cherish. There are only five suites, each of debonair elegance, drawing in a stylish clientele and the odd film crew. There’s an adorable city-style garden, similarly compact-yet-chic restaurant and even a Nordic Bath. Oh and the manager’s a bee fanatic, and does all that he can to ensure the local black bee population lives on – you can buy Montmarte honey here. Suites from €390 (Dh1,962).

Find your feet

You can’t avoid walking in Montmartre, unless you feel like taking the petit train – a diminutive locomotive that jingles through the streets. But what a place to set your feet free, down steps and over cobbles. Seek out Montmartre’s secret gardens – my favourite is the wild Le Jardin Sauvage (Rue Saint-Vincent), complete with nettles and daisies. I also like the tucked-away Jardin Frédéric Dard (Rue Norvins). Also worth the footsteps are the neighbourhood’s very own vineyards (Rue Saint-Vincent), planted on a slope, dating back to 1933. A coffee on La Butte – Montmartre’s famous hill – is worth the steep walk for a congratulatory view of Paris. Then saunter down Rue Lepic, where a couple of windmills still reside. A century ago, these roads were mere tracks edged with several windmills, long before Amélie Poulain swung through.

Meet the locals

Montmartre is blessed with Paris’ first avant-garde cinema. Cinema 28 (www.cinema-studio28.fr; 0033 1 4606 3607) has its own tea room and garden, where you’ll bump into locals before seeing one of a good selection of French movies.

There are tons of playhouses in the 18th and they’re small, reasonable and arty – most tourists go to bigger commercial places. Le Théâtre de l’Atelier (www.theatre-atelier.com; 0033 1 4606 4924) is particularly respected by the locals.

Book a table

There’s masses of good food in Montmartre, often served in little areas where chairs squash together.

Very à la mode with locals is Jeanne B (www.jeanne-b-comestibles.com), a splendid deli and restaurant serving very French cuisine. Set menus from €15 (Dh75). There aren’t many tables and they run out of food on busy days, but it’s definitely worth a visit.

For a really good snack – the French call it a “goûter” – at any time of day, try Café Tabac (Rue Ravignan). It’s red and white, and cosily kitsch. Coffees, teas and juices from €3 (Dh15).

Venture farther afield into the Pigalle area and you’ll find La Maison Mère (www.lamaisonmere.fr; 0033 1 4281 1100). Paris’s best burger place does it French style – using superior ingredients and fine composition, but with a New York twist. The menu is delectable. The aura of this neighbourhood-kitchen is so homely that you’ll feel as though the staff are long-lost family members. Hamburgers from €15 (Dh75).

Shopper’s paradise

Marché Saint Pierre is one reason that Parisians come to Montmartre. Poke around here at the coupons – offcuts of fabulous fabrics – and admire the prints at good prices.

The district is also well-known for its second-hand shops. Rue des Martyrs hosts several favourites.

Above all, pay attention to one-off creators’ shops. All over the quarter, shopfronts show off France’s inventive flair. La Boulangerie (30 Rue des Trois Frères) is a showcase of designers and artists, and exhibitors circulate on a regular basis. I always stop at Petit Pan (10 Rue Yvonne le Tac), which has the most darling garments and accessories for babies in gorgeous prints.

What to avoid

Revolting lines of what resemble hot dogs, but are actually industrial baguettes enveloping an unidentified sausage, capped with yellow splodge posing as melted cheese. Some tourists will eat anything, even in Paris. Don’t be one of them.

Don’t miss

Brimming with oddball shops is the altogether non-touristy Rue André del Sarte. There’s a fantastic offbeat designer boutique Anna Fjord. Just opposite is the curiosity shop Le Monde en Couleurs, which stocks knick-knacks from myriad cultures. Farther down, boho locals dine out at the restaurant Chéri Bibi, strategically placed where tourists don’t know.

Getting there

Etihad (www.etihad.com) flies direct from Abu Dhabi to Paris from Dh4,325 return, including taxes.

weekend@thenational.ae

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Published: May 22, 2014 04:00 AM

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