Welcome to the sixth instalment of our There’s Only One Paris participatory short story series! This week’s story takes us to the hilly neighborhood of Montmartre, the former village in the north of Paris and home to cabarets, art studios and small narrow cobbled streets. Learn more about these participatory stories here and read the first story, revolving around the Eiffel Tower at this link, the second story taking place at Musée d’Orsay here, the third story at the Palais-Royal and the Galerie Vivienne here, the fourth story on Notre-Dame here and the fifth on Belleville here.
Before launching into the story I have two special acknowledgements for this week’s story. The first goes to Mona Sonderborg Tompkins who kindly shared the most incredible true life events which feature in parts of this story, other parts are invented …. and some are based on the memories and beautiful commentary shared by Jeanie Meyer, who thoughtfully took the time to send in some lovely descriptions of the Moulin Rouge and Montmartre. An extra thanks to Gail Bosclair of Perfectly Paris who helped name the characters! She rents out wonderful apartments in Montmartre so if you’re looking to fully experience the area on your next trip, contact her!
Next week we are going deep down underneath Paris… to the Catacombs! It’ll be an exciting and spooky tale! Share your thoughts about the place with us either in the posts on Facebook or by emailing!
I hope you enjoy the story!!
There’s Only One Paris #6: The Magic of Montmartre
An evening stroll in Montmartre can have its fair share of surprises!
“That’s a wrap!” said Elin as she set her armful of bags down on an armchair in their hotel lobby.
“Whew, I’m pooped!” said Bente, collapsing into an adjacent chair.
“We did pretty good though, didn’t we?” comment Elin. She sifted through the contents of her bags stopping to admire an item here and there.
“Yes, I’m very content with this year’s finds!” replied Bente. “We can add the Paris Jewelry and Gem Show 2019 to our list of successful fairs!”
“Indeed!” said Elin. “Are you still interested in going up to Montmartre tonight?”
“Oh, yes! I can’t wait!” cheered Bente, perking up from her previously fatigued state.
“Great! Let’s get freshened up and meet back down here, say, at 7pm?” Suggested Elin as she gathered up her bags.
“Sounds good!” confirmed Bente. She peeled herself out of the cushy seat and felt around in her pockets for her key card. ”See you then!”
Elin and Bente had been coming to the Paris Jewelry and Gem Show for years. It had become an annual tradition for the two friends, both jewelry designers back in Denmark. Although they came for work, and had busy days making purchases and contacts at the fair, they always tried to eek out a little room in their schedule for taking in Paris. They hadn’t been up to Montmartre in a while, so when Bente had proposed they spend their last evening there, Elin instantly agreed.
“Don’t you look nice!” complimented Elin when the two ladies met back up in the foyer at 7pm.
“As do you!” said Bente. “We might as well live it up… we’re in Paris after all!”
“And it’s our last night!” added Elin. “You never know what the evening could have in store!”
“Precisely!” said Bente. “Let the magic of Paris decide!”
“Allons-y! Let’s go!” said Elin. And with that the two friends exited their hotel near the Musée d’Orsay and made their way towards the Solférino Métro station.
“I have an idea,” started Bente when they were seated on the subway.
“What’s that?” asked Elin.
“I’ve never been to the Moulin Rouge,” said Bente.
“Neither have I,” said Elin.
“Why don’t we give it a try?” suggested Bente. “We look dressed up enough. It could be a nice way to cap off our stay.”
“Why not?” said Elin. “Plus, I spent less at the fair than I’d budgeted. I have all these left over euros. I suppose I could save them for next time, but you just never know. There’s always a chance we won’t make it to the next fair and the bills would simply be collecting dust in my wallet.”
“A friend of mine just went to the Moulin Rouge,” added Bente. “She said she was mesmerized watching the dancing and singing ensembles in their fabulous costumes with sequins, rhinestones, and feathers. The show has other performers, like ventriloquists, magicians and clowns, but she was raving most about the dancers. She said they were simply exquisite in their flowing chiffons, decorated headpieces and dazzling jewelry. Perhaps the show could give us inspiration for our own creations?”
“Shall we put this down as research?” proposed Elin. “Maybe we can slip the expense into our accounting?”
The two friends giggled and their excitement rose as they traveled north on the old fashioned train of Métro Line 12.
Being interested in the arts, Elin had always admired the prints and posters of Toulouse-Lautrec which starred the multi-faceted characters of the Moulin Rouge. For some time now, she’d wanted to go to the place that had inspired the artist to paint and drawn those eccentric women and men. One can only imagine the stories of the performers who have graced the cabaret’s stage over the decades—stories about love, lust, and loss. Elin wondered if their ghosts were dancing in the wings. Could she get a sense or glimpse of any, or all, of that by just being in the theater or watching the performance?
Elin was dragged out of her thoughts when they arrived at Pigalle station, they’d walk the rest of the way from there. Reaching the street level, they noticed that it had rained while they’d been on the subway. The damp pedestrian median which dissected the wide Boulevard de Clichy was cast in the hazy reflections of the bright neon signs above the street’s shop fronts. Over the course of the 20th century the Belle Epoque cabarets and cafés which had lined this stretch had been mostly replaced with seedier forms of evening entertainment and risqué boutiques. However, the Red Windmill was still turning. The historic cabaret had prevailed and was a testament to the area’s heritage. While it evoked nostalgia of this bygone era, in other ways it perfectly embodied the magic of Paris, both past and present.
“That’s quite the line…” said Elin.
“Uh oh. I hadn’t really thought that we’d need to buy tickets in advance,” admitted Bente.
“I doubt that was required of the theater-goers who came here 100 years ago!”
“Most certainly not!” Despite the seemingly unfavorable odds, the two Danes went up to the ticket booth to check.
“Désolée Mesdames, on est complet,” announced the ticket vendor. Sold out.
“Oh drat!” said Bente, noticeably disappointed
“Ah, it’s okay, Bente, we can always go next time, right?” said Elin, trying to look on the bright side.
“Yes, that’s true,” Bente conceded. “Well, since we’re in Montmartre, let’s go for that walk we’d originally intended.”
“Perfect!” Elin replied cheerfully. Arm in arm, the two friends embarked up rue Lepic, its shops now closed and its residents snug at home on this misty autumn evening.
No need for a map when you can simply lose yourself in the back streets of Paris, especially the ones found in Montmartre. Its lanes were exceedingly picturesque in the evenings, when they were clear of the tourist masses that traipsed around the hilly neighborhood during the day. The ladies enjoyed their leisurely wander around the narrow cobblestoned streets, now glistening in the gentle glow of the area’s sporadic lampposts.
As they ambled, savoring the silence, Bente pondered about how many generations of Parisians had lived, and still lived, on la Butte, as locals referred to the hill. She marveled at the fact they were walking, right then and there, in the footsteps of legendary artists, many of whom, like Toulouse-Lautrec, van Gogh and Modigliani, would not see or enjoy the fame that would sadly only come to them posthumously. They passed the former homes of great painters, the art studio where early 20th-century art was born and a windmill, this time not red, but instead one immortalized by the brushstrokes of the Impressionists.
Their stroll eventually led them to Place du Tertre. Once the main square of the village of Montmartre, today it’s known for its living artists, who, on this drizzling evening, had already packed up their easels, palettes and paint sets. Despite its emptiness, the square still had a special allure… a certain magic.
“Mesdames, venez, venez! Come in!”
The two women turned around to find the beaming face of a waiter, holding open the front door to La Bohème, a restaurant bordering the square. The ladies looked at each other.
“Well, we haven’t had dinner yet,” said Elin. “It’s almost 10pm.”
“Wow! No wonder I was getting peckish,” responded Bente. “I know these places are a bit touristy, but one can’t go wrong with a soupe à l’oignon?”
“French onion soup! That’s perfect for this weather!” Elin concurred. “D’accord, monsieur, une table pour deux. A table for two.”
Stepping inside, the two friends were instantly enveloped by the restaurant’s cozy decor and its warmth, a welcome respite from the cool evening air. The waiter escorted them to a table next to the window overlooking the square, however, they wouldn’t be needing to spend their time gazing outside, they quickly realized that there was a much livelier ambiance inside the restaurant. Not far from where they were seated was a raised stage area upon which was a lively gypsy jazz band and, although the restaurant wasn’t too busy, a few of the other customers were even up dancing.
“How fun!” enthused Bente.
“Yes, I would have never expected this!” added Elin.
“Me neither!” said Bente. “The surprises of our evening continue!”
When the waiter returned, Bente and Elin ordered their two soups and a pichet of red wine.
“Santé! Skål!” The ladies gleefully cheersed when their wine had arrived
Just as they set down their glasses, the restaurant’s door swung open in great pomp. In waltzed a woman, extravagantly dressed to the nines, in pure Parisian black. She was of a certain age, although it was difficult to place what that could be… 60… 70… 80… 90? Whether it was thanks to her large diamond studded sunglasses (yes even at 10pm) or her fur-trimmed cape, she was both timeless and over the top. The waiter rushed to fawn over her.
“Madame Mimi! Bienvenue! Welcome! Your table is awaiting!”
Madame Mimi’s designated table, perfectly positioned to view the stage and watch over most of the restaurant and the square beyond, turned out to be next to Elin and Bente’s. When they’d finished playing their song, the lead musician gave a little bow to welcome Madame Mimi. Moments later, without even having placed an order, the attentive waiter reappeared with a glass of champagne for Madame.
“Merci Rodolfo, tu es adorable!” she cooed.
The waiter returned shortly thereafter bearing two steaming bowls of French onion soup. These looked divinely delicious with their generous layers of gooey gruyère cheese blanketing thick chunks of bread and dense broth loaded with large slices of caramelized onions.
Spoon in hand, ready to dig into their piping hot bowls, the ladies turned around to find Madame Mimi smiling and raising her glass in their direction.
“Merci!” They replied cheerfully before devouring their satisfying soups to the tunes of the modern day Django Reinhardt and his band. As soon as they set down their spoons, Madame Mimi returned her attention to the two accidental tourists.
“Are you visiting Paris?” asked Madame Mimi in an English accent thicker than the French onion soup.
“Yes, we’re from Denmark, but we come to Paris often,” said Bente. “We were hoping to go to the Moulin Rouge tonight, but it was sold out.”
“Ah, le Moulin Rouge, I know it all too well,” reminisced Madame Mimi theatrically.
“Oh really, how so?” asked Elin.
“I was the star dancer there for almost a decade!” she announced proudly. “Those were the good old days…”
Just then the waiter returned to remove their bowls.
“Rodolfo, trois coupes de champagne!” Madame Mimi ordered flamboyantly before Elin and Bente could utter a word of protest. Soon the Danes were being entertained by both the music and Madame Mimi’s vivid tales of her life and times at the Moulin Rouge.
The band members set down their instruments, it was the end of their set. Madame Mimi elegantly sipped the last drops from her coupe.
Dong! Dong! Dong! France’s largest church bell, hanging not even 50 meters away in the tower of Sacré-Coeur, thunderously tolled twelve times.
“How is it midnight already?” exclaimed Elin.
“It’s the magic of Montmartre,” replied Madame Mimi. “It’s a timeless place.”
Montmartre was timeless, Mimi was timeless, but the Métro service was not.
“We’d better get going to catch the Métro,” said Bente as she flagged the waiter for their check. “Unfortunately, we have an early flight tomorrow.”
“Please come up to see us again when you return to Paris,” said Madame Mimi. “The show is up here, not at le Moulin Rouge!”
“Yes, we sure found that out tonight,” said Elin. The two ladies hurriedly put down twenty euros each to cover the bill and waved au revoir to Madame Mimi as they rushed out the door, jackets in hand.
“Quick, I think there’s a Métro station over this way,” said Elin. They scurried down a street that looped around the white-domed basilica. Something twinkling to the right caught their eyes, causing the ladies to stop in their rushed tracks. In the distance was the Eiffel Tower whose hourly evening sparkle-fest was just finishing up.
“Gorgeous!” gasped Bente.
“More of the magic of Montmartre,” said Elin. Montmartre was the highest geographic place in Paris and its views of the sparkling city fiercely competed with those one could admire over on the Belleville hill. However, on that night, the ladies didn’t have time to soak up the vista, they had to hustle.
In seconds they reached the long staircase in front of Sacré-Coeur that seemingly went on forever and ever down rue Foyatier. The steps still glistened from the early evening rain, so the ladies tried their best to descend both quickly and carefully, eyes glued to their feet to avoid slipping. Out of nowhere the steps broke out in flashes of orange and red. They had reached a small landing that divided up the endless steps, upon which was a …. fire-breather! He raised his smouldering stick up to his lips once again and huffed out a giant gust of fire which lit up the sky in front of the Danes and the few other passers-by who’d gathered to witness the awesome spectacle.
Elin was captivated. This wasn’t any ordinary fire-breather either, he was truly amazing. She noticed a donation hat on the ground, so she hastily opened her wallet to give him some money. In the change section she only had a few centimes so she turned to the note compartment. All that was left was a 100-euro bill. She hesitated for a split second, then removed the crisp green note.
“Kom nu! Come on, Elin, are you crazy?” Bente hissed in Danish.
“I have to,” replied Elin. “I don’t know why, but I just have to. Besides, that’s what we would have spent had we gone to the Moulin Rouge… I’m more than satisfied with the alternative show we got tonight!”
Elin put the large note in the hat and looked back up at the fire-breather. In the low light, she could hardly see his face, nevertheless, their eyes met and he made a gesture of thanks.
“Lad os gå! Let’s go!” said Bente. “We have to get a move on… now we won’t have money to take a taxi if we miss the Métro!”
The ladies raced the rest of the way down the stairs. On their left, inside the dark park, was the shadow of an old fashioned carousel. The merry-go-round added a last dash of whimsical allure to their evening of magic in Montmartre.
Unbeknownst to them at the time, a few months later world events would have it that this was the last time the two friends would experience the magic of Paris for the unforeseeable future. Or was it?
“So it’s official,” announced Bente over the phone to Elin. “The Jewelry and Gem Show 2020 has been canceled, as has Minéral Expo.”
As the pandemic spread and travel receded, Elin had the dreaded feeling that their annual trip to Paris would be canceled. She consoled herself by keeping busy with her jewelry creations. After some time, her shop in Århus was able to reopen. Freedom of movement was slowly re-established, however, with their two favorite shows canceled, the women had less of a reason to trek to Paris, although, deep inside them, the city still beckoned.
It was 6pm. Elin turned over the sign on her door to ‘closed’ and went back to run her end of day accounting.
“Ah, maybe that’s Bente.” Elin said to herself as she returned to the door. No, it wasn’t Bente standing on the other side of the glass panel, but a tall dark stranger.
Caught off guard, Elin fumbled for the door handle.
“Hej, kan jeg hjælpe dig?” she greeted.
“Do you speak English?” asked the stranger.
“Of course, what can I do for you?” she responded.
“I’ve just arrived from Copenhagen and am traveling through Aarhus. I have a train tomorrow morning, but your beautiful jewelry grabbed my attention. I know it’s a little last minute, but I was wondering if you might be able to make me a necklace.”
Times had been tough since the crisis and Elin couldn’t really refuse the unexpected sale. Plus, there was something about this mysterious stranger, something that made Elin feel like she’d met him before. The two of them sat down at her counter where he explained his ideas for the design and the colors he wanted to be included.
“How much would that be?” he asked.
“A hundred euros?” replied Elin.
“Okay, that’s fine,” agreed the stranger, pulling out a crisp 100-euro note from his wallet. “I’ll pay you right now.”
“Excellent, it’ll be ready by 10am tomorrow.” They went to shake hands, then stopped midway. No shaking hands these days. Their hands hadn’t locked, but their eyes had. Yes, Elin did know these eyes, eyes which had shone under an orangy-red flare…
“It was you… ” he said, his sentence trailing off.
Yes. And it was him. The fire-breather.
Incredible. However, what had brought him here, to Aarhus, to her shop?
As it turned out, back when Elin had fatefully descended those Montmartre steps and encountered the fire-breather, whose name was Damien, he was totally broke. Despite his dismal finances, he was still hoping to collect enough money to make a video of his fire blowing skills, a requirement to get invited to a prestigious competition in Spain. If his application was shortlisted, he’d be invited to the event, all expenses paid. Time had been running out, the deadline was approaching and Damien didn’t think he would be able to make it in time.
Then, like a message from Vulcan, the God of Fire, he received Elin’s 100-euro note. This was just enough for him to rent a professional video camera. A friend filmed the video, he sent it in and was invited to the competition. Once there, he ended up winning the top prize: a two-month performance ‘Tour of Europe” accompanied by a very generous travel allowance. The trip was delayed due to the pandemic, but it was eventually rescheduled. Denmark was the last stop on the tour. By 10:30am the next morning, he would be on the train back to Paris.
“How did you know it was me,” questioned Elin after hearing his amazing story.
“I noticed the jewelry in your window display,” he explained. “You were wearing a similar necklace that night. It flickered like a sparkler in the light of my fire. It had give me hope.”
When Damien left, Elin marveled over the story as she took special care in making his necklace. Her 100 euros had returned. The city had made its way to her. The flame, and the magic of Paris, would forever burn brightly, no matter where she was…
There’s Only One Paris Episodes
Did you like this story? If you missed the others, you can catch up on them at these links:
You can carry on Explore Montmartre in the following articles:
- Beyond the Moulin Rouge, the Fantastical Cabarets of Montmartre & Pigalle
- Top Romantic Places in the 18th Arrondissement
- Secret Romantic Places in Montmartre the video
- Best Views of Sacré-Coeur
- Best Views of Paris from Montmartre