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Le Clos Montmartre

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Paris' only remaining vineyard in the heart of Montmartre.

04/03/2008
Le Clos Montmartre

Nestled on the Butte Montmartre, one of Paris' most secret gardens is its only remaining vineyard.  Back in the Middle Ages, this vertiginous hill--like most hills in France--was covered with grapevines.  The first vines had been planted by Adelaide de Savoie, the sister of the pope, in the first half of the 12th century.  The Abbey of Montmartre, which became one of the richest in France, continued cultivating them and making wine for the profit of the Abbey.  In the late 1400's, ruined by war, the nuns were forced to sell off their land.  Commercial winemakers took them over. 
Cabaret Le Lapin Agile
In 1576, a sort of prohibition movement was led in Paris by a group of bourgeois merchants.  Wines entering the city were heavily taxed, and drinking establishments were harassed.  It was at this moment that cabarets, such as the Lapin Agile (still in existence, photo left) and bars began to flourish in Montmartre, which at the time was outside the city limits.  At the time, the wine of Montmartre didn't even need to travel to Paris in order to get drunk!  The butte of Montmartre was home to several distinct appellations: Sacalie, Clos Berthaud, Sauvageonne, Vigne de Bel-Air, and the prized Goutte d'Or (Drop of Gold).  (These appellations corresponded to various parcels of land, as do all French appellations, not to grape varieties.)
Clos Montmartre viewed from museum Montmartre
But in 1860, Paris annexed Montmartre.  The prohibition fad had passed, but the pressures of urbanisation, together with the phylloxera blight on the vines, forced the vineyards--with the exception of a few trellises here and there--out of existence by the beginning of the twentieth century.  Then, in the early 1920's, a public hue and cry began against the urbanisation of the Butte Montmartre.  The artist François Poulbot led an effort to save the garden of singer and comedian Aristide Bruant (best known as the man in the black hat and red scarf in the famous Toulouse-Lautrec poster) from a real estate development plan.  As a result, the Clos Montmartre was estabished as public land, and planted in vines in 1933 to honor its heritage.  The following year, the first vendange (grape harvest) of the reborn Clos Montmartre was celebrated, as it has been ever since, in the middle of October.  Today, the harvest is a celebrity event, and sale of the wine goes to charity.
Metro Lamarck-Caulaincourt
To discover the vineyard of the Clos Montmartre, take the #12 Métro line north of Place Pigalle to the Lamarck-Caulaincourt stop.  Go up the steps in the photo and follow the signs for the Musée Montmartre.  You will feel as if you were in a French San Francisco as you climb the Butte Montmartre.  Make sure to look around as you walk.   The Butte Montmartre is one of the most charming neighborhoods of Paris, full of individual houses that have lots of character compared to the homogenous Hausmannian apartment buildings lining the streets of many arrondissements (including mine).

maison de charmeStumbling on the vineyard took me by surprise, as I was actually trying to find the Jardin Sauvage St-Vincent, which, it turns out, while right next to the vineyard, is only open on Saturday (I was there on a Thursday).  But the sight of the vineyard almost made me forget about my search for this garden.  Situated on a very steep slope, its vines were still dormant. But numerous stone terraces were planted with spring flowering bulbs and rock garden plants, all of which were in brilliant flower.  And in the center of the vineyard was the most beautiful vine-covered structure that resembled nothing so much as the fantastical etchings of garden cabins by François Houtin.
Cabanon
The effect was almost hallucinatory, except for one thing.  I didn't actually get to see the vineyard from the street as it appears here in my photo.  I had to peer through the grillwork of a 6-foot-high fence which surrounds the entire wonderland.  I was able to take photos only by inserting the lens of my camera through the wire mesh.  Feeling like Alice in Wonderland peering through the keyhole of the door she was much to big to enter, I searched desperately for an opening in this forbidding fortress.  I found the gate alright.  It was firmly locked with a stern "Entrée Interdite" sign attached to it!

jardin du musee de MontmartreMaybe, I thought, you could access the vineyard from inside the Montmartre Museum, which was just above it.  I walked up to the museum and bought an ticket.  But alas, I was informed the vineyard is never open.  Nevertheless, I visited the museum.  From the boutique where you buy your ticket, you traverse this small garden (photo right)  to the actual museum, which is in an old house at the back, overlooking the vineyard.   It is delightful, a small jewel filled with paintings and posters from the heyday of Montmartre, as well as all sorts of absinthe paraphernalia and old photos of famous cancan dancers.  From the windows, there are beautiful views of the forbidden vineyard.
Vineyard viewed from museum
You also can catch glimpses into the secret gardens of several of the surrounding homes, as well as a stunning view of the icing sugar castle that is the cathedral of Sacré Coeur (photo below right).


By now I was feeling more and more like Alice, not least because I'd spent a long time in the museum looking at the original painting of le Lapin Agile (the agile rabbit), who in his cockiness reminded me completely of he owho lived 'down the rabbit-hole.'  Plus, there's something about the paintings on view in the museum that make you feel as if you just downed a shot of absinthe.
sacre coeur
Resigned to never being able to enter this particular secret garden, and bemused and a bit entranced by the gaze of the agile rabbit, I left the museum and wandered down to poke my camera lens as best I could through the wire (after complaining in best French hot-head fashion to the museum staff about that windowless fence).  I twisted my camera this way and that, my nose twitching to no avail to catch a whiff of the flowers from afar.  
rocaille de vignoble de montmartre

Montmartre, for all its reknown, is a part of Paris  that I usually avoid. Busloads of tourists throng the square near the cathedral, especially in summer.  And the cheap businesses that have sprung up to serve them lend a tawdry atmosphere to this otherwise beautiful neighborhood.  Yet, I'd never been in this  little corner of Montmartre, which on this particular day seemed almost eerily quiet.  I felt more as if I were wandering the deserted streets of a country village than one of Paris's best-known quarters.  Of course, Montmartre--only relatively recently a part of Paris--actively maintains a degree of autonomy and is proud of its sense of village identity.  This, together with the fact that it is perched so high above the rest of the city, imbues the backstreets of Montmartre with a strange timelessness. 

lapin agile derriere reflet
As I passed once more before the "Cabaret Artistique" , the agile rabbit gazed down at me through a reflection of spring branches.  
He appeared more than ever to inhabit a land existing only through the looking glass.  Holding his intoxicating bottle aloft like a secret potion (Drink Me!), he was both inviting and daring me to follow him down the rabbit-hole to the secret garden entrance that only he knew about.













Vignoble de Montmartre

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