It all began with a headless preacher…
Plug-Inn is conveniently nestled in the heart of the historic Montmartre district of Paris, which owes it name (mountain of the martyr) to the patron saint of France, Saint-Denis who was decapitated on the hill around 250 AD. After being beheaded, Denis was said to have picked up his noggin and walked with it for six miles, all the while preaching a sermon, before finally dropping down dead in the town now appropriately known as Saint-Denis (We can neither confirm, nor deny this).
Historically Montmartre was a rural village perched high atop a hill, outside of Paris city limits, home to vineyards and over thirty windmills (only two of which remain), overlooking the eminent city. But despite its agrarian nature, the areas lofty location afforded a view to an often disputed city and made it an opportune site to base attacks on the city during times of war. Montmartre was the base of Henry IV’s artillery during his attempt to seize Paris from the Catholics in 1590 and was also occupied by the invading Russians amid the Battle of Paris in 1814 which ultimately saw Napolean forced to abdicate.
As Paris’ population grew rapidly throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries and the old city walls were torn down, those forced to leave the increasingly expensive city sought home in its surrounding villages. Since it was outside of Paris borders and free of the city’s taxes, and owing in large part to its numerous vineyards, Montmartre became a popular destination (and drinking area) for those seeking to a life outside the city. By the time it finally became annexed into Paris’ newly established 18th arrondissement in 1860, the village on the hill’s inexpensive accommodation and distant location had led to a new working-class urbanization of Paris’ expanding northern limits. Despite its citifying over the course of the late 19th century, the neighbourhood retained its distinct narrow streets, rustic windmills, and more importantly, it’s vineyards, which were now joined by a host of dance-halls, cabarets and cafe-concerts.
The windmills of the Moulin de la Galette (83 Rue Lepic) expanded into a dancehall and cabaret, becoming a symbol of the area’s new bohemian culture and playing host to, and being depicted by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent van Gogh, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Pablo Picasso among others. The ‘Butte’ as it became known and its ‘petits boulevards’ – coined by Van Gogh in contrast to the ‘grand’ boulevards of the 8th arrondissement – were home to not only Van Gogh, Picasso and de Toulouse-Lautrec but other young avant-garde artists such as Emile Bernard, Louis Anquetin, Camille Pissarro, Johan Jongkind, Suzanne Valadon over the course of the mid and late 19th century, and was the birthplace of both Maurice Utrillo and Gen Paul.
Replacing the Latin Quarter as the focal point of Paris’ artistic and intellectual community, Montmartre boasted a thriving, underground revolutionary culture driven by its critique of decadent French society. The liberal reputation of the neighbourhood lured thinkers, musicians, artists and writers from across Europe and the United States to the area as the crude, often subversive performances and satires mocked the bourgeois and increasingly corrupt politics of the new Third Republic.
Montmartre also played a prominent role in the short lived, socialist Paris Commune, which governed Paris for a two-month period in 1871. The radical uprising from Paris workers, demanding a self-governing, democratic Paris led to armed conflict between radicals, including the Mayor of Montmartre and future French President George Clemenceau, and the French government. Montmartre, which had long been free of the Paris tax system as well as it’s stringent city policing, had proved fertile ground for non-conformists and dissenters alike and as such gave birth to many radical workers clubs and political action committees, reflecting the interests of it’s working-class population. The civil war, which cost the lives of close to 1000 Communards fighting for a separation between religion and state; rent remission, postponement of debt and feminism amongst other social democratic decrees, was ignited by the successful defence of 150 cannons stored in Montmartre by the radicalized peasants.
The eventual downfall of the Commune also gave rise to Montmartre’s most prominent attraction, the Sacré-Cœur Basilica, which although dedicated to the honour of the lives lost during the Franco-Prussian War, was also symbolically constructed on the site of the Communes first insurrextion and specified by the Archbishop of Paris in 1873 to ‘expiate the crimes of the Commune’. Constructed between 1875 and 1914, the Basilica served as much as a political and cultural monument as a religious one, by crowning the city’s most rebellious neighbourhood a spiritual renewal. While upon its conception it was considered an incitement to further civil war, the Basilica has since come become one of France’s most popular attractions.
Another of France’s internationally recognised symbols also lies walking distance away from Plug-Inn. Historically located between the class divide at the north of Paris’ wealthy 9th arrondissement and the bottom of the “butte”, the Moulin Rouge offered entertainment varying from donkey rides to tightrope walkers for a more upscale clientele. It’s name alone, the Red Windmill, as to be dissociated from the white flour producing windmills at the top of the hill, eluded to a more debaucherous departure for the area, which boasted numerous brothels at the turn of the century. While the beatnik movement of Montmartre had begun as a critique of a decadent society, by the turn of the 20th century, it had itself become a symbol of decadence itself.
The lower part of the butte was (and still is) home to a vibrant red light district to go along with cabarets such as the Moulin Rouge and Le Chat Noir, both of which regularly played host to some of the generation’s most renowned performers and artists including; Yvette Guilbert, Marcelle Lender, La Goulue, Georges Guibourg, Mistinguett, Fréhel, Jane Avril, Damia and Aristide Bruant (who our street is named after). While Le Chat Noir in its many incarnations is now confined to history, the Moulin Rouge is still a prominent part of contemporary Montmartre and its fin de siecle decor still harkens back to the spirit of 19th century Montmartre.
The enduring appeal of Montmartre however owes as much to its bohemian legacy as it does it’s representation in late 20th century cinema. The area was the settling for the biographical film of famed French singer Edith Piaf, La Môme and both big screen versions of Moulin Rouge. However it’s is the quaint portrayal of contemporary Montmartre in the romantic comedy Amélie which draws many visitors to the historic village. Plug-Inn is situated right in the middle of Amélie’s Montmartre, with the Cafe Deux Moulins where she worked, situated just around the corner on Rue Lepic (15). Around the other corner on rue Tholozé (10), is the oldest cinema in Paris Studio 28, also frequented by Amelie, and both the metro station Abbesses and the grocery store Au Marche de la Butte (Passage des Abbesses) -both featured prominently in the film- are less than a 2 minute walk from our front door.
*Amelie also ‘lived’ close by on Rue des Trois Freres, for those taking note.
In addition to it being home to both the Moulin Rouge, the Moulin de la Gallette and the Cafe Deux Moulins, Rue Lepic was also home to Van Gogh, who lived at number 54 and painted the rooftops of the ancient street during his stay in Paris. The origins of the ancient street which leads from Blanche up to the Sacre Coeur, go back to 1809 when Napoleon visited Montmartre on horseback. Finding the journey uphill particularly arduous, the Emperor ordered the construction of a road suitable for both horses and carriages. At Rue Lepic’s highest point (a tall order for Napoleon, a ten minute stroll for the rest of us) in the shadows of the Basilica, lies Place du Tertre, a reminder of Montmartres artistic history. Although today the square is filled with street artists and caricaturists, L’Espace Salvador Dali, a museum dedicated to the work of surrealist Salvador Dali can also be found just a few steps away. Another cabaret and favoured spot of struggling artists such as Modigliani, Utrillo, Apollinaire and Picasso, Au Lapin Agile (immortalised on canvas by the latter) can also be found intact at the top of the butte.