The Moulin de la Galette has stood on Montmartre since 1622. It must be one of the most painted and photographed landmarks in Paris – which, as Maurice Chevalier sang, will always be Paris.
In 1784 the Mur des Fermiers Généraux (tax-collectors’ wall) was built around Paris, separating the upper reaches of Montmartre from its lower slopes. Areas outside the barrière or customs post were immediately populated by dance-halls, drinking establishments and places of popular entertainment and Montmartre gained a reputation for pleasure and, of course, crime.
In 1809 a family called Debray acquired two mills on Montmartre for grinding flour: the Blute-fin (from the verb bluter, which means to bolt or to sieve flour ) and the Radet (built in 1717). It was the former that became the Moulin de la Galette, whose name comes from a small bread roll that the Debray millers made and sold with a glass of milk. In 1814 the miller was killed during the Battle of Paris, when Prussian and Russian forces were attacking Napoleon. In 1833, the miller’s son saw greater profit in turning the mill into a guingette (dance-hall) and it became an overnight success. In 1924, to save it from destruction, the Moulin de la Galette was moved from its original site to where it stands today.
In a letter dated 1876 the French writer Émile Zola said, “We rushed off into the countryside to celebrate the joy of not having to listen to any more talk about politics.” He meant to Montmartre, which was still a village with orchards, shops and its two windmills. From the centre of Paris it was just an hour’s walk or could be reached by train. Zola lived the last 13 years of his life on the lower slopes of Montmartre and in 1902 was buried in the nearby Cimetière de Montmartre, where a magnificent tombstone still stands. But five years later his remains were relocated to the Panthéon, where he shares a crypt with Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas.
It was also in 1876 that the French artist Renoir painted “Le Bal du moulin de la Galette” (Dance at Le moulin de la Galette). It depicts a typical Sunday afternoon at the Moulin frequented by working class Parisians who would dress up and spend time dancing, drinking, and eating galettes. Since then the windmill has acted as a lure for every artist and photographer (notable or otherwise) – Van Gogh, Utrillo, Atget, Leprin – who has wandered its lanes.
A recent issue of TimeOut Paris had this to say: “In past times Montmartre abounded in windmills and one of the few remaining today shelters a chic, modern restaurant. It is difficult to imagine a more picturesque corner of Montmartre – several tables are set out in the paved courtyard – and the dishes bear witness to real effort: just taste the pan-fried foie gras with lemon grass and juniper berries and its melt-in-the-mouth beetroot or the juicy suckling pig and its apple puree. Desserts like figs caramelised in muscovado sugar are genuinely artistic compositions. If you only have a small budget, stick to the daily menu (more reasonably priced than à la carte) and be prudent choosing the wine.”
In his chanson “Le coeur de Paris” (1952) the French singer and songwriter Charles Trenet recalled Montmartre’s urchins (poulbots) with archangels’s faces and Montmartre itself asleep in a canvas by Utrillo”, but at its heart is the street:
Le cœur de Paris, c’est les p’tits poulbots
Aux figures d’archanges, aux phrases crues,
Montmartre qui s’endort dans une toile d’Utrillo,
Le cœur de Paris, c’est la rue.
The streets have changed little, even if they are a little cleaner. But there may yet be a distant echo of Maurice Chevalier and the faint odour of a freshly baked galette.