Paris - a Tourist Trap?

photo: place du tertre, montmartre

Tourists 'trapped' under trees in the Place du Tertre.

'Hell' On Montmartre

Paris:- Wednesday, 16. August 2000:- When the sky is especially bright, like it is for the moment, I like to get up as high as I can - anywhere - to see as far as I can, for as long as I can stand it.

This is normal because I mostly see the coin-laundry across the street every time I look out of the window. If I look at the courtyard instead, I see the garbage bins, so the laundromat is slightly more optimistic. Paris has a lot of narrow streets with laundromats in them and one of them is mine.

I don't know which is worse - being in it watching the soapy clothes twirling around, or being in my own place, watching people across the street in the laundromat watching their soapy clothes twirling around.

Back to today's sky. It's a class 'B-plus' right now, with a possible, predicted, downgrade to 'B-minus' or even 'C' sometime this afternoon.

If I want a full-value long-view, I'd better get it right now. If I wait around for the afternoon's 'dramatic shadows,' they are more likely to be ho-hum today.

Montmartre is a fair place to get some long views. There are other places in Paris to get fuller views, but they aren't free or they are further away. Montmartre's advantage is, after I've seen all the long views I need, it has its other views too.

One of them was recently described by a Metropole reader and Café Metropole Club member as a 'tourist hell,' which was a reference to the Place du Tertre. This has stuck in my mind. I must be perverse.

When I go to Montmartre I always start by getting a free ride up the elevator in the Lamarck-Caulaincourt métro station. All the other uphill work on Montmartre is always with the legs, and this starts right outside the métro's exit.

Other people ride up the elevator too, and maybe one or two of these even go up the stairs, but I get to cross the Rue Caulaincourt all by myself.

On a whim I go into the Saint-Vincent cemetery to see how Monsieur and Madame Utrillo are doing. They have one of the few newer marble grave monuments. It is modern and dull and doesn't look like them at all.

Over the cemetery's wall - suitably aged - the tip of the Lapin Agile's roof is visible, and beyond it, part of the house where the little Maurice grew up - now the Musée de Montmartre.

Outside, where the Rue Vincent and Rue des Saules cross, there is a space on the corner suitablephoto: cabaret lapin agile for contemplating the pink cabaret and Montmartre's vineyard. Bring a picnic if you think you're going to pass some time here.

The Lapin Agile cabaret; seen from the little picnic area facing it.

One of Montmartre's little trains has come down the Rue Vincent as I go up it - it started on the south side of the 'Butte,' on the flatlands of the Boulevard de Clichy. I don't know if its passengers can get on and off; all I know is they aren't walking uphill or downhill.

Unless you are on the top of Montmartre, you are going to be doing one or the other. There are a lot of good views to be had from doing this; in almost every direction - around, up, down, and sometimes, far.

Below the Rue Cortot, there never are a lot of walkers around. At the Rue Cortot level, adventurers begin to show up in small numbers. At the Rue du Mont Cenis they look down its stairs and decide against going down them. Second choice, the Rue Cortot, doesn't look too formidable - and this is the way the little train and the city bus come.

Getting to the top on the Rue du Mont Cenis brings it up gradually. If you take the steeper Rue des Saules, it plunges into the 'tourist hell' between one metre and the next.

If you ask me, 'tourist hell' starts at métro Anvers, goes up the Rue de Steinkerque to the Square Willette, up all the stairs to Sacré Coeur. Walking up all of this way earns you some sort of virtual merit badge. The 'top' includes the church's space and the couple of blocks to the west, to the beginning of the Rue Lepic.

Once on top, you find the Place du Tertre, the world's most infamous 'tourist hell.' Okay, let's not mince words here; the world most notorious 'tourist trap!'

The Place du Tertre is a small square off the Rue Norvins. It is surrounded by restaurants and cafés and in its centre artists are closely packed together under its trees, drawing portraits of willing tourists or showing off their 'Montmartre' paintings.

I don't know the whole history on this place, but I read somewhere that 'tourists' have been showing up on top of Montmartre, to look at the artists - and the view! - for more than 100 years.

If you ask me, this must be some kind of world's record for successful 'tourist traps.' It might even be the world's most successful of one of these things.

Obviously, we have a chicken and egg situation here. Who came first? The Parisii, in the third century BC? The Romans, in 52 BC? Or Saint-Denis, carrying his head, about 250 AD? After Attila was rebuffed, maybe the Normans came up here? Maybe it really started with the Exhibitions of 1855 or 1867?

Whenever, whoever it was, there's been plenty of time to spread the word that the top of Montmartre is a 'tourist trap,' even if we only think of fairly modern tourists.

So, today, under this really bright blue sky, I reckon all the people I see around who don't look like they're working here, are tourists. Haven't they heard this is a 'tourist trap?'

I go into and all around the Place du Tertre. The trees - I don't know what kind they are - are providing the right kind of shade. Not dense like the chestnuts, but like a luminous-green parasol. This shade is cool, light green-blue.

Nobody is hawking anything. People are looking over artists' shoulders - do you know how annoying this can be? - watching them render their loved ones, either seriously or as caricatures. There are dozens of these scenes, almost elbow to elbow.

If you just take a quick overall glance, it looks like a square full of postcard stands - the infamous 'tourist trap.' But when I look at details - the people watching, thephoto: place du tertre people posing, the people working - it breaks down into intently individual activities. Nobody looks self-conscious about any of this.

Some visitors cooly sit edge-to-edge on the café terraces, rather than stand up looking over artists' shoulders.

The artists working here are not Edgar Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec or Maurice Utrillo of course. Those guys are all dead. The people working on Montmartre today are all alive.

They have their own galleries displayed, so the public can see what they may get if they 'commission' an artwork. This is how it's done in the 'art biz' - if you see something you like and you can afford it, then you buy it.

There's no 'trap' here. You don't see gendarmes herding confused and unwilling foreigners up the hill; standing around with bayonets fixed, to make sure nobody leaves without spreading a little money around.

In short, all the 'tourists' in this 'trap,' this 'hell,' are volunteers. If they didn't take the little train or the bus, they walked up all the way up here on purpose. Some of them paid fortunes to just get to Paris to do this.

What kind of a 'trap' is it, if the fish see it, and swim into it on purpose?

I don't want to bring this up, but why isn't Disneyland called a 'tourist trap?' I mean, people accept it. The advertising says it is an 'amusement park' so relentlessly that nobody thinks to call the theme parks 'tourist hells.'

In the Place du Tertre I don't see anybody waiting in endless lines to have their portraits done. If there are clowns - doing the silhouette things, playing accordions - at least they look like human beings and not poor sweaty geeks dressed in red and yellow plastic with loopy ears.

I know it can be dreary in the Place du Tertre in winter when it is cold and raining a bit, and it's a strain to be standing around all day outdoors while most of the potential customers prefer to stay warm in any one of the 'tourist trap' cafés lining the small square.

But today, in this weather, everybody is having a good and mellow time; both the tourists and the 'trappers.' The only flim-flam here seems to be the lack of it.

Visitors are not getting ripped-off because they're getting what they came to get here. It's more honest than your average supermarket, where the ingredients are listed in type too small to read.

Is the Place du Tertre charming? This is like asking if the airport at Roissy is charming. It isn't; it's functional. In comparison, the Place du Tertre is charming - look at all the people in it who don't look like red-eyed and harassed cattle dragging baggage around on little squeaky wheels.

Okay, despite all this, the Place du Tertre is not everybody's favorite flavor. This leaves the whole rest of Paris as a 'tourist trap,' and an extremely notorious one at that.

Some people avoid Paris on account of this. But numbers for last year - expected to fall after '98's World Cup football thing - indicate that 73 million individuals visited France, and a large fraction of these did end up in Paris, mostly on purpose.

The estimates for this year so far point to an increase of three or four percent. If this turns out to be true, then not just the Place du Tertre, not just Paris, but all of France is the number one worldwide 'tourist trap.'

There has to be some reason for this. Not everybody is in the market for hand-made while-you-wait portraits, postcards and miniature Eiffel towers.

Frankly I do not know what the answer is. Neither does the Ministry of Tourism. They think Francephoto: rue foyatier is still coasting along on the World Cup hype; or the Tour Eiffel sparklers last New Years Eve.

Instead of waiting in line for the Funiculaire, the parallel Rue Foyatier is nearly as fast, as well as free.

By now, some puffy whiter-than-white clouds are the forerunners of less intensive shade this afternoon. Just about as I always do, I take the Rue Chappe down. It is all steps, so it doesn't have any 'no parking' signs.

It has its iron railings and its own trees. Not a lot of people come this way, either up or down. If the 'tourist hell' is bothering you, this 'road' starts beside the top station of the Funiculaire - so it's no great distance from 'hell' back to old Montmartre.

I take it straight down to where the Rue des Trois Frères makes a little place, and turn right into the Rue Yvonne-Le-Tac so I can go along the sunny Rue des Abbesses and turn down the Rue Lepic and go past its marché part.

There are several lateral streets to the right off the Rue Chappe that are worth strolling around if you aren't in any particular hurry.

In fact, if you start out your visit to Montmartre from the métro stations of Blanche or Pigalle, you might never get as far as the 'tourist trap' part on top unless you are determined to keep tramping uphill all the time.

If you get sidetracked on the way, don't worry. Montmartre's 'tourist trap' will be open on any day you arrive at it. Has been, is, and will be, forever.

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