Discover the fascinating story behind Montmartre’s picturesque windmills in our captivating Christmas walk around the hill
Paris is not the first city that usually comes to mind when one thinks “windmills”.
Hard as it is to imagine, until the beginning of the 20th century the Parisian landscape was dotted with numerous mills, which once numbered more than 300!
An important element of the landscape and a vital aspect of human activity, the mills had a lead role in a society where alimentation was based on milled grain transformed into bread or mash.
These primitive industrial establishments gave a characteristic look to the city, one which never ceased to impress the visiting foreigners.
The history of the windmill is also that of the miller, an important figure of his time, detested and mocked by its fellow citizens who reproached him of getting rich on their behalf.
Even though today most windmills have disappeared for good, we could still admire a few significant examples which diversify Montmartre’s unlikely horizon and take us back to the 16th century.
Long before becoming the hill we know today, Montmartre has been a rural settlement populated by peasants, craftsmen and millers – a village organized around its ancient abbey.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, many mills were erected here. They were used to grind wheat, press grapes, help the locals determine the direction of the wind or crush fibers and other materials for Parisian factories.
A favourite choice for the Sunday walk of the Parisian, the mills served as an inspiration to many of Bateau Lavoir’s painters who featured them in dozens of canvases, the most notable of which being those of Lautrec, Van Gogh, Renoir and Utrillo.
The Palace’s Mill, The Old Tower’s Mill, The Fields’ Mill and the Fog Mill were some of the hill’s fifteen grinders. Interestingly, some mills used to change names in tune with different epochs and owners. So a mill named “The New Mill” when it was erected could easily become “The Old Mill” just a century later.
Of all the windmills atop the hill, only two remain today.
The Radet (83, Rue Lepic) and the Blute–Fin (now part of an Italian/French restaurant located on the corner of Rue Girardon) are the sole survivors, which collectively form the grounds of the legendary Moulin de la Galette, known for its illustrious ball immortalized by Renoir’s painting “Bal du Moulin de la Galette)”.
Not many suspect that Montmartre actually has a third windmill. Located in Montmartre’s cemetery, a small mill is fixed on the grave of a soldier who protected Paris from the Russian army in 1814.
In the history of all the famous mills of the hill, however, there is one which will always be eternal.
Built in 1889, the world’s most legendary cabaret, The Moulin Rouge, had its symbolic red windmill erected as a relic from the time of Louis XIV, when the hilltop was dotted with numerous mills. A visiting Italian poet once observed that the windmills “turned as swiftly as the Parisians’ heads.”
Today The Moulin Rouge still spins its red neon sails night by night and remains a symbol of French culture and Bohemian influence. And it perpetually proves that the hill’s most famous mill hasn’t lost its knack for turning heads yet…