Carnet de Voyage: A Festival to Remember

Carnet de Voyage: A Festival to Remember

Travel notes from the real France. Carnet de Voyage is a weekly personal travel story in France sent in by readers. If you’d like to write a story for Carnet de Voyage, head here for details on how to submit.

A vineyard in Paris? It seemed unlikely. A Grape Harvest Festival as well? In Paris, France’s most populous city and Europe’s second-largest urban centre? No chance!  

But so it was that my first solo trip to Paris serendipitously coincided with the annual Montmartre Grape Harvest Festival (or the Fête des Vendanges de Montmartre). Intrigued, I read that as part of the festival, “wine and gastronomic brotherhoods will come from all over France and border countries to represent their exceptional products!”.  

With a history of 90 years, the festival was first created to support one of the last active vineyards in Paris. Although its quality is somewhat disputed, the wine from the annual harvest is sold at auction, and its proceeds go to the local Montmartre Association. So popular has it become that it is now the third most attended event in Paris, after Paris-Plage and Nuit Blanche.  

By happy chance, I was fortunate to experience the festival first-hand, for a few glorious, blue-skied October days. Despite the inevitable throng of tourists, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the festival had a genuinely local feel, with small food and wine stalls coiled around the top of Butte Montmartre. In Place du Tertre, the throbbing heart of Montmartre, close to the Sacré Cœur, the crowds were at their peak. Jovial tourists bustled to sit in the cafés to soak up the ambience or posed for portraits with the local artists. Nearby, a Bollywood film crew attempted to blend into the crowded streetscape.  

Flags of the Brotherhoods © Dianne McHugh

As I wandered the back streets, I stumbled on a quite different, equally impressive, quieter side to Montmartre. With only a smattering of (lost) tourists, I could explore the cobblestone winding streets and admire the ivy-covered buildings. I retreated to a small café and later to the Musée Montmartre.  

The Musée, a lovely, peaceful haven with a beautiful garden, was built in the 17th century and is the oldest building in Montmartre. Many artists used to live and meet here, including Auguste Renoir. The recreated atelier-apartment of Suzanne Valadon, Maurice Utrillo and Andre Utter, who also once lived and worked here, is a unique gem, set up, seemingly, as if the artists had just left.   

Located on the side of the Butte Montmartre, the museum overlooks the vineyard. Standing below me, in an inner courtyard among the trees, I spied a group of people, with their colourful cloaks and gowns, having a convivial lunchtime feast with wine, long baguettes and much cheer. It was like stumbling upon a secret gathering. 

Down the hilly path at the museum’s rear is a lovely view of the vineyard and the more distant Paris cityscape. Although relatively small, the vineyard is obviously of immense symbolic importance to the area. You can also see the Lapin Agile (or the Nimble Rabbit), a famous Montmartre cabaret, a favourite spot for artists like Picasso. Another attraction in the museum’s gardens is the famous swing, “La Balançoire”, that Renoir painted in 1876. 

Renoir’s Swing in the gardens of Musée Montmartre © Dianne McHugh

Over the five days of the Harvest Festival, I admired the views at the Sacré Cœur and dodged the men selling their tourist trinkets on rugs (which were hastily removed as the police approached!); I sat in cafés and relaxed in parks. I also enjoyed the many different events of the festival, including its concerts, street entertainment, walks, visits, and exhibitions, and tasted some of the delicious artisanal and regional products.   

One such event was a small music concert in the gardens of the Hôpital Bretonneau, a fully operational hospital. The front row seats were occupied by the patients in wheelchairs, near some grape vines in the hospital courtyard. The performers, who only looked a little younger than some of the elderly patients, wore bright red robes and strange-looking royal blue hats.  

The singing was light and entertaining and very French, with the audience joining in the sing-along. Some of the slightly more mobile patients danced cautiously with the nurses. It was poignant and inspiring at the same time. The staff and family members hovered over the patients. Everyone seemed very intent on making sure the joy was shared around. It was special for its unusualness and for its decidedly local feel. As a solitary tourist, I felt like a type of voyeur, as an outsider looking in.   

Buoyed by the experience, on my way ‘home’ to my rented apartment at the base of the Butte Montmartre, I bought a baguette and some cheese to have with my wine (and I saw a small dog in a lady’s handbag!). I felt vaguely French and tried to savour the experience.  

Nearly ten years later, the memories of the Fête des Vendanges have stayed with me as a special experience of the thriving village life and community spirit of Paris.  

Read our other Carnet de Voyage entries here.

Concert at the Hôpital Bretonneau © Dianne McHugh

Dianne McHugh lives in Sydney, Australia. A former accountant of over 20 years with the NSW public service, she made the decision to return to university to study a Bachelor of Arts majoring in history and philosophy at Western Sydney University. She has recently published a book on walks in Paris: Paris in 20 Walks: One Arrondissement at a Time and has a travel blog of the same name.  

Lead photo credit : Views over the Montmartre Vineyard © Dianne McHugh

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