Exploring The Only Street in Paris

You know that feeling when you’re completely immersed in a book you’re reading that you can totally picture what the characters look like and imagine exactly where they are?

Last December, a book I was reading came to life.

It was ‘The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs’ and it completely influenced how I spent my very first weekend in the world’s most romantic city.

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The book is written by former New York Times Paris bureau chief Elaine Sciolino, a long-time resident of Paris who recounts how she discovers what becomes her favourite street, and her earnest pursuit to learn everything she could about the neighborhood through the stories of its residents and merchants. There are hardly any pictures, just entertaining anecdotes beautifully written and strung together to give you snippets of daily life on rue des Martyrs.

“Some people look at the rue des Martyrs and see a street. I see stories.” Sciolino writes. A corner away from rue Victor Masse where we stayed, the moment I set foot on the street, it was as though I entered the most magical street in Paris in dream state.

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Rue de Martyrs is in South Pigalle, just southwest of the Basilica of Sacre-Coeur at Montmatre. It’s only half a mile in length, mostly uphill and filled with quaint shops, restaurants and cafes run by lovely Parisians.

Our first stop: food. French food.

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“Bistrot 82 is gritty, messy and mostly for the young. It is the closest thing on the rue des Martyrs to what was once rowdy, out-of-control Montmartre.”

“Bonjour madame!” I say, trying my best to sound authentic, less foreign. I vaguely recall one of the merchants in the book who loathed tourists who just come in to their store without saying bonjour.

“Bonjour!” the waitress greeted and continued conversing in French. I very quickly ran out of things to say as my French is limited and consists mainly of various types of cheeses and pastries.

We were at No. 82 Le Bistrot de Martyrs ready for our escargot, onion soup and steak frite fix – and we weren’t disappointed. In fact, it was just as how I imagined it, kinda dark and seedy but also kinda cool and trendy with random interiors.

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“Ah! You have the book!” the waitress says, “Can I see?”

“Of course,” I told her, “This is why I’ve come here.”

Intrigued yet skeptical, she flips through the pages.

“Do you know her?” I ask.

“Yeah!” she nods, “She come here.”

“She wrote about this place. And Momo, the owner.” I replied.

“Yeah he’s my boss. Wait.” She said and hands the book back to me.

Oh.my.friggin’.god. I thought. Momo is going to come out of the kitchen and were going to have a wonderful conversation about the book, and his life and he’s going to personally give us a history lesson over a bottle of wine of how life has changed on rue de Martyrs.  

But alas, she came back only to serve our food and made her way back to the bar.

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Just across the street was the transvestite cabaret Michou. It smelled of cigarette butts and days old booze – very much like a good night out.

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“From the outside, Cabaret Michou looks like a Montmatre tourist trap from a bygone era. The entrance screams cheap.”

According to Sciolino, this guy named Michel Georges Alfred Catty, known as Michou, started this transvestite cabaret at No. 80 rue des Martyrs nearly six decades ago, long before the term “drag queen” was used.

Brilliant. I love cabaret and theatre shows. French drag? Why not, I’m sure they’re gorgeous as hell. In an ideal world, I would’ve pre-booked dinner tickets and secure seats because much to our dismay, all shows were sold out.

I couldn’t be sad about not watching a drag show for more than a minute because I was literally walking up the street I had read about a week ago, in a city I’ve always dreamed of visiting. I was too busy taking in everything I can, desperately wanting to take those moments and stick it in jar somewhere so I can never forget them.

Further up the street, was the thrift shop called ‘CHINEMACHINE’.  Arianna Huffington once shopped there with her daughter.

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“Cheaper than a psychiatrist.”

The place was bigger than it looked.

It felt like I had just entered a big vintage costume shop filled with colorful dresses, thick jackets, vintage bags and shoes and old jewelry. It wasn’t really my style so after sniffing around for potential gifts, and trying on thick fur coats, we made our way out and headed towards the Basilica.

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We decided that on the last day, we would spend a little bit more time on the bottom part of the street and take one last walk.

It was early Monday morning and not a lot of shops were open.

Nevertheless, we managed to pick up some sausages from the butcher…

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Saw the famous butter as photographed in one of the chapters…

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Tasted various sweets and left with fancy bottles of olive oil, truffle salt and spreads to give as presents to family…

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Passed by the bakery…

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And swung by the bookstore.

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I might not have met Sciolino or any of her friends but rue de Martyrs was everything I could hope for and I would want nothing more than to have the spirit of the street live forever.

-ET

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