COVID canceled Montmartre’s Harvest festival parade this year; the cobbled streets of Montmartre are empty, but Parisians and Irish Expats rediscover Montmartre with their favorite guide.

Long ago the hills of Montmartre were covered in grapevines and every year, for the past 87 years, Montmartre hosted a harvest parade and festival in October. However, due to the pandemic, this year the festival has been greatly diluted. For the first time in 87 years, the parade won’t step out, however, people can still enjoy visiting “Clos Montmartre”, Paris’s only remaining vineyard, and other festivities from 7-11 October. The Parisian wine is definitely no Grand Cru, but celebrating its harvest is good traditional fun.

In previous years the festival attracted around 250,000 tourists, many of whom marched behind Montmartre dignitaries in the festive parade. Brass bands and the dignitaries led the way with great pomp and ceremony from the vineyard on Rue des Saules, winding their way down to the town hall of the 18th district, through Rue des Abbesses, which was once again immortalized in “The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain” ( 2001 film), starring Audrey Tautou.

In former years you would have spotted a pretty slight Irish woman, Eileen Grison, decked out with her colorful sash marching proudly in the festival parade. Eileen has been living in Paris for two decades and has made Montmartre her home. Passionate about her neighborhood, and initially showing her family and friends her favorite and often secret Montmartre spots, she was subsequently encouraged by friends to set up professional tours. In Ireland, after graduating with a degree in Italian and Cultural studies she then worked as a tour guide for CIE. In 2012 she created her company “Lingo Immersions”, offering Walking Tours of Montmartre. As someone who “loves all things culture and travel-related” and has completely immersed herself in the culture of Montmartre, she was great at the job and hasn’t looked back since. I recently took one of her tours: “My Famous Artists of Montmartre” and had a fantastic day out.

Eileen’s clients love journeying back in time with her and hearing about the early, heady days of the illustrious Moulin Rouge and soaking up the village atmosphere of Montmartre. She explains why during the Belle Époque, (approx. 1871 – 1914) Montmartre appealed to famous artists such as Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, and Renoir. In fact two necessities; accommodation and wine were both cheap! Montmartre at that time was considered to be outside Paris, and thus exempt from Paris’s wine tax. A lively bistro and cabaret scene flourished, around the jovial artists, models, and Cancan girls, and to this day Montmartre still offers a scintillating nightlife.

People on Eileen’s tours enjoy watching today’s artists at work in ‘Place du Tertre, (translation: the square at the top of the hill) selling their canvases and offering portrait sessions. At about 426 feet Montmartre is Paris’s highest hill. The first of Paris’s beautiful monuments tourists often spot on the drive in from Charles de Gaulle airport is the famous, white Sacré-Cœur basilica situated at the top of Montmartre.

Word spread about Eileen’s passion and knowledge of Montmartre and the reputation of her tours grew leading to her being bestowed with the title “Deputy of the Republique de Montmartre”. Her role is akin to that of an ambassador - it is her job to share the heritage and history of Montmartre and she wears her well-merited blue and yellow sash with pride.

COVID has broken so many Parisian’s spirits, and people working in the tourism and hospitality sectors have been particularly affected. After weeks of newly spiraling Covid-19 rates across the country, from 28 September, until further notice, the early closure of bars and restaurants (10pm) is now mandatory in Paris. In Montmartre and neighboring Pigalle, areas which normally never sleep, the loss of late-night custom is crippling for proprietors, especially on the back of the recent lockdown.

However, COVID has not been able to get the better of Eileen. Over the past months, limiting the number of people per tour, with face-masks obligatory, and maintaining social distancing, Eileen has been going about her business. While waiting for foreign tourists to flock back to Paris post-COVID, she invites Expatriates and Parisians to step out and enjoy Montmartre’s cobbled streets, for once so unusually calm and quiet. Her tour takes 1h15, for the extremely reasonable price of 20€ per person.

I live near Montmartre and go there on a regular basis but I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed my day out with Eileen and a few ladies from the “Mná na hEireann” group. Eileen avoids the more touristic routes and managed to reveal hidden treasures of bohemian Paris even to us Parisian “lifers”. Montmartre still has the village atmosphere of yore and Eileen lives just a stone’s throw from Sacré-Cœur and the Moulin Rouge and is privy to lots of interesting and funny stories about the famous inhabitants of Montmartre, and she generously shares her local insider knowledge of good shops and restaurants. Her tour with us Irish women took twice as long as usual, and the banter and craic were mighty.

At the end of the tour, in keeping with the solidarity between the “Irish in France”, and because it’s a terrific Irish pub, Eileen brings her groups to Corcoran’s Sacré-Cœur to drink and be merry on their terrace flanking the famous steps leading to the Basilica.

Before we headed home, a couple of us popped into the Basilica to light a prayer candle. Eileen who has even researched the irregularities in votive candle pricing at churches in her area pointed out we could have a better devotional bargain at Saint Rita’s church opposite the Moulin Rouge which offers longer burning candles for lower prices. However, since everything else had been great value, we splurged on large expensive Sacré-Cœur’s candles, praying that COVID would soon be a thing of the past, and doing our little bit to upkeep the roof of the beautiful Basilica in the absence of its usual throngs of tourists. It’s one of my favorite Parisian monuments and when returning to Paris; I always yearn for that first glimpse on the way in from the airport.

When life and travel get back on track, reach out to Eileen eileengrison@hotmail.com - www.lingoimmersions.wordpress.com, for an authentic tour of Montmartre, the tour that even Parisian "lifers" choose to take.

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