The windmill in Montmartre known as the Moulin de la Galette is in fact one of a pair, but only one is visible and accessible these days. Together they once formed the venue for a weekly dance that was hosted by the milling family Debray in the 19th and 20th centuries. They acquired the site for very little in the early 19th century, when the windmills were in a very sorry state. The two windmills are actually called le Blute-fin and le Radet, but the venue created by the Debrays became known as la Galette because that is what was served there (along with donkey milk, and later, the sour local wine...). The windmill we can see is le Radet, gutted of its milling equipment and moved here in 1924 when the Debrays opened a restaurant and put the windmill on top. The singer Dalida was a regular in the 1980s, and her table has been preserved.
|Le Moulin de la Galette in 2002.|
Montmartre is on a butte, outside of Paris proper, and these two windmills are the last survivors of a group of twenty-five on the hill. In the 19th century the Debray family used to claim that their windmills were built in 1295, citing as evidence the date scratched into the wood on the gable. But other sources indicate that they were probably constructed in 1621. But there may well have been windmills on the site earlier, and the spot was certainly used as a lookout in the 14th century. By 1834 the Debray family opened their property as a dance venue on Sundays and holidays, from three o'clock in the afternoon until nightfall. This sort of pop up venue was known as a guinguette, and the dances were referred to as bals populaires. The place was officially named the Moulin de la Galette from 1895, by which time milling activities had been abandoned for twenty-five years, and in 1914 the venue opened four days a week. On Tuesdays, actors and actresses, often well-known, would come in droves to eat galettes washed down with a glass of muscadet.
In the first half of the 19th century Montmartre was home to winemakers, ploughmen, quarrymen and millers and it was an established tradition for mills to also act as the venues for cabarets or dances. These cabarets had a bad reputation due to the quarrymen getting a bit carried away, and because the quarries offered shelter to thieves and vagabonds who also frequented the cabarets. By the middle of the 19th century Parisians were making the trip up to the more rural Montmartre to walk in the vines and hang out in bars or guinguettes and dance halls. The enterprising millers used their donkeys, which during the week were carrying flour down to the city, to carry tourists up the hill.
Initially the festivities at the Moulin de la Galette were held outdoors, in the courtyard between two of the three windmills owned by the Debray family, but over the years it developed into something more like an outdoor fun fair attached to a big covered ballroom decorated with chandeliers and potted palms. On top of the Blute-fin windmill was a wooden platform where tourists could sit and look at the view over Paris. The Blute-fin is still in its original position and in working order (the last of its kind in Montmartre) but privately owned and not open to the public.
Auguste Renoir, who lived in the area, painted the by then gaslit scene at the Bal du Moulin de la Galette in 1876, and the painting now hangs in the Musée d'Orsay. By the end of the century, many painters who would become famous had frequented the place, and several famous cabaret dancers made their debuts at the Moulin de la Galette. The management was strict about ejecting drunkards and women were expected to be smartly dressed and behave with decorum (no soliciting...).
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