When you look at the skyline of Paris today, you see a fairly uniform horizon that is largely the result of Baron Haussmann’s urban renewal program, which progressed from 1853 until 1870. Ordered by Napoleon III, it was a crash program to transform an exotic but highly unhealthy medieval city that lacked basic sanitation facilities, such as central plumbing and a sewage disposal network. Haussmann was charged with correcting those deficiencies, as well as the absence of an efficient transportation infrastructure, to turn Paris into a modern functioning capital in which it was safer to live, and in which it became easier for people (and troops) to move quickly from one part of the city to another.
One consequence is that, virtually everywhere you look today, you see the eight story apartment buildings that were thought at that time to be the ideal height for both dwellings and small commerce. The eight story buildings, and a network of broad boulevards, replaced tens of thousands of medieval half-timbered buildings that were ripped out to make way for the improvements. A legal limit of eight stories was imposed in the building codes.
Had you looked at the Paris skyline in 1850, before the renewal project, you would have seen very irregular structures, ranging from one to three stories, occasionally punctuated with buildings that rose to five or six floors. Dispersed among them, you would have also seen something one does not often see in most parts of the world today: windmills. I don’t mean the behemoths that are today’s wind power stations that produce power all over France and elsewhere in the world. I mean the old-fashioned wind turbines with which Cervantes imagined Don Quixote jousting.
For centuries nearly 200 windmills and 100 watermills in Paris had provided the energy to grind grain, saw wood, crush grapes, sift flour, and perform myriad mechanical chores, such as crushing and compacting materials needed for industry. The industrial revolution, with its steam and electric power, rendered them obsolete, so during the urban renewal of Paris those that had survived were either demolished, dismantled, or converted to other uses, such as storage.
What had sometimes been a charming feature of Paris suddenly disappeared, together with most of its half-timbered medieval buildings, and so many of the narrow, serpentine streets of medieval Paris. Collectively, these were some of those unique features of Paris that fascinated Victor Hugo and which he immortalized in novels such as Les Miserables.
Even today, scattered throughout modern Paris, you still find vestiges of medieval Paris. They are easy to discern in some of the names of streets:
r. du Moulin Joly, villa du Moulin Dagobert, r. du Moulin des Prés, r. du
Moulin de la Pointe, r. du Moulin de la Vierge, r. du Moulin des Lapins,
r. du Moulin Vert, route du Moulin Rouge, pl. du Moulin de Javel, r. du
Moulin de la Tour, pompe du Petit-Moulin, r. des Moulins, r. de Deux Moulins
All of the actual windmills for which the above streets have been named no longer stand. But today in the 18th district of Paris there are two genuine windmills that have survived: the Moulin de la Galette, previously known known as Moulin de Blute Fin (fine sift, as with flour). It dates from 1622 and is apparently still operable but privately-owned and apparently never used. It is also not open to the public. It acquired its name when its owners sold biscuits (presumably made from their own flour) to clients waiting for their grain to be turned into flour. The biscuits are known throughout France as ‘galettes.’ At one point it was transformed into a guinguette, and was immortalized by Renoir, who depicted it in 1876 in his renowned painting, Bal du Moulin de la Galette, now hanging in the Orsay Museum. Van Gogh and Utrillo also painted it.
The other mill in Montmartre, the Moulin du Radet, was moved from its original site near-by to the current one at the corner of rue Lepic and rue Girardon in 1934. It has been home to several restaurants and still is one today, where you can dine on classic French cuisine. This one is quixotically named the Moulin de la Galette, apparently intending to confuse everyone.
At the time of the urban renewal, most of the 18th district was not part of Paris and was instead considered a country village that was a suburb, so it was not included in the transformation of Paris. That probably explains, at least in part, the survival of these two windmills.
There is a third genuine windmill that is located near the Longchamp racetrack in the Bois de Boulogne to the west of Paris. It was once part of an abbey built in the 13th century that was destroyed at the time of the French Revolution, then re-built when the racetrack was created in 1856. It is not open to the public and there is no indication that it ever functioned. It is there for the considerable charm of its appearance.
Another windmill known to everyone in Paris and to many others throughout the world is the Moulin Rouge. As a mill it was built be to an advertising insignia of a cabaret during the Belle Epoque in 1895 and rebuilt after a fire destroyed the original buildings in 1915. It is a very successful trademark for the music hall that was the birthplace of the can-can dance, but it was never a functioning windmill. It has a poor cousin in the Auberge du Moulin Vert in the 14th district on the rue du Moulin Vert. Originally there was a genuine windmill of the same name located there, but the original was torn down, and all that you can see today is a scale model of the original placed on the roof of the inn.
If you long to see other vestiges of medieval Paris, don’t miss the two half-timbered houses at numbers 11 and 13 rue François Miron, which date from the 14th century. They are the only two buildings left intact from that era in Paris, and they bring to mind a lot of what had transfixed Victor Hugo. You can also see numerous ancient buildings on the rue Galande next to one of the oldest churches in Paris, St. Julien the Poor, in the fifth district. Most have been modernized, but some date from the fifteenth century, with more from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.