For over 120 years men and women have been turning up at the Moulin Rouge in Paris to experience the French joie de vivre that was born in the Belle Époque period of the late 19th century. Visitors are greeted by the large red windmill that adorns its roof and which is a mere hint of the adults-only extravagance and exuberance that is found inside.
It was therefore shock when I stepped out the taxi clutching my Moulin Rouge tickets, paid the driver and turned around to see the windmill – and found nothing. I turned back quickly but the taxi was already moving away. I took a minute to compose my thoughts.
"I must have told the driver Montage Mart," I told my husband. My French is not very good, and the driver was not very helpful, so he brought us to Montmarte - the 130 metre high hill close to Moulin Rouge - rather than Moulin Rouge itself.
We asked passersby how to get to Moulin Rouge. They were helpful, but their answers were not welcome.
"Forty minutes walk? But it is already seven, and the show starts at seven," I complained.
But then my mind drifted to the cobbled streets of Paris in 1889 when Moulin Rouge first opened. It was built by Joseph Oller Charles Zidler to capture the mood of Paris at the time - peaceful, fun loving and daring. It was a place where aristocrats would rub shoulders with foreign travelers, and businessmen would dine with artists. They would leave their troubles behind, drink absinthe and feel inspired. It was high society, but it was the antithesis of stuffy snobbery.
With that thought in mind I was sure I wasn't the first well-dressed lady to dash through the streets of Paris on the arm of an equally well-dressed gentleman trying to get to Moulin Rouge on time. That thought steadied my resolve. We made our way down what felt like a million steps at Montmarte, a feat made all the more impressive given I was wearing high heel shoes. We then ran through the streets of the 18th arrondissement, past the enticing art galleries, coffee shops and boutiques, but we couldn't stop. It was a hot Parisian evening and we were tired, but Moulin Rouge was calling.
At just before 7.30pm the spinning red windmill came into view. We crashed through the doors, out of breath and eager, only to learn that we had loads of time - the show doesn't start at 7pm after all. It starts after dinner, which had only just begun, so we had plenty of time. We laughed at the foolishness of our mini adventure, freshened up in the bathroom, and took our seats.
Who Can Can-Can
Once relaxed at our table we could take in the surroundings, and we were not disappointed. It is stylishly decorated and manages to be both decadent and beautiful at the same time.
We were seated near the front at a round table with six other people, where the conversation was fun and friendships were made. The meal was served by waiters wearing white gloves and it included a bottle of champagne - of course, this is Moulin Rouge. They have a number of different menu options to choose from, depending on the show you are going to see. You should not expect award-winning fine dining, but the food was very good.
While we were eating a duo of singers performed softly in the background. All of this made it a pleasant way to spend the first part of the evening - eating great food, drinking champagne and chatting to interesting people while soaking up the atmosphere born in France's "beautiful era".
The show itself started after dinner, and it was fantastic. Of course there is minor nudity, but it is tastefully done. The nudity is an important part of the history of the show, and it adds to the allure, but there is so much going on that you hardly notice.
The main part of the show features a stage full of beautiful women wearing impossibly stunning dresses while singing and dancing. It is explosion of colour, light, sound and movement that keeps you mesmerised.
This was the objective of the founder of Moulin Rouge, Joseph Oller. He was a businessman at heart but he saw a desire in Paris society for high class fun, with a risky twist. That riskiness was not limited to nudity though. Moulin Rouge was a place where extravagant artists like Le Pétomane could flourish. He entertained crowds in the early days of Moulin Rouge with his flatulence. His real name was Joseph Pujol, and he was a professional farter.
There were also clowns and other acts inspired by the circus, in addition to the operetta, the singing and the dancing. English princes, French politicians and European industrialists reveled in this entertainment alongside middle class workers, painters and writers. The latter would get lost in the haze of absinthe, champagne and cigarette smoke and claim that as inspiration for some of their work.
Famous names graced the stage including Lo Goulue (the "queen of the can-can" who could clear glasses from tables while dancing), Jane Avril (the refined lady who became "explosive" on stage and who loved the rowdy Moulin Rouge crowd), Mistinguett (the woman with the "devine legs" who performed at Moulin Rouge in the early 1900s), Edith Piaf (the daughter of a contortionist and one of the most famous singers to have performed at Moulin Rouge) and Collette (the writer / performer who caused a scandal in the early 1900s when she and another actress had a long kiss as part of their routine). They all helped give Moulin Rouge its reputation and kept it going through two World Wars, fire damage and more.
Today's artists do not dimish that legacy. As well as the dancers you will see other performers, although thankfully there are no longer professional flatulence artists treading the boards. Instead you will see acrobatic and other circus-type acts delivered in a classy and entertaining show.
And, of course, you will experience the can-can, the famous dance whose spiritual home is the Moulin Rouge.
Even though our journey to the venue was marred by an errant taxi journey and a high-heel-busting run, we left the Moulin Rouge with a full belly, just the right amount of champagne, a broad smile, and confirmation of the thought that this is a place that everyone has to visit and experience at least once.