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The musketeers of Pig Alley

Whether by night or day, Pigalle Place ? the famous red light district in Paris ? can be a rip-off, writes Shekhar Iyer.

india Updated: Dec 16, 2006 03:30 IST

Pigalle Place is Paris’s risqué district. A place that, the French like to say, can be daringly close to indelicacy or — depending on how you look at it — great fun. This is the home of anything that can be tagged ‘XXX’. From peep shows to sex toy shops to sex workers to strip clubs — you name it, they’re all here.

The area was captured in all its essence in the 1920s musical Irma La Douce and, more recently, Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge. The neighbourhood, in fact, is home to the city’s famous cabaret and cancan scene. In history, its raunchy reputation earned Pigalle Place the nickname ‘Pig Alley’ during World War II — a one-stop shop for battle-weary soldiers in need for a bit of r ’n’ r.

Erotic escape

Today, a visit to Pigalle is considered to be a walk on the wild side. Unlike many similar districts in Europe, you won’t find sex workers seated like mannequins behind the glass windows of brothels. At 72 Boulevard de Clichy, you spot Musee d’ Erotisme (the erotic museum). And Moulin Rouge, the city’s first show, still draws in as many people as the theatre can hold every night. That’s quite a crowd for a show that’s priced at 175 euros (roughly, Rs 9,975) per head, with a free drink thrown in.

On the northern side, adjacent to Montmartre, you find cheaper options — strip clubs where entry isn’t as high-priced. But as I would discover: once you’re in, you may not be able to get out quite as easily without being ripped off — if not with a black eye as well. My friends did forewarn me: “Don’t let any woman sit on your lap, don’t let anyone drink on your account. In fact, don’t go in, just have a peek from the outside.” We ended up doing the opposite, of course.

Lap-tap routine

At a fairly decent looking establishment close to Moulin Rouge, a woman at the entrance did a namaste and explained what we could expect from our five-euro entrance fee: one dance and one drink at no extra charge. Not a bad deal, we thought.

Once in, we were surprised to find a dingy looking place with very few people. The host ushered my friend and me to separate tables as a dancer began her routine act on the stage. A couple of other girls approached us, urging us to join them. Before we could reply, they began dancing.

Soon, they were asking questions in a convoluted mixture of French and English — we guessed they wanted to know if we liked our drinks. My friend nodded a yes and one of the girls fetched a bottle of champagne. A few minutes later, she ordered another one.

Of course, we were wary now: were we meant to pay for the new bottles too? We decided to leave, telling them we weren’t paying for the extra bottles. She smiled, asking us to speak to the bartender.

The bartender had a thunderbolt in store: we now owed him 800 euros, he informed — the price of all the bottles. Reasoning failed, of course. “You better pay up” — his tone was now getting terse. As if on cue, two bouncers appeared from nowhere and blocked our exit. We cited the woman at the entrance — her namaste and the ‘no extra charge’ punchline.

“Okay, 500 euros and we’ll let you go.” The barman was now yelling, the bouncer-duo menacingly looming over us. We weakly tried to negotiate: “US $100, how about that?” Twenty-five minutes of haggling later, we struck a deal: 138 euros. As we shuffled out, two neighbouring strip bars tried to lure us in. We hauled the first taxi in sight and drove off.

Back at the hotel, the reception clerk had some friendly advice: “Visit the place during the afternoon hours to take stock first, if you plan to catch a show later at night. You should have taken a good look of the neighborhood before getting into any joint.”

Art hub

Lest you think it’s all risqué, Pigalle also has a whole lot of non-sex-related sites. The district at one time was home to renowned artist Toulouse Lautrec, whose portrayal of the Moulin Rouge has been considered one of the most popular displays at Paris’ Orsay Museum. Montmartre is also the place where several other well-known artists lived: Vincent Van Gogh, Salvador Dali, Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Picasso and Maurice Neumont — the list is a long one.

If you take a walk through Montmartre during the day, don’t miss the Place Du Tertre. It’s a cobbled square surrounded by cafés and bakeries — creative inspiration for many artists including Robert Delauney.

If you’re a woman, chances are that local artists will mob you, telling you how beautiful you are and how they would love to make your portrait. Warning: finalise the price before the brush meets palette.

You can get to Pigalle Place by taking a Metro. If you feel shy to go alone, there are several tour groups to guide you. Pick up an ‘Adults only’ brochure at your hotel and make your choice. And it’s a foolish man who loses his money and wit over women and drinks.

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First Published: Dec 16, 2006 03:30 IST