Monday, April 6, 2009

Walk Like An Egyptian Tourist in Monmartre

Wed Mar 11, Day III

With apologies to Liam Sternberg and The Bangles, one of my goals on this trip was to not appear too touristy, but Montmartre is such area for sightseers anyway. So, I found out about “Paris Walks” and showed up for their 10:30AM group tour. On their website, it clearly stated what Metro stop to get off and to take the elevator. Well, there seemed to be a big backup at the elevator, so I followed what appeared to be a local, up some stairs. Now, as I mentioned before, locals seemed to bound up and down stairs and this person was moving at a somewhat measured pace. I soon understood why as the stairs continued to wind up a column that seemed to never end. Walking is what I do at home for exercise, so I figured; no problem. Well, I made it OK, but, I sure did feel it!

From my reading, one of the prerequisites to enjoying Montmartre is a sunny day. Something to do with artists and light. Luckily, this was my first sunny day, although it was somewhat hazy. Not wanting to be late, I think I was the first one there and looked around a little while I recalled the reading I had done.

  • On Montmartre: This is the highest point in Paris; 130 meters high in the northern 18e. It is known as the home to the white-domed Basilica of the Sacré Cœur on its summit and as a nightclub district. Montmartre (mountain of the martyr) is thought to be named after martyr Saint Denis (Patron Saint of Paris), who was decapitated by the Romans for his Christian beliefs about 250 AD. As the legend goes, the actual perpetrators did the deed on Montmarte, St Denis, picked up his own head and walked the four miles down to where the Benedictine Abbey of St Denis was founded. There is a statue of St Denis (holding his head in his hands) in Montmartre overlooking a boule court. It was during the latter part of the 19th century that the hill became home to artists and a center of decadent bohemian entertainment. This may have been due to the fact that wine-making was popular among the local inhabitants, that outside the city walls, liquor was free of taxation and rents were cheap. Ironically, today, this area has some of Paris’ most expensive real estate, probably due to the views.

The Tour: Our guide was a transplant from Los Angeles; our group was non too big with quite a few Sheilas, so it was a fun time. We started around the Metro station and worked our way up. An awesome art deco church built here because the parishioners didn’t want to walk up to near the top of the hill.

A hidden off-street garden, an incredibly small retail building, a windmill on top of the restaurant Moulin de la Galette. (More than 30 windmills where once sprinkled on the skyline, only two remain.)

We saw one of the original artist studios façade, the skylights used by artists, where and a little about how famous artists (August Renoir, Pablo Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, Erik Satie, Suzanne Valadon and her son, Maurice Utrillo) lived, and, of course, other tour groups, although not as many as I thought.

The statue of St. Denis and lots of just charming streets with the Sacré Cœur above on the horizon.

On one of these streets, on a small square, a sculpture was commissioned for a modern artist who decided appropriately on Dutilleul.

  • On Dutilleul: From the 1943 short story by Marcel Aymé, “The man who could walk through walls”. It starts: “In Montmartre, on the fourth floor of number 75½ Rue Orchampt, there once lived a fine fellow named Dutilleul who had the remarkable gift of being able to pass through walls with perfect ease.” Not to spoil the story, cause you should read it M. Dutilleul now spends eternity stuck as you see him here (minus me, of course).

We viewed the infamous cabaret Au Lapin Agile, which was originally (about 1855) the "Cabaret des Assassins" because a band of assassins broke in and killed the owner's son. About 1875 the artist Andre Gill painted the sign with a rabbit jumping out of a saucepan, and residents began calling their neighborhood night-club "Le Lapin à Gill", (Gill's rabbit). Over time the name evolved into "Cabaret Au Lapin Agile", or, the Nimble Rabbit Cabaret. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Lapin Agile was a favorite spot for struggling artists and writers including many who (you probably guessed) became famous.

Directly across the street is the Clos Montmartre, the last remaining small plot of local vineyard which produces a small amount of decent wine and is the site of a fun annual grape harvest festival.

Then we see one of the three oldest churches in Paris – St, Pierre de Montmartre. Inside are four marble column supposedly from a Roman temple originally built on the site. The vaulted choir dates from the 12th century, remodeled in the 15th century.

Our penultimate stop was the Place du Tertre, a place for tourists, eateries and street artists who will sketch your portrait. Interesting to me is that here is where the term “Bistro” became a French word for fast food, before evolving into what it is today. It seems the Russian Cossack invaders of 1814 used to bang on the tables and shout “bistro” – Russian for “quick” when the service wasn’t fast enough! Our wonderful tour ends with the transcendent Basilique du Sacré-Cœur, "Basilica of the Sacred Heart". The foundation was laid in 1875; built in Romano-Byzantine style and completed in 1914. It is clearly breathtaking. There is so much written about it, I will just end with: It is built of travertine stone which constantly exudes calcite, this ensures that the basilica remains white even with weathering and pollution.

More Montmartre pics

What views; a walk down the many stairs gets me most of the way to the street level I came in on and I have an idea for a nice inside lunch. When I find the place – “Mon Oncle” is closed; I knock, someone is there and I am there are open in the evening. Undaunted, I check my list and head down a few blocks to #53 Rue des Martyrs “Le Cul d Poule”. I was told it looked a bit like a dump on the outside, but the food was special. I was welcomed warmly, had a marvelous chicken and risotto dish with a lovely glass of white Loire called Touraine. Like so many places, a great value for lunch.

Then, it was a short walk back uphill to the Metro, there was a jazz combo holding forth in the square; not bad either. (There was quite a bit of 'street' jazz in the metro too; in the passageways connecting stations)

A ride south, over to the Left Bank, Montparnasse and the famous Grand Magasin “Le Bon Marché. What a place, it was founded in 1838 as a small shop, the current building was completed in 1867 and is regarded by many as the first department store in the world. Mostly designer labels in a scrumptious setting; lots of fun to walk around and look.

Afterwards, I took a little time to just chill at a nice little park in front of the store.

It was then back to the Bastille and a walk down the Rue du Faubourg St Antoine. I checked out a few clothing stores, actually bought a reasonably priced black T shirt with a fun style and a zipper on the shoulder. Got back home after sunset and took my now traditional nap. For Dinner, I headed back to Montmartre and the Mon Oncle that was closed for lunch; happily took the elevator up to the Place de Abbesses, headed up a few blocks to #3 Rue Durantin. I was drawn here by a great review on Mar 7th, so I figured it might be hard to get into. That was reinforced, when I saw people waiting outside. I was thrilled to be shown a small table for two with groups of two and four close aboard. They had a prix fixe menu for dinner and I went for it. I tried to make conversation with the two young women on my left; they were hesitant and said they didn’t speak much English. I noticed, they had just ordered something to eat, but did not have any drinks, so I ordered a bottle of Cote du Rhône rouge and asked if they would help me. To my surprise, their English improved dramatically. They said they would order the second bottle and we began an evening of great camaraderie. Three spectacular courses and two friendships later, I headed home with Sandra Bullock in Demolition Man: “joy-joy feelings”.

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