After a fine month in Provence it was time to leave Beaucaire and southern France behind. Another traveler was playing concert music on the piano in Avignon’s spectacular TGV station as we caught a fast train and settled in for 4 hours of watching French farms and villages pass by our window. Trains are a comfortable and civilized way to travel in Europe.
And soon we’re in Paris, standing among the crowds in busy Gare de Lyon, and headed for the Metro. The stations are postered with reminders of places and events we intend to see. It’s good to be back.
There are many great cities in the world, but Paris is probably the greatest city for the arts, music, sculpture, literature, architecture, food, and wine. And what else, of such major importance to the human spirit, is there?
Carolyn had booked us a sweet little apartment (2-rooms, bath, Pullman kitchen) on the back side of Montmartre, the non-tourist and cheaper side, and we settled in for several days of living the Parisian life. Our balcony is the upper one on the left, high above the street.
There’s a Chinese green-grocer nearby, several small markets and a boulangerie with fresh croissants each morning. We can see the Metro stop from our balcony looking over the street life below. There’s a newsstand with the International New York Times right by the Metro, and there are numerous good little restaurants within a block or so where we can enjoy an afternoon drink with the locals.
The only downside: it’s a 5th floor walk-up, no lift. Not an incentive to go out for fresh croissants each morning. Still, the exercise is good for us...if we don’t die on the landing.
We’ve been to Paris before, so we’ll skip some of the Big Ones on this visit (Eiffel Tower, the Louvre….) and spend our time at smaller museums and venues less visited. That and just wandering the back streets, getting to know the city better and finding hidden gems, acting almost as if we really lived here. It’s a romantic notion, and we can avoid the bitter cold and damp of Paris in the winter; but who needs that anyway.
Our friend, Alicia Rodriguez is in town on her way to Russia, representing the International Bandera de Paz campaign based on the work of Nicholas Roerich in the 1930s. It was good to hang out with Alicia over some crêpes and catch up on news in the warren of ancient streets near St. Germain. Afterward we walked toward the Seine, as Notre Dame, the ‘grand dame’ of Paris, stood nicely lit against the night.
Montmartre was a cheap and rural area where many of the most famous of the ‘modernist’ artists hung out from the 1900s to the 30s and after the war. It’s since become a mecca for art tourists but still retains much of its old funky style.
The Musée de Montmartre is on Rue Cortot, only a few blocks (all uphill!!) from our apartment. It was an obvious first choice. The museum is housed in the former studio of Susanne Valadon, a model and muse to many, and a fine artist in her own right. It was a place frequented by Miró, Matisse, Modigliani, and Picasso, and contains a large collection of works representing the modernists who lived and worked on ‘the butte.’
Eric Satie, whose spatial musical compositions captured much of the freedom of the times, lived just a few doors away from the studio, and he had a passionate affair with Valadon. He was her subject in several portraits now hanging in the museum.
In 1907 a young and penniless Picasso painted one of his most famous works, ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,’ at the nearby Bateau Lavoir (called the “laundry boat’ because it swayed in the winds). He shared the studio with Max Jacob, Juan Gris, Kees Van Dongen, the writer Apollinaire, and other young rebels.
Among the winding streets of Montmartre lies the little old Clos Montmartre vineyard, a fine spot of green for the area. And there are any number of other surprises in the maze of streets that wander around the butte. Some of them are whimsical and artistic. Some, like a plaque commemorating an assassination by the Gestapo, are poignant. A modern icon would be Au Marche de la Butte, the store where Amélie worked in the 2001 movie by that name. And a ‘Lost Cat’ sign reminds us of everyday life.
A night of entertainment at Au Lapin Agile, an old French song house, is just a short uphill walk from the apartment, and a worthy stop on the butte. They open at 9:00 p.m. and only serve drinks (no food). So eat early, enjoy a sip of the brandy-soaked cherries you’re offered, and relax while eight people at the center table fill your evening with songs – all in French, of course. Of which we understood almost nothing! And the place was too dark inside for pictures (as you can see), but it was a wonderful evening of song, laughter, and camaraderie.
Here’s a collection of classic French songs to enjoy.
We didn’t actually skip all the Big Ones, since the Musée Picasso, located in the winding streets of the Marais district, is now open after five years of renovations. It’s hard to find a museum these days without something by Picasso. He was one of the most important, prolific, and long-lived artists of his day, and he left many thousands of works behind when he died. The basis of the museum’s collection is made up of more than 5,000 of those works, received as a ‘dation’ from the family in lieu of inheritance taxes.
This endlessly fascinating artist never settled into one category for long. He was constantly working with new materials and processes, and his experiments are found in museums throughout the world. Some of them were successful, and some were not. His work resembles weather in the high mountains – ‘if you don’t like what you see, just wait a few minutes for the next change.’ But there’s so much of it, it varies so widely, and he was such an undisputed master in many media, that you’re bound to find a few pieces that speak to you. (Personally, I could skip some of the pottery, and maybe all the sheet metal.)
For a fascinating read about the artist, try Life With Picasso, by Francoise Gilot. She was the only woman who left him behind, and he never forgave her for it; so I was surprised the museum had a piece of Vallauris pottery with her picture.
We had told our friend Annick, who lives in Paris, of our plans to visit and that we wanted to see her. Together we visited the crazy Paris Plages (Beaches of Paris), where the City brings in barges of sand to put along the Seine for families to enjoy. It’s kind of ridiculous, with people sun-bathing while tourists walk by, but the kids really love it.
Annick had also gotten tickets to the big nightly spectacle at the massive Invalides, built by Louis XIV as a hospital for his wounded soldiers. And that was a real treat, as they ran an impressive light show history of France across the tall walls inside the huge courtyard.
Dr. Jaime and Norma returned from their trip to Venice and Verona and settled into a hotel only a block from us. We all boarded the smooth, modern, and driver-less (?!) Metro line 14 and got quickly to the Chatelet-Les Halles station – which was a big mistake. The exits from the station are designed to waste your time and send you past every uninteresting store in this huge and soulless shopping mall, before delivering you finally to the street. For the rest of our stay we used different stations, and walked through the more interesting streets above when necessary.
We eventually got to the 1970s ultra-modernist Centre Pompidou to see what’s now hanging on the walls. The adjacent fountain still has those playful water spouters by Jean Tingeley, although many seemed not to be working right. We last saw them 30 years ago, spewing and turning and spouting water every way, but now most are stationary.
Our escalator-ride-in-a-tube revealed how much maintenance the Museum’s inside-out design has created for the future. Maybe it seemed like a cool idea at the time, but not such a good concept, looking back. Few modernist buildings seem to weather well, and maintenance is difficult.
The collection, however, contains a veritable schooling in modern art. If there’s any artist you want to study in detail, this museum – along with the Louvre, the D’Orsay, and others in Paris – can provide that experience. Again, this is a special city for the arts.
And there are some excellent views from the rooftop cafe.
A ride on a bateau mouche was another item on Jaime and Norma’s agenda. It’s a fun way to experience the city from the water and see how Parisians enjoy their river. Every few meters there’s a different kind of music playing and people enjoying an evening of dance by the Seine. We heard a splash at one point and saw a young man diving after his girlfriend’s cell phone. The phone was probably ruined, but just imagine the points he got when he returned it to her. Very crafty maneuver. He was roundly applauded by everyone on the boat and on the bank.
After several days in Paris, Dr. Jaime and Norma flew back to Hermosillo. And we had time to wander the streets alone to revisit familiar places, and look for all the back alleys and byways we’ve missed in the past. And to explore more of the city’s great parks and public spaces, as well.
On a drizzly morning we visit the Musée Marmottan Monet, but there were no photos allowed. Monet is often remembered for his painting of Nympheas (water lilies) at his garden in Giverny, and we’d visit those later in the Orangerie. But he was a versatile artist who lived a long and productive life, and there’s much more to appreciate in his work.
His powerful early paintings of great huffing steam trains at the Gare St Lazare caught my eye. He painted the Gare many times (every major museum seems to have one), with the steaming behemoths entering and leaving, and ushering in a new era for France and the world. And that made me want to photograph the station as it currently exists, from the Pont de Europa as depicted in the painting at the Marmottan.
Unlike Monet, I was denied access to the tracks and restricted to the top of the Pont de Europa near the two large columns. The steam trains are no longer there, but the air is still filled with the sounds of heavy machinery connecting the nation.
It was raining lightly as we left the museum, and the day seemed right for a long hike through the large nearby Bois de Boulogne. It was a weekday and the boats were not for rent, but they’re still beautiful just bobbing gently in the lake.
The northeastern tip of the Bois de Boulogne was not far from the Arc de Triomphe. And that led us right down the fabulous Champs Elysées past the flagship stores of luxury brands, with lines of shoppers waiting outside to enter. But I was distracted by a beautiful old classic model in the window of the Peugeot dealer. And anybody want to ‘test-drive’ a shiny new red Ferrari, for only E90?
After a week of solitude we were joined by friends Casey and Priscilla on their way to resume walking another leg of the Way of St James, this time from Carcassonne to Santiago de Compostela. It will be an 800-mile trek this time.
This was a first visit for Casey and Priscilla to ‘The City of Light,’ and the Musée D’Orsay was high on their list. The gorgeous old converted train station lies just over the Seine from the Louvre and houses its own fabulous collection of works documenting the history of art. There’s so much of the world’s most important art on view that it’s best to pick what most interests you. You likely won’t have time to deal with all of it.
We had planned to stay only a week in Paris but got distracted by the many things this city has to offer. Plus, it was cheaper to stay than to travel; and we could enjoy meals in our beautiful apartment. Decision made. We extended by ten days!
A classical music concert mentioned by Paul, our cultured landlord, was one reason we stayed. We searched out The Scots Kirk and settled in for a fine evening of American music presented by a talented piano and violin duo.
And afterward we headed to the closest bus stop, passing the brilliantly lighted store windows and buildings of Paris in the nighttime.
The area around St Germain de Pres is noted for classical concert posters taped to whatever post or barrier is handy. The concerts are often held in the intimate Eglise Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, the oldest church in Paris, dating from the 12th century. The artists are generally excellent and we managed to catch a couple of these concerts.
So much of the charm of Paris is found just walking the streets to find something you weren’t even looking for. Did you know it’s the 70th anniversary of the bikini, or that Paris has a Harley dealer? Or that John Paul Jones used to hang out here, and there’s a cream to cure ‘monkey butt?’ Or that some bronze busts are particularly well-polished?
The buskers in the metro can be especially entertaining! Here we have "Yannick the Accordeon," and his performance partner —quite an accomplished and fascinating duo.
Over the centuries Paris has survived its many trials and tragedies. Some of them – the murderous religious wars of the medieval era, the Revolution, the collaborations of the Vichy government – were self-inflicted. Others, like the current war of Muslim extremists against French intellectual freedoms, come from without. The city endures, yet the tragedies do not pass unremembered. We might notice a simple plaque recalling that someone who lived in a certain home was guillotined in 1794. Much more recently, and perhaps more heart-breaking, are plaques at various schools noting the 11,000 Jewish children taken away by the Nazis. The people of Paris will not let them be forgotten.
It’s also good to know that Bataclan, the nightclub targeted a year ago, refuses to surrender to the extremists.
And it’s nice to hang out in the lush Tuileries Gardens on a warm afternoon, with a tall coffee concoction on the table, and watch the world go by.
David McCullough’s 2011 book The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris chronicles a period of Parisian history (1830-1900) when a large number of American artists, writers, politicians and others embarked for the Continent. They included the likes of James Fenimore Cooper, Augustus St. Gaudens, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Some were already famous; others were students beginning their careers. Like so many of us, all were profoundly affected by this great city.
And in the end, what is it about Paris that makes this city so special, such an important part of our world view? Why has it attracted painters poets writers and visionaries for centuries? If geography is destiny, then the city’s central location to so many of the world’s major sources of power must be part of the equation.
And really, should we care about all that? Paris is a romantic city with endless appeal. So we’ll end with a nice view of the Eiffel Tower, brightly lit.
And we’ll thank the heavens for a bunch of fun-loving, and slightly drunk, students who livened up our final Metro trip back to the apartment.
We’ll be heading to Amsterdam in the morning, so stay tuned! — PRW
Here’s a last romantic wander through the city, soundtrack by Edith Piaf...