Tag Archives: Metro

Why Montmartre?

🇫🇷 The Great France Art Tour of 2017

Why Montmartre? This neighborhood is on most “must see” lists for Paris—often with little explanation. Even on my first trip to Paris, at age sixteen, I remember our Foreign Service League guide suggesting an optional trip to Montmartre on one of our “free” days, explaining that it was a funky, “artsy” area of narrow streets and open shops and stands. I imagined bearded men in berets, sitting on wooden stools, with their charcoal and drawing pads, easels, and thumb-tacked examples of reasonably accurate portraits and funny caricatures. (Actually, you will find those, even today in Montmartre and along the Seine.) I assume, more than I remember, that as a young man I was that day distracted by a young woman named Maritchu, who had her own plans, and she was not on her way to that part of Paris. I didn’t enlist for that side trip. I didn’t go to see Jim Morrison’s grave either. As I’ve mentioned, as is the case with any grand and ancient city, you can’t see it ALL!

And even on the Great Art Tour, I didn’t know much about the Impressionist connection. In my mind, I was thinking that the steps where Gil (Owen Wilson) is first picked up by T.S. Eliot in a Peugeot in “Midnight in Paris” had to be somewhere in Montmartre. I kept looking for those steps, but I never found them. (Probably because that first trip into the past occurs on the steps of the cathedral of Église Saint-Étienne du Mont on the Left Bank, definitely on the other side of Paris far from Montmartre.)

Bal du moulin de la Galette

“Bal du moulin de la Galette” by August Renoir

Nevertheless, the Moulin Rouge and Moulin de la Galette, are (or were, in their glory) located in Montmartre. If  someone mentions those names, somewhere in the back of my mind I conjure the memory of slides on a screen with vague colorful absinthe-blurred bar and club scenes by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Edgar Degas.  These are fairly accurate recollections. Renoir painted the festive, “Bal du moulin de la Galette” here. (Remember the men in their straw hats and the woman in the foreground in the blue and white striped dress?) And Degas painted “L’Absinthe” at café Nouvelle Athènes in the Place Pigalle at the foot of Montmartre in 1876. In the same year Vincent Van Gogh’s brother, Theo, brought him to Paris. Here he was neighbors with Georges Seurat and met Paul Gauguin, Lautrec, and others, and through their influence, and the influence of Paris scenes, his style became much more impressionistic.

"Windmills on Montmartre", 1886, Vincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Windmills on Montmartre”, 1886, Vincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Van Gogh painted many images of Montmartre, Paris, and the windmill and surroundings of the Moulin de la Galette, (the tall windmill, you can still see, although you can’t get very close). Without his paintings, it’s hard to imagine the hills of that district with a quarry, open fields and gardens. From the clock window of the Musée D’Orsay you can make out Montmartre, and Sacre Couer at the top, and the hill appears, like much of Paris, to be covered with buildings. Which it essentially is.

🚇A brief aside: Usually at the Metro station there is someone of some official capacity in attendance, usually in some kind of a booth, and usually that FRENCH person is there to provide assistance to travelers. Despite the reputation that Parisians are by nature hostile to Americans, I found this to be largely untrue. Although the difference in languages can be an obstacle, usually by pointing at maps, images, and familiar geographic names, and the patience of these attendants, you will get to the information needed to board the right train. I was most impressed one morning when we were leaving Bercy and I was asking the attendant for help, as I pointed on the map to the tiny image of the Musée Marmottan Monet. At least, that’s what I thought I was pointing at, and thought I was saying in my feeble French. We slid the map back and forth across the counter a few times, and as he was tapping on a blur that I think was the Metro Station that he thought should be our destination, I said, “Excuse me”, unfolded my glasses and put them on. At the same time, he pushed my map back at me, with neither a word nor a grumble, pulled another from a rack, unfolded it, and flattened it out in front of us. I smiled. The scale of his map was about four times larger than mine, and soooo much easier to read. He quickly marked it, and confident then that I knew where to go, I said, “Merci!”

Still more to come…

— Christo

Montmartre: Yellow 9 to Green 12

🇫🇷 The Great France Art Tour of 2017

Basilica_Sacre_CoeurWe left the Musée Marmottan Monet fully sated and strolled with satisfaction along our previous route. It rained of course, but it was not an ugly downpour and that longest of Paris days was still young. The Muette Metro station was all tangled up with construction and pedestrian detours. Deb wanted to see Montmartre, and that was clearly our next destination. By Metro it was fairly straightforward, really, take Number 9 (yellow Metro) to some giant underground knot beneath Paris where many of the routes collided. Somewhere there we would switch to the Number 12 (dark green Metro) with the endpoint of Aubervilliers Front Populaire, whatever that is, (for us, meaning roughly “North”).

Subway travelers know the importance of these endpoints–they indicate which direction the train is going –and, just as may occur when you are flying down the freeway and take the wrong exit and end up somewhere else, somewhere you had no intention of being, a similar error in the subway will put you on the wrong platform taking the wrong train in the wrong direction. In which case, I say, “Remain calm,” and let that train go if you are not sure that it is the right one, another one should come along soon, unless it is late at night, and, you can always wait patiently, unless you have had a couple of beers and you have a full bladder, pressing, pressing you with the urgent need to empty it, on a quiet platform, well-lit, with no toilet, no obscuring panels, only a few straggling waiting families and a booth with a tired guard dutifully observing all the closed-circuit television monitors as he fiddles with a pistol in his holster, and all you can think about is the long countdown of 20 minutes until the next train arrives, 20 minutes to hold yourself, 20 minutes that never seems to be less than 20 minutes, and if you’re not thinking about the longest 20 minutes you have ever lived, then you think about how could you have chosen the wrong train and ended up way farther away from your hotel than you intended, and you have done so well on the Metro until now, why now, late at night, getting later, but still the same 20 minutes left!! How could this happen? Do the French names of the metro endpoints really all sound the same in the end?

But never mind that, we got off the dark green Number 12 on one of the several Montmartre stops.

A moment monsieur!” Let’s look at the word “Montmartre”. I don’t comprehend it all, but half of that name suggests a hill, a steep hill, a mont. So upon exiting the metro and following the signs in the narrow, tile arched tunnels we are warned several times in Anglais, no less, that to exit here, we had better be able to climb up the 67 steps. Or was it 167? Or 617? Whatever, it was a matter of climbing many upward steps to the exit. Eventually we popped out in the gentle rain onto the winding narrow cobble streets of Montmartre.

Can any “touristy” part of Paris be more touristy than Montmartre? I don’t know. Which is not to say it’s bad. It is old, it is windy, it is higher than the rest of the city. Every little street goes either higher or lower. If it travels on level ground for a time, don’t grow complacent, and don’t be surprised, that little road will soon go either up or down. And by the way, just because the roads are narrow, don’t expect them to be for pedestrians only. There is not a great amount of traffic, but watch for the trucks and vans and motorcycles! Now, continue up and eventually, above the faded red terra cotta rooflines, you catch a glimpse of the cathedral domes of Sacré Coeur, which is about as high as you can go. We arrived at the base of the main entrance, below a pair of wide steps. At the top of these vast staircases, a road circumnavigates the temple, bordered by a few wide sidewalks covered with throngs of tourists enjoying the expansive views of Paris offered from that height.

We were delighted to discover that our Metro passes enabled us to skip another climb and ride the funicular up the hillside. While we waited, I spent a few minutes trying to assist a Japanese gentleman who did not seem to comprehend that the funicular was not free, it required tickets and payment. With English, a word or two in French, and wishing I knew more Japanese, I said, “Hi!” (Yes!), and finally got him to go to the ticket booth to ask for assistance.

I guess Deb has seen enough of the gaudy gold glitz and bleeding Jesus interiors of churches that she did not want to see this one. Which was fine by me. At the top, after taking in the panorama, we circled around and down, reviewing the restaurants and brasseries, many of which were not yet open. I stopped for a selfie at Chez Plumeau, for obvious reasons, and then found an open window crêperie where I ordered a breakfast crepe to go.

BreakfastAnd so we wound our way down, tripping down the cobblestone, stopping now and then to peek in little shops and absorb the changing views. To Deb, I mentioned that the Moulin Rouge was in the vicinity, and which from my last visit seemed almost like a wax museum–unless you took in the live burlesque I guess. No need to see that. We tried not to look at any maps, hoping that we would sooner or later come upon a metro stop. And it was later, later and many steps down before we, that is, I, resorted to Google maps to be sure I was taking us in the right direction.

I didn’t know it then, but our little expedition to the heights and long journey downward foreshadowed similar adventures in Eze, and Vence, and finally in Nice, where we wandered down the back of the mountain into the old city, where the houses and restaurants were all pushed tightly together, and shaded and cooled in the hot afternoon by their own height and shadow and the shadow of the mountain.

More fun to come…

— Christo

Three Days in Paris (Partie Un)

🇫🇷 The Great France Art Tour of 2017

Notre_DameTuesday

The coach lurched along from airport Charles de Gaulle past many Paris streets and squares that I thought looked familiar but probably were not. We caught a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower briefly, before the tall buildings and streets of Paris swallowed the open sky. That sounds nice. Actually, we arrived quickly at the east end of the Seine River, several long blocks below Notre Dame, near Bercy. Considering every moment in Paris precious, and anxious that we not waste any, I checked our halted progress via GPS on the “Ulmon City Maps To Go” app on my iPhone.

I could see that our relatively direct trip had stalled completely in the insane morning traffic as our off-ramp merged with one or two others, plus four lanes from various feeder streets. Every bus, auto, cab, and motor scooter, wherever it was coming from, seemed intent on getting to the other side of the stream of cars in front of it, where we were ALL headed. Caught up in the excitement of the streets of Paris, our travel cohorts were oblivious to the delay, except Donald. He was obsessed with the rising temperature inside the almost-stationary, sunbaked coach.

“Air Conditioning!!” He shouted repeatedly to the bus driver, “Air Conditioning!!”

Need I say he included no, “S‘il vous plaît.

“Air Conditioning!! Turn on the air conditioning!!”

The AC came on. I heard no one, except myself, say, “Merci!

Stopping and starting we made a few feet of progress at a time, taking about an hour to transit the single block to our hotel.

The Hotel Bercy is a “modern” glass and steel “business hotel” with several fountains and a 15-foot-tall, bright red, muscular, caped, male superhero statue in front. I could speculate, but I have no explanation for this statue. It was just there.

The female receptionist at the hotel was young (in her twenties?) and attractive with long straight brown hair, a smart suit, and dark, spiked heels—stylish enough to appear on the cover of Vogue or the New York Times Women’s Fashion magazine, although maybe not quite starved enough. This was true of all the women coming and going in the lobby. Not just the heels that is, but the stylish and attractive part too. Yes, we are in Paris.

The men? Oh, they are all thin, though not underfed, well groomed. Fortunately, very few sport the time-consuming, face-covering, trendy, hipster beards seen in parts of the USA. If these men have beards at all, they are close-cropped stubble that gives depth to their chiseled chins. The male hotel staff wear suits. Male businessmen wear typical European business attire: jeans or slightly more formal trousers, lined or solid (sometimes button-down) dress shirts, and dark leather loafers often without socks. Most wear sport coats, which in France are narrow sleeved, snug fitting jackets, the lapels held together with one button.

Nobody but the tourists, wear sneakers or running shoes. (Donald, blinding, in his bright white sneakers and bleached white socks halfway up his calves, steps off the coach trailing a wave of cool air.)

No sneakers, and thank goodness, no ties. Maybe the maître d’ hotel and the bartender wear ties. But otherwise, no ties. I don’t like ties.

Unfortunately, there is plenty of time to observe the lobby, because our rooms are not ready.

I consider the possibility that we do not actually have rooms, but we are assured the rooms are there, the Hotel Bercy is just behind schedule with cleaning. Way behind.

Several times the Front Desk receptionist walks over to our group, sprawled awkwardly on the artsy, cube-shaped chairs and couches. We rise. She hands Steve a too thin stack of envelopes with keys and room numbers. Steve reads the names and hands white envelopes to the lucky winners, who quickly leave to get settled in their digs and enjoy what was left of our “free” day. The lobby emptied a few people at a time, in this manner, the process repeated over and over.

We waited for hours. And we were, yes, the last, the very last to receive our room keys.

Before the eventual delivery of our envelope, Christine walked those of us remaining over to the charming, tree-lined Bercy Mall for a quick tour. Bercy had once been an industrial bakery, and has the red brick charm of very old buildings, but all the swag and glamour of a trendy destination for young business people and tourists. We noted the location of a small local grocer, the local ATM, the soon to be recognized as ubiquitous “artisanal ice cream” shop, and strolled along the partly shaded pedestrian promenade lined with tables and umbrellas that front the many bars and restaurants. We saw designer shops, stores with special French candy packaged in French art tins, a Surf store with surfer shirts, skateboards, and yes surfboards for sale and on display in the windows. Is Bercy near the beach? Does Bercy have quick access to mysterious Mediterranean swells? Is there an Internet “Surf Report” available for Bercy? “No,” would be the answer to these questions. (Nevertheless, I was drawn to the Surf shop, more than once, to peruse the shirts and board shorts.)

Christine escorted us down the escalator to the Metro. She provided quick tutelage in the basics of ticket purchase, the various lines, maps, and other arcane knowledge required in the underground. Important but not important, the “Purple Line” as we might call it in Boston, is not the “Purple Line” in Paris. It is the “M 14” between St. Lazare and Olympiades. But on all the maps and signs it is purple, so I called it the “Purple Line”, which was usually fine as long as we remembered we wanted to go to “Olympiades” to get back to Bercy. The ticket machines may challenge, especially if you use a credit card, but otherwise (from previous Franco-adventures), I considered myself fairly adept at Metro use. (A notion disproved dramatically a day or two later).

We popped back into the daylight upstairs, abandoned Christine and tour group to fend for ourselves in Bercy, searching for a place to lunch, and eventually settled at a little outdoor cafe. We sat next to tour manager Steve, and his wife Karen. After ordering salad for Deb, croque-monsieur for me, and two glasses of rosé of course, we got to know our tour hosts a bit.

A university academic, Steve, though well-versed in Literature (and an exemplary English Major), holds a PhD in History, the subject he teaches. Karen has a consulting business where she is engaged in multi-year research and writing projects. Their professions and interests allow for much international travel, which they have done with Arawho for years.

We enjoyed the relaxed meal and conversation, and I tried to remember what I had learned from the Rick Steve’s podcast about French restaurant protocols:

  • The wait staff generally leave you alone, for hours.
  • When you want the bill, DO NOT shout, “Garçon!”
  • To get attention, make eye contact.
  • They will come over.
  • Generally, do not tip, but ask if the check includes a service charge.

(This part is a little complicated at first. I’m sure we tipped when we should not have and vice-versa. By the end of the trip I was pretty clear about how it all works, but writing now I can’t recall well enough to explain it. Sorry. Listen to Rick Steve.)

The clouds and rain moved in, and I gradually became bothered by the drifting cigarette smoke from the tables of other diners. This was odd, I thought, the smoke, because although I had expected the worst on my last trip to Paris, in fact I had experienced very little exposure to second hand smoke.

You may know that the French were reputed to be smoking fiends until the last ten years or so. Just watch a French movie. They ALL smoke! Historically they had their “national brands”, the blonde Disque Bleu and Gauloises cigarettes, strongly aromatic and somewhat similar to the much milder American plain end “Camels”. I had smoked Gauloises when I first visited Paris. They seemed cool then. But I was fifteen.

Then there were the “Gitanes”, of many types, in my experience, made with black Belgian tobacco wrapped in slightly sweet tasting, yellow corn papers. I had tried a Gitanes just once after college at Leavitt and Peirce Tobacconists. Those fat Gitanes monsters were a little squishy between the fingers,  smelled like a bad cigar, and were known for driving away mosquitoes and other pests.

At least the smoke wafting over from the nearby tables was not like that!

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To be continued…
— Christo