Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Waited for a sunny day to go to Montmartre, the little speck of Paris which sits on a hill high above town and affords THE view of the city. Today was the day. A couple of notes: You must be prepared to walk, mostly uphill, to get to where you need to be, and you had better wear good walking shoes. And be fit. I took the Metro as close as it will get, then hiked up steps and more steps, plus some fairly steep inclines to finally reach the quaint little neighborhood. It is an admixture, of narrow cobblestone streets, pretty old homes, a few churches and the giant edifice, Sacre-Coeur, which towers over everything. Hard to take a picture of it, however, because the terrain doesn’t allow you to get too far back without slipping off the side of the hill. There also is the Place du Tertre, where there may be more tourists per square inch that any other place in Paris. Today was a Wednesday in February, so the crowds were not too bad, but I can only imagine a sunny summer day here. Here is where the street artists set up their easels and paint and sell their work and offer to paint your caricature and walk along with red scarfs around their necks looking like the next Toulouse Lautrec, maybe just not so talented. Montmartre is where so many artists have lived and painted (yes, of course, Picasso was here) and many artists still have studios all around. It is worth a visit, to see the street scene, and to see the famous Basilica which along with the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame and the Arc de Triomphe comprise the Big Four of Paris. It actually looks like something you might find in Istanbul rather than Paris but, no matter, it is quite the sight. And from those steps you have quite the view. The oddest little things get my attention, and the fellow with the harp playing Simon and Garfunkel on the steps of the Sacre-Coeur seemed incongruous. Maybe. Except nothing here really matches anything. It is a carnival atmosphere, but worth a one-time stop. There are some lovely side streets and along one of them I came to the Moulin de la Galette, a special restaurant which is topped by one of two windmills surviving here on the mountainside and which has a very fine kitchen, maybe the best in this part of town. I had a heavenly chestnut soup and roasted salmon served on parsnips with sliced beets. A gorgeous plate. Afterwards I stopped in the Musee de Montmartre, totally committed for the moment to the French actor, painter, sculptor and all-around eccentric celebrity of the last century (he just died in 1998), Jean Marais. Twas a quick stop. I was feeling particularly fit though, and it was a beautiful day so I set out to walk back. Easily the longest (check the map), and strangest walk of the stay. Because just beneath Montmartre is Place Pigalle and its main street, Boulevard Clichy. It is a hillside but it is also the underside of Paris. Gracious. The street is lined with sex shops dispensing . . . you name it, and if you cannot quite remember what you are here for, just read the neon signs. Pretty seedy. And everything points to the Moulin Rouge and its dilapidated windmill logo. It is a terrible looking place in an awful neighborhood. No wonder they wait until the sun goes down before opening their doors, mainly to the tour bus crowd I expect.
If chamber music is your thing, and it surely is with me, the Wednesday night series featuring string quartets at the Louvre Auditorium is as good as it gets. I set off to here a scheduled concert by the Jerusalem Quartet. But instead I heard a replacement group (when one member of a four-person group falls ill, the show does not go on), the remarkable Casals Quartet from Spain. Wow. Another of those brilliant young musical ensembles which dot the classical landscape. Two Haydn quartets comprised Act 1, with Bartok the sole fellow for the second part. Just an amazing display of virtuosity. One of the nice things about coming to these concerts is that your ticket allows you entry to the museum itself. I browsed about in part of the sculpture galleries and came upon you-know-who, the armless one. Not a bad way to spend an hour before curtain.
Tomorrow I head to Belgium for the weekend so we shall see how the WiFi works there.

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