|Wednesday we had a
guided tour of Montmartre, the area of Paris that was a favorite of the
Impressionist painters and other artists. I had used the Internet to locate
a local guide and we met her at our hotel after breakfast. We all took the
Metro to the Abbesses station, one of the few with the Art Nouveau canopy
and railing designs left from the original system, to begin our tour.
Our guide walked us through a local market district, explaining how Parisians shopped on a daily basis for fresh vegetables, meat and bread. In a particularly attractive bakery we bought three fruit tarts (including one rhubarb) to have with coffee later in our tour. Among the stores were a café and a fresh vegetable stand that had appeared in the movie Amelie. We walked through the neighborhood, our guide pointing out sites linked to various artists and performers (Pisarro, Renoir, Picasso and Utrillo among others). Some of the residential areas of Montmartre are quite lovely and tranquil - some even boasting a resident cat. At one point we were able to look down one of the many stairways that serve as streets on Montmartre's hilly terrain and see across the city to the Eiffel Tower.
Among the curious things on Montmartre are the cast iron drinking fountains - we learned they had been installed in the 19th century by an English gentleman who was appalled that he couldn't get a drink of water in Paris. The local cemetery proved interesting, too - many of the graves had little chapels or other aboveground structures that reminded me of the cemeteries in New Orleans (even though there doesn't seem to be much of a flood threat here.) We also passed the sole remaining vineyard on Montmartre, preserved to remind the locals of the time when wine production was a mainstay of the local economy. Our guide said that the local government actually makes wine from the grapes grown there, but that it was not especially good. It does, however, inspire an annual parade to celebrate the harvest. The other driver of prosperity used to be windmills, set on the hillsides to catch the wind. We walked by one of those, too.
Tucked into a corner of the neighborhood was a small park with a boule court and a playground. In the center was a statue of St. Dennis holding his head - an early Christian missionary to Gaul, St. Dennis was beheaded at this spot by the Romans and according to legend picked up his head and walked away. We had seen a smaller version among the statues surrounding the doors of Notre Dame.
Coming out of the residential areas of Montmartre we walked through the open-air art market that has taken over the tree-shaded central square. Bistros and cafés surround the square - our guide informed us that the term 'bistro' was derived from a demand for quick service made to restaurateurs by occupying Cossacks after Napoleon's defeat in 1814. This may be one of those folk etymologies that has no basis in fact, but it makes a good story. Off one corner of the square is St. Peter's, the oldest church on Montmartre - several of the pillars supporting the roof over the altar originally came from a temple dedicated to Mars by the Roman soldiers stationed here.
Just beyond St. Peter's is the basilica of Sacre Coeur. The church is actually fairly recent, having been built in the 1870s - nevertheless, the interior mosaics are impressive. Unfortunately, photography was not allowed.
After the tour we ate lunch at a little restaurant at the foot of Montmartre and then took the funicular back up (our Metro passes gave us free access!). We walked back through the square to the Montmartre museum and spent an hour looking at their collection of Toulouse Lautrec posters, the original sign from the Lapin Agile bistro and other works from the Art Nouveau period. The museum occupies a house that once belonged to Renoir and where later Utrillo and his somewhat outrageous mother lived.
We took the Metro back to our hotel and rested for a bit, then back to the Metro and on to the Louvre. We had been told that the museum was much less busy on the evenings that it was open and that was certainly true - we were able to walk right up to some of the museum's highlights including the Winged Victory, the French crown jewels, the Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa. The collection of Italian paintings from the Renaissance was superb and the halls of the Louvre itself were quite remarkable.
We returned to the 7th arrondissement for a very late dinner at Tribeca, a restaurant on the Rue Cler near our hotel - although we seem to arrived at the height of the Parisian dinner hour. A light rain had begun and by chance a table cleared just inside the covered sidewalk café. We had some wine and a great meal as we enjoyed watching the crowd around us enjoy the evening. We walked back to our hotel through the wet streets past cafés and bistros still lively even at that late hour, the pavement glistening in the streetlights.