The Paris of my imagination lives in Montmartre. Here, the history is palpable, permeating even the thick layers of tourists like me who threaten to obscure it. The very sound of the click beneath my heels, as my boots touch cobbles that once felt the feet of Degas, Renoir and Lautrec, bring a smile to my face. Knowing my eyes behold the contours of apartments and restaurants they too once saw gives me goose pimples. Whether nose deep in Madeline books circa five-years-old or scribbling smart notes in my Modern art history class in college, it is this moment in time of Paris I wish I could have lived.
Well rested after a first class experience at 10,000 feet, I wasted no time starting my honeymoon right–even if meant I was going solo for the first couple days. Knowing my husband had a little work to do in Europe, it seemed sensible to turn it into a memorable honeymoon once he was finished with business. And, as if we didn’t already live in an ideal ski state, we couldn’t resist the weather reports coming from the Alps. So then, Paris is the place we begin. And although only for a day, it has been among the most cherished visits I can remember in the City of Lights.
We found our way to the old-fashioned, adorable Hotel Particulier Montmartre. Surveying the space in our modest room, tattered books and Nouveau wallpaper proximate a time when this section of Paris was the place to be. Its eery silence resonates and resuscitates a time that is past, making it seem as though someone might be whispering a tale in your ear from the cafe-concerts. Already situated quite high on the hill, the trek to Montmarte’s center was a mere jaunt from our quaint hotel. As I neared the Place du Tetre, music from young street performers fill the narrow avenues, lined as they were with people such as myself. They weren’t the usual tourists, however, with bright white sneakers and a Packers raincoat. Perhaps the shear hill one must climb to see this village weeds out the average Joe, instead giving us young lovers, arty students and otherwise intellectual-looking folk. It seems that they, like me, want Montmartre to still be as it was in its heyday– in the late 1800’s and turn of the century.
I worked my way through the main streets, following signs to the Musee de Montmarte, where they happen to be holding the most perfect exhibit set to end the very next day on Le Chat Noir–the iconic cabaret that existed from 1871-1987, closing not long after its founder’s death (Rudolphe Salis). It was among the first of its kind–a place where people might eat, drink and be entertained all in one sitting. Inspiring writers, painters, actors and dancers, Le Chat Noir became one of the most sought-after locales for artists around the world. This movement blurred the line between art and circus– a carnival that was really introduced by Baron Haussmann himself with the popularisation of cafe-concerts in the 1850’s and ’60’s. Winding up the stairways to each level in that creaky old house of a museum, I couldn’t believe the lithographs and paintings I was able to see for 8 euro–the timing that I was able see such an important exhibit as it pertained to this corner of Paris was humbling. I saw Lautrec’s Artist Bruant at the Mirliton, Steinlen’s Tournee du Chat Noir and countless pieces that honored three female performers whom headlined the famed Moulin Rouge: Eugenie Buffet, Loie Fuller & Yvette Guillbert.
Stepping out into the foggy streets, my eye caught the outline of the Eiffel Tower in the distance. An irrepressible smile spread across my face. Never will that sight be ordinary to me. I realize then just how high above the city we are–looking down among the sea of houses, flats, buildings… We are so small and insignificant. Off to my left, that statement couldn’t have been more true, for in front of my beady eyes was the famous, massive Basilique du Sacre-Coeur. Pigeons and the poor were woven throughout a wave of tourists. I entered this young Cathedral, built only in the last century, and gaped at its glorious curves on the ceiling, which marked the highest point in the whole city. No sooner was I doubled over with amazement that I found myself suspect at the element of commerce within the very walls of this great architectural monument to Christ. Off to the side, there was a gift shop. No, not next door. Actually inside the church, with postcards and gismos pouring into the cathedral’s main space. I mean, isn’t there a passage in the bible where Jesus actually upturns tables and throws people out of the temple when he finds they are buying and selling merchandise? Though a little disheartening, I managed to find my own little second of solitude and reflection in this space.
Cold to the bone, I popped my head in Le Maison Rose–a tiny little eatery off the main drag and just next door to the Museum I had been to earlier. There were only about five tables. I was fortunate to find a small one next the window, so I might write and people watch. Two ladies next me prattled on about who knows what in French. They would stare at me every couple minutes. What, I wondered, could they be saying? I imagined they were getting a kick out of my Paris-clad journal and Chat Noir pen, but I didn’t care. When you get the urge to write, you buy the nearest notebook and pen. I sipped my nondescript Sancerre and continue scribbling.
The evening concluded in the best possible way. We took necessary jet lag naps, navigated our way through the Metro, then went to our favorite restaurant, perhaps in the world: Chez Dumonet Josephine. I have most certainly wrote on this magic little understated bistro in the past. Here, one gets the best, classic French dishes on the planet. Greeted with Champagne, we sunk ourselves into the menu. Black truffles were the theme, so we partook naturally. I had a barely cooked, exquisite truffled egg with buttery bread toast with truffle flecks for dipping. JV, a plate of artichoke hearts beneath a generous bed of truffle shavings. We went with traditional plates that night. I had my favorite Boeuf Bourgogne (which they seriously seem to reduce for a few days) and JV had his favorite: cassoulet. All was complimented with a wine the waiter was beaming to share: a 2006 Chateau Chasse-Spleen. After he left, and before I gave it a chance, I wished for a small, spoiled snobby second I could have had a gander at the list. Maybe ordered something with a couple more years of rest. Alas, I was proven very wrong. Though young, it was showing wonderfully. I stood corrected and impressed with Lord Byron’s taste in wine (it was a favorite of his, as I have now learned).
Off to bed and up at 5:30a for a long day of travel to Geneve…