Montmartre – A Great Place to Chill Out in Paris. Here’s Why.
Our trip to Paris via the overnight Air Canada flight could not have gone smoother. Clearing customs was a breeze – France does not require entrants to fill out any advance documentation and apparently relies on the information encoded on your passport. I wish other countries would follow suit – who the hell knows the address of the hotel they are staying at? Not necessary as we are going to stay in fabled Montmartre for a few days.
My sister’s flight from Frankfurt arrived on schedule and our driver was there to meet us. He had us to the apartment at 34 rue Joseph de Maitre in Montmartre within half an hour. In an earlier post I described how I found this place, why I picked it and why it has lived up to expectations. Chass Pineda, the apartment manager, took us on a brief tour of nearby places to buy wine, food supplies and pointed out a good boulangerie and cafe. I also picked up two bouquets of lilacs for 5 euros from a street vendor and they will add a springtime fragrance to the apartment.
Now it was time to get out and start exploring.
It was a beautiful sunny Sunday in Paris and Parisiennes probably outnumbered tourists on the Rue des Abbesses based on the number of people pushing strollers or hauling reluctant dogs or both. The first few hours of an extended trip are never the time to do any serious sightseeing, especially in a place as crowded as Montmartre so I decided to look for a good cafe, put the camera away and do some people watching. For some reason the Cafe le Nazir (no website) rang a bell when I saw it and there was a good table inside from where we had a clear view of people coming up and down Rue des Abbesses and also coming down from Sacre Couer via Rue Burq. On Sundays these streets are pedestrian only, which means mostly, so there were lots of people and dogs and very few cars.
If you are wondering why we didn’t sit at one of the outdoor tables at Cafe le Nazir the answer is simple – even if I could get one, I didn’t want one. The fabled outdoor cafe tables in Paris, at least at the smaller cafes, usually are set up as tables for two and we were three. They are also habituated by heavy smokers so if that’s a deal breaker, as it was for Alison and Anne, you go inside. That does not mean you miss out on all the action. Cafe le Nazir has some nice tables near the windows that let you see it all without having to breathe it all. Here’s what Rue des Abbesses looked like yesterday at Cafe le Nazir.
Here’s what it looks like early Monday morning.
So we got a table where we could just watch the people stroll by and it was a happy scene. It was April in Paris, in that most romantic of neighbourhoods, Montmartre and the lovers were out in full force. But so was everybody else in Paris, including the photographers. I noticed people kept stopping and looking up Rue Burq to take pictures. Intrigued I took my camera out (I know I just promised to put it away) and saw Moulin de la Galette at the top of the hill. Forgive the matte vignette, but trust me there are a lot of distractions in the way.
The moulin has been famous for centuries, first for its famous bread and then for the artists who painted the mill from the outside, like Van Gogh.
And inside. Some of Renoir’s most recognizable paintings were executed here including Bal du Moulin de la Galette.
So it was pretty cool sitting here at the bottom of the hill where no doubt the remnants of the champagne flowed during the fin-de-siecle. It was almost a distraction when a pleasant young man arrived with the menus. It took me all of ten seconds to decide on that French bistro classic croque monsieur and Alison ordered the counterpart croque madame, which has an egg on top.
Parisiennes love their dogs and as we ate and sipped 1664 beer, the French equivalent of Heineken, we watched as dozens of dogs of every size and breed hobnobbed just outside the window, as did their owners. Somewhat reluctantly we left the cozy confines of Cafe le Nazir and joined the throngs on Rue des Abbesses and made our way to Place des Abbesses where we could have taken the funicular to the top of Montmartre, but no, that would be too sensible. Before heading up we ducked into the tiny garden at the place where couples were getting there pictures taken before the Wall of Love. We might return at a less hectic time to do the same.
St. Pierre de Montmartre
We then began the long trudge up to the top of Montmartre and Sacre Couer the famous white domed church that sits on the highest point in Paris. We arrived out of breath with thighs burning (at least I did) and found even bigger crowds at the top than at the bottom. There were just too many people to get any sense of the place so I decided I would return at a more sane time tomorrow, but I did notice a fenced in courtyard before the front of another church and we opened the gates and walked in. This was St. Pierre de Montmartre, Sacre Coeur’s much older and overlooked brother. Although not much to look at from either the outside or inside, this is, believe it or not, the oldest church in Paris, dating from 1137 and sitting on the site of the Roman Temple of Mars. The name Montmartre is derived from that earlier time.
You can clearly see from the photos of the front and back that this is a Romanesque design usually more associated with Italy or southern France, and pre-dating the Gothic churches for which northern France is so well known. I have to confess to being completely ignorant of the existence of this important church until stumbling across it today and judging by the thousands of people passing it by on their way to Sacre Coeur, so are most others. A little research revealed that this was the place where St. Ignatius Loyola is supposed to have taken the vows to establish the Society of Jesus or as they are better known, the Jesuits. Here’s the man himself, painted by Rubens, taking that very vow. They were the leaders of the Counter Reformation that sought to return the Catholic church to its, to them, rightful place as the only true religion to interpret the Bible and deliver Jesus’s message to the great unwashed. I won’t weigh in on that.
The interior of the church is stark, but highlighted by some incredibly beautiful modern stained glass windows that created wonderful prismatic patterns on the church floor as the light streamed through. Here is Alison bathed in an aura of saintliness.
I found this window depicting the upside down cross on which St. Peter was crucified particularly appealing, although not for the subject matter. I might not be religious, but I can still appreciate and respect the Christian symbolism.
Leaving this not so hidden gem in Montmartre we wended our way back downhill via Rue de la Bonne and Rue St. Vincent and passed the legendary Lapin Agile.
This is a place where famous artists mingled with equally famous chanteuses creating a moment in time that tourists today seek to recapture by attending the nightly dinner and dance shows. Unless you show up dressed like this guy depicted by Picasso I have my doubts if you’ll be succesful.
Back in the apartment we had a glass of wine or two and then headed to La Mascotte a nearby restaurant on Rue des Abbesses that has been there for over 100 years. It was recommended by American ex-pat David Burke who we are to meet tomorrow.
We had a reservation for 7:30 which was wise because, although the place was not that full when we got there, within an hour it was packed with about a 50/50 split between locals and tourists.
Like many Paris restaurants La Mascotte has two aspects – the sidewalk cafe and inner bar area which is for quicker meals and the slightly more formal Brasserie area in the back where the waiters were dressed in typical Parisienne uniforms.
The interior was exactly what we were looking for – it had the ambience of a place that, while it has been in business well over 100 years, still looks bright, clean and chic. The combination of lights and mirrors and the inlaid parquet walls reminded me very much of a restaurant that might have been painted by Manet, Degas or Utrillo.
Our waiter was the consummate professional – courteous, but not obsequious and throughout the meal we relied upon him to make recommendations that turned out to be unerringly good, starting with the apéritifs. The kir royales proved to be the perfect accompaniment to the plate of oysters we started with. There were a dozen varieties on the menu and we asked him to bring us a combination of the four best.
They serve oysters here the way they should be. First they bring toast, mignolette and herb butter and then place the oysters on ice with lemons on a rack over the accompaniments. The oysters were fantastic, although the Belons stood out. If there’s such as thing as a deep dish oyster then these babies are it. That’s them on the right.
After the oysters we again relied on the waiter to bring plates of anchovies and sardines which again were wonderful. The white anchovies you get in Europe are so different and better than the over brined ones we get in North America that it’s worth going out of you way to try them.
When I was a kid sardines on toast was about the last thing I wanted my mother to serve us at lunch, but if I had known that the dish has a noble history such as the ones we were served here I might not have been so fussy. Something tells me the sardines at La Mascotte did not come out of a can.
Lastly we had to try that most notorious of French shellfish – the snail (not escargot, but snails) as our waiter pointed out. Snails, escargot, whatever these were great too.
For dessert we again stuck to tradition and shared profiteroles and a bowl of ice cream and sorbet. The chocolate sauce on the profiteroles was heavenly – really just pure melted chocolate.
Our bill for three with service included and several nice glasses of chablis after the kir royales was 192 Euros. Worth every penny.
While we stuck to oysters we couldn’t help but notice the beautiful trays of shrimp, langoustine, crayfish and lobster that other parties were obviously enjoying. I would return just to focus on those next time.
What a great start to our foray into French cuisine.
As promised I got up early and walked back up to Sacre Coeur. The only people around were an army of clean up troops and a bunch of masochists who seemed to think it was fun running up to the top of Montmartre. Here was the view of Paris as it awakened this morning.
Sacre Coeur, Montmartre
Sacre Coeur, for all its fame, is a fairly recent construction dating from 1875. The architectural style is described as Romano-Byzantine and I could certainly see that it is the antitheses of Gothic. I have mixed feelings about whether I find it appealing or not. Here are a few photos I took this morning.
Despite the fact it was just past seven the church was open and there was a mass going on in the apse with about 30 attendees. The interior was much more Byzantine in appearance than the exterior, but I still got the impression that it was somewhat of a failed knockoff of the great eastern Byzantine churches. Hagia Sophia has nothing to fear from Sacre Coeur.
So, on that note I end my exploration of Montmartre and head out to the search for Ernest Hemingway in Montparnasse. Please join us.