Another day in Montmartre

Monday 28 May

Took advantage of a warm sunny day to do another local walking tour. First stop was the Musee de Vieux Montmartre. This is the oldest house on the hill and many of the well-known painters and writers associated with Montmartre lived here: Renoir, Valadon, Dufy among others. You enter through a shady old-fashioned garden.

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Inside there are many original works by Utrillo, Toulouse-Lautrec and Willette, but also a comprehensive history of the area. You learn that gypsum was mined here, hauled out by donkeys, and used not only in the construction of local buildings, but also taken to Paris. It was used to make plaster casts as well (hence ‘plaster of Paris’).

Montmartre was the site of a siege during the brief two-month rule of the Paris Commune in 1871. The Commune had come about as the result of an uprising in Paris after France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. A high proportion of the Communards were skilled workers, many of them leftist political activists. Women too played an important role.

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As the Central Committee of the National Guard gained authority, the government moved to seize the movement’s cannon, some of which were stored on the Butte of Montmartre. Many were killed here, as well as in other sites across Paris, and thousands more were executed or deported to New Caledonia.

Much of the collection is given over to a celebration of Montmartre’s famous night life, with dozens of Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters for the Moulin Rouge, Chat Noir, Le Lapin Agile and other venues.

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Le Moulin de la Galette as it is today. The windmills used to grind flour for Paris and, here, to make and serve galettes.

Our second visit was to the Espace Dali, a beautiful gallery with a huge collection of his statues, as well as paintings. Plenty of commentary about Dali’s use of symbols (eg the melting clocks and their relationship to the changing nature of experienced time). And lots of photographs of Dali and his outrageous moustache.

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On and around the Seine

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The two day Batobus pass was a good investment in so many ways – respite from walking, a different perspective on the cityscape, and an opportunity to practise recognizing the buoyage and prohibition signs along the way. Also, we noticed many pleasure craft moored along the way and fantasied about having a boat of ours berthed in central Paris.

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On one trip, in early evening, the light was quite golden so we snapped away, along with the other tourists …

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It being Friday evening, it seemed that most of the young people in Paris were relaxing along the banks, picnicking or just enjoying a bottle of wine.

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Down the hill

Not far from the apartment is Montmartre’s red light area – Boulevard de Clichy is lined both sides with sex shops and night clubs, including of course the Moulin Rouge. Curiosity took us to the Musee de l’Erotisme, an eclectic collection of objects and images from every culture across the ages. It includes some very amusing cartoons and some laughable 1930s pornographic silent movies.

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The bike and pedestrian way in the middle of Boulevard de Clichy is typically Parisian and quite lovely, full of dog walkers, African nannies with their white charges and various people just whiling away the time.

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Coming back up the hill, we stopped off at Amelie’s cafe for a coffee and a cliched photograph. I suspect the locals regard us tourists with barely concealed disdain.

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This morning early I walked back up to Sacre-Coeur to see how it looked in sunlight and without the hordes of tourists. This is much the best time to go.

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Montmartre

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Paris at last!

After settling in to the surprisingly roomy and well-equipped apartment, we checked out the local providers of bread, cheese, wine etc – a wonderful selection. Alan lingered excessively over the patisserie with a window full of fruit tarts.

Next day we found to energy to hike up to the Sacre-Coeur Basilica. Supposedly you can see Paris spread out beneath you, but in the rain it was just a grey blur.

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Inside there’s a plaque showing where 13 WWII bombs fell. The fact that none of the worshippers was killed apparently reinforced the locals’ dedication to the church.

On to the Place du Tertre, the bohemian heart of old Montmartre, but it was so full of tourists, souvenir shops and con artists that we sloped off down the hill through streets and cafes frequented by the likes of Picasso, Renoir, Utrillo, Edith Piaf and Gertrude Stein. I was rather taken with the account of Utrillo’s wild mum, a former trapeze artist, who was a painter in her own right and who engaged in a torrid affair with Eric Satie.

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Alan outside the Au Lapin Agile Cabaret.

The Clos Montmartre Vineyard is a surprise. Ever since the 12th century, monks and nuns have produced wine here (and Parisians came to drink it tax free because Montmartre was outside the city limits).

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The final port of call on this walk was a good lunch at ‘Le Moulin de la Galette’.

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Cambrai

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Friday,18 May

Arrived at Charles de Gaulle at 06.05 and after a couple of train connections reached cold and rainy Cambrai. Checked into a matchbox sized hotel room and thought the whole plan was a huge mistake.

A short sleep later we joined Di and Tam Murrell on their barge ‘Friesland’ for a drink, followed by dinner at a nearby restaurant where we had the best bouillabaisse style dish ever, overflowing with langoustine, moules and fish in a seafoody tomato broth. The world was a better place.

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Day One of training saw Alan at the helm under Tam’s watchful eye and almost immediately we approached our first lock. I was marched for’ard by Di and instructed to throw the bow line around a bollard when the boat was fully into the lock. Of course I missed several times and had my throwing style and posture roundly criticised. Later we swapped roles and continued to make mistakes for the rest of the day. After five terrifying locks and an encounter with a 100 tonnne commercial barge we moored for lunch before turning back towards Cambrai and confronting the five locks all over again. It was exhausting but eventually there were moments when I started to enjoy the slow movement along the canal and the unfolding landscape.

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Sunday 20 May

Day Two was slightly less intense. We started with a lecture about boating theory before reversing out of the port and setting off upstream for more steering and line throwing practice. No commercial barges this time, but dozens of ducks, kayakers and people fishing along the bank.

Our lunches were delicious – salades composees, followed by fruit tart or strawberries and creme fraiche. It turned out that Di is a very good cook and has set up a web site about barging and food which you can find at http://www.foodieafloat.com.

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Finally we sat the test on rules and regulations governing boating on inland waterways in Europe. Alan did really well and I just scraped through – had trouble remembering things like the lights being shown at night by vessels engaged in minesweeping. Enough said. At least we’re both qualified!

The journey begins …

Hongkong, 16 – 17 May

Kowloon provided a welcome break in the journey. Our hotel was situated in what looked like a Protestant enclave in the city, the view from our window being entirely filled by a large Lutheran church and associated schools. We tried to overcome the jet lag by getting up early for a swim in what was advertised as the indoor hotel pool. It turned out to be a rather odd establishment run by the YMCA with walls covered in signs forbidding most activities. The strangest announced that ‘When Typhoon Flag 8 is hoisted, pool will be closed and sold tickets will not be refund’.

Having recently read John le Carre’s The Honourable Schoolboy, we wanted to get to the summit of famous Victoria Peak, but had to make do with a view across the misty harbour.

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We pottered about the foreshores in the rain, enjoying the outdoor works of the Kowloon Art Museum.

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On the final day we took the one hour ferry trip across to Macau, avoided the numerous casinos but loved the meld of European and Chinese architecture. Not surprisingly, the highlight for Alan was the ‘Pastelaria’ where we sampled almond biscuits and Portuguese tarts.

Macau was only relinquished by Portugal in 1997, on condition that Beijing allowed it to be a separate administrative region for 50 years. Originally a fishing village, it now depends on tourism and gambling (Jamie Packer owns one of the casinos) to survive economically. The place seems much more relaxed and easy-going than Hongkong.

Looking for a meal before the midnight flight, we returned to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant which is so popular you take a number and wait for up to an hour to be admitted. Everything we tried was delicious, but the baked buns filled with barbecued pork were heavenly. And the entire meal cost less than the single drink we had back at the hotel while waiting for the shuttle bus to the airport.