Sunday, September 25, 2005

Madhu, Mogan and Montparnasse

Sheila Kumar gets a rather unusual perspective on Paris, popularly known as ‘The City of Lights’. 

Sue, Madhu and me meet Mogan (from Tiruchirapally) one autumn evening in the foyer of our hotel, the Hotel Montmartrois in Paris. After Mogan spooks us with a slew of warnings about “being careful,” he insists we go dine at a nearby Indian place called Basmathy. We meekly agree, then head for the nearest bistro where we have a Croque Monsieur each, with the cheese bubbling on the bread, and share a carafe of some great local wine. 

In the morning, I watch dawn filter in, the soft light revealing a row of gray roofs topped by little terracotta chimney pots. 

Our hotel is located at the foot of the Sacre Coeur basilica in the Bohemian quarter of Montmartre, one-time haunt of artists like Van Gogh, Picasso and Toulouse -Lautrec. A steep climb, and we are gazing up at the gargoyles atop the church before heading into its hushed interiors. To one side, is the Square des Batignolles where artists are working on delightful pret landscapes. 

We then take the Metro to the Notre Dame. This is where Madhu comes in: empowered with superb map- reading skills, some rudimentary French and all set to conquer Paris. Neither the workings of the Metro rail nor the overwhelming absence of spoken English would faze her; she would sit down calmly and figure out the way to the next destination. And of course, we got there. 

That symbol of medieval Paris, the Notre Dame takes all morning to explore; after we do the church, we climb the 387 extremely worn stone steps in the North Tower up to the lair of Quasimodo, Victor Hugo’s famous if fictional hunchback. A stunning view from the ramparts: the Seine gleaming silver below, ghoulish stone figures silently beside, the gray ironmongery of the Eiffel shimmering ahead. 

Next is the Sainte Chapelle, a curious departure from the usual European beauty-in-austerity principle, with its baroque colours, Byzantine interiors and the magnificent Rose window, its stained-glass panels depicting scenes from the Bible. 

Post-lunch, we go for a bateau ride down La Seine. Another day, and at the famous Boulevard St Michel, elegant women walk by with bags bearing names like Chanel, Dior and Darjeeling, (a brand of lingerie here!); people sip wine or café au lait under gaily striped little umbrellas. We walk up the road to gaze reverentially at that academic fountainhead, the Sorbonne. 

At the Eiffel Tower, we choose not to go up the 300-metre edifice and instead, sit in the Champs de (garden of) Mars, people-watching. A couple is sharing a bottle of rose wine on the grass, an Indian in a spiffy trench coat is chatting up a pretty blonde; and everyone is indulging in the three-kisses routine that is so essentially French. Night falls, the Eiffel lights up, and it is a moment of sheer magic. 

Avoiding the Basmathy once again, we dine at a Lebanese joint, get lost in the many rues that criss- cross Montmartre but thanks to Madhu, finally, fetch up to find no Mogan at Reception. 

The next day, we head for the magnificent Musee de Orsay, formerly a train station, going straight into the Impressionists section to immerse ourselves totally in the magnificent works of Degas, Renoir, Seurat, Manet, Monet, Pissarro. From there it’s to the mother of all museums, the Louvre, which stretches half-a-mile long, one magnificent sprawl of grey-blue stone. Here too, we zero in on what we want to see the most: the Winged Victory, Venus and of course La Gioconda, the Mona Lisa. Da Vinci’s masterpiece is smaller than we had imagined, fatter, with the smile of a well-fed feline. 
Later, I walk down the Tuileries Garden where all the trees have taken on a delightful auburn and russet hue, to L’Orangerie, to see Monet’s `Water Lilies` stopping en route to gaze upon Henry Moore’s reclining nude and Rodin’s evocative work, ‘The Kiss.’ Dinner that night, is the famed escargots, snails, and all I will say is that it is an acquired taste. 

The next day is earmarked for the long walk past the Place de la Concord (venue of the guillotine during the Revolution) up the chestnut-lined avenue of the Champs Elysee, with its boutiques, shops and theatres (including the perennially popular Lido), to Napoleon I’s monument to victory, the Arc de Triomphe. Cliché or not, one just has to say it: it is, indeed, a doppelganger for our India Gate! 
Other musts for us are the ‘boites’ (black metal boxes) on the Left Bank with its old books, posters and erotica, and a stroll down the Mecca of fashion, the rue Faubourge St Honore. 

Then we Metro it to Pigalle, the Sex Street of the city, with its lace and leather shops, its live shows, and of course the Moulin Rouge. We decide 85 Euros is too much to gaze upon naked women and instead, sit on the roundabout just outside that windmill, eating some delicious crepes. 

Around this time we realise we haven’t seen Mogan after that first evening. In fact, we never get to see Mogan for the rest of our Parisian interlude…has he run away? Been “taken out” by some sinister elements? 

Another bracingly cold morn and we are at the Café Flores, one-time haunt of the heroes of our youth, John Paul Sartre and Simone Beauvoir. We have coffee, foreswear the cigarettes our heroes would have smoked and later, go stare at the opulent Opera Garnier, supposed home to the original love-lorn Phantom, and eat onion soup at the one of the city’s oldest restaurants, the `Voltaire` below what used to be the great man’s home. 

Montparnasse is the station at which my purse got picked, en route to Chartres…alas, one of Mogan’s predictions did come true. Ultimately, one way or the other, Madhu, Mogan and Montparnasse define an unforgettable Paris sojourn.


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