I’ve been to Montmartre twice. The first time was during a school trip when I was sixteen. Apart from the fact that we had a lovely time being silly teenagers trying to get out of all the mandatory cultural activities, my first visit to the French capital was rather unnerving. Having grown up in a very protective environment, I came to see and hear some things that I wasn’t really prepared for. They have left an everlasting impression on me that has for ever ruined the image of Paris being the most romantic city in the world. I’m not questioning the beauty of the city’s buildings or the fabulous works of art in the many museums. No, it’s just the general feel of the place that I don’t like. And just for the record; the bad experience I had in the seventies wasn’t at Montmartre.
My second visit to Paris goes back to 1984, when I was there in a professional capacity to visit the annual hardware fair with some male colleagues. Their presence made me feel a lot safer than I had felt during our all-girl school trip. The memories of ‘the second time I saw Paris’ are therefore a lot better, although I still get the shivers when I think of our kamikaze tour of the Place de l’Etoile!
One of our salesmen was at the wheel and our CEO was sitting in the passenger seat. I was in the back with two other colleagues. Arriving at the Place de l’Etoile, our driver slowed down to give way to the traffic in the roundabout, but our CEO, who btw was French, shouted: “Foncer - Foncer. Appuyer sur le champignon!!”, meaning “Drive on, Put your foot on it”. In this case ‘champignon’ is a French slang word meaning ‘accelerator’ and has therefore nothing to do with a ‘mushroom’.
In the evening we all went to have dinner at the Place du Tertre on the Montmartre hill at a famous restaurant called ‘La Mère Catherine’. It was a memorable occasion for me as it was the first time that I had veal sweetbreads with morel mushrooms. We had a lovely time eating, drinking and enjoying the hustle and bustle that are typical for this kind of bistro-type restaurant. ‘La Mère Catherine’ is probably just one of the many tourist traps of Montmartre, but the food was more than decent and the rates were okay.
The interior of 'La Mère Catherine'
Founded by Catherine Lemoine in 1793, Chez la Mère Catherine is one of Paris' most famous and historic restaurants. The decor respects its retaining past features such as traditional antiques, bar and chairs. Chez La Mere Catherine, spread throughout large rustic rooms, is the original Paris 'bistro' overlooking the city, with a blooming flowery terrace and a peaceful garden for wonderful summer dining. The menu has certainly changed over the years at Chez la Mere Catherine to meet the tastes of the clientele, but these changes are not so radical as to stray from the typical French cuisine. Offerings on the menu include, amongst other delights, Honey Confit of Suckling Pig, Ginger Grilled Frog's Legs, Seabream with Mango Coulis. Cabaret singers, entertaining you with performances of yesteryear, put on a show every night, while you enjoy your dinner in the romantic atmosphere of the Montmartre village.
Despite this second experience, and however pleasant it was, I have never felt the need to visit Paris again. But I have had lunch at Montmartre twice since my last visit to Paris in 1984 … But more about that tomorrow!
(to be continued)