Paris: Following Le Chat Noir

The Eiffel Tower By Night
Panoramic of Paris
Strolling the streets of Paris, I must admit to myself that I finally understand what all the commotion is about. All walks of life seem to coexist here along tree-lined avenues, African immigrants selling their wares among posh women in Chanel suits. It’s as if the magic of the city is in the very air visitors breathe in, infecting them with a sense of why Parisians are so notoriously proud of their city.

Parisians, famous on American shores for their love of snails, have managed to divide their metropolis into a similar form. The city’s uniquely shaped ur­ban sprawl is broken in two by the Seine River, districts spiraling outwards from its bustling city center. Luckily, the river is zigzagged
with bridges connecting Paris’ hearts, the river islands, Île Saint-Louis and Île de la Cité, to the rest of the city.
Me, my windy hair and Notre Dame
The Backside of Notre Dame, at Sunset.
On a hill overlooking Paris’ best known sites like the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral and the world famous Louvre and Orsay art museums, there exists a (somewhat) lesser-known side of Paris: Montmar­tre. Montmartre is a beautiful neighborhood perched at the top of a steep hill to the north of Paris’ city center.
Moulin Rouge

As I huff and puff up the hill to Montmartre from Pigalle, the risqué neighborhood home to the Moulin Rouge made famous stateside by the movie of the same name, I think about the great art­ists who climbed this path before me: Picasso, Dalí, Monet, Van Gogh and Renoir. Somehow, all of these men, in their times, were drawn to Paris, and more specifi­cally to Montmartre. Occasional­ly tripping on cobblestones, I can easily imagine the Montmartre of days long gone. A Montmartre without four-star hotels, full of poor artists, and their models.

Anyone for a cafe au lait on the terrace?

Winding my way through the crowds, I arrive at Placa du Te­tre, a wide square crammed full of less famous artists and their wares framed by restaurants and their terraces. A couple nearby is being sketched out in charcoal by one of the many “floating” portrait artists that wander from terrace to terrace searching out clients, with no set stand.

Losing myself in Montmartre’s narrow streets, I follow a small black cat, Le Chat Noir, a Parisian symbol come to life, in and out of various establishments. Who does it belong to? Trilling notes of an upright piano escape a bar. I stop, distracted for a moment, and the black cat has disappeared. Peer­ing in, I notice there are no empty tables, so I wander back out again, and continue down the road until I find a little park, and here I stop and rest, pondering a fountain with a statue of a bishop cradling his head in arms. What could have happened to this bishop to make him literally lose his head?

Placa du Tetre

After a few moments of fierce concentration on my research about Paris prior to this trip, I recall the story of this unusual clergyman. Before Picasso was a household name, even before Paris was a re­nowned cultural center, Montmar­tre, the highest hill in Paris, was a site of religious importance in the area. Montmartre means Martyr’s Mountain in French. It was here that France’s patron saint, Saint Denis, was killed around 250 A.D.

According to legend, after he was beheaded for converting too many locals, St. Denis picked up his head, and started walking and preaching and didn’t stop un­til he was two miles away. This site, where St. Denis finally died and was buried, later became St. Denis Basilica, the burial site of French Kings.
Of course people are amazed and won over by Paris. Paris is chock full of oddities and sur­prises like St. Dennis. 

Only in Paris can the visitor sit down and keep St. Dennis and his head company while enjoying another of the city’s surprises, The Croque Monsieur. Croque Monsieur roughly translates to the Crispy or Crunchy Mister. While French food in general is rich and often difficult to prepare, the Croque Monsieur is a fast and easy meal that even children will enjoy.

While there are many new spins on this hot sandwich, the traditional recipe is ridiculously simple. Quality ham, and if possible quality Em­mental or Gruyere cheese (some possible substitutes would be Swiss cheese for Emmental, or mild cheddar for Gruyere), should be placed between two slices of white bread (or wheat if you prefer) and fried in butter. Some modern varia­tions include a layer of béchamel sauce on top of the sandwich which is then broiled in the oven, but the classic version is hard to beat. It’s a great snack or quick meal for kids, and while they munch, you can tell them the story of the Crispy Mister sandwich.

One story goes that some French workers created the sand­wich by accident when they left their lunchboxes too close to a radiator and discovered that the cheese in their ham and cheese sandwiches had melted. Another tale claims that a brilliant French chef was savvy enough to fry the once bland sandwich in butter until it was crisp, golden and de­licious.

At any rate, the Croque Mon­sieur is a great way to expose yourself or your children to French food with no fuss. Before you know it, you’ll be progress­ing from crepes to snails!

Copyright 2008, Chris Ciolli. First Published in the “Tipton Times”.

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