Wednesday, 28 March 2012

City Of Lights

I ask not for whom the bell tolls, as I know it tolls for me. Dusk is casting its creeping shadows across the Cimitiere de Montmartre, and the guards are prowling the boulevards, their handbells reminding me of my old Primary School Playground, telling the hushed visitors that the gates will be closing and this ornate necropolis will presently be left once more to the stray cats and the silence of centuries. I glance one last time at the tomb of Leo Delibes. I think of his 'Flower Duet', I think of British Airways, I touch the cold marble of his monument and I wish him farewell. Then I head purposefully for the main gate, pausing briefly to lay a pebble on the flat, plain slab that covers Francois Truffaut.
Back in the land of the living, I skirt the base of Montmartre, the Hill of the Martyr. In the half-light, the area called Pigalle has come alive, predatory in its neon gaudiness. Tourists gawp at the Moulin Rouge, but they won't find Toulouse-Lautrec here, or even Ewan and Nicole. It is a tacky, soulless nightclub where the Can-Can remains dutifully performed for the edification of visitors whose sense of history and culture have been warped by the hypnotic kaleidoscope of dancing lights on these streets. I am reminded of Piccadilly Circus.
Pigalle extends its claws at me, girls stepping out from doorways to caress my arm, their French invitations laced heavily with the Eastern European tones of their homelands. I smile and shake my head, the pout on their lips failing to hide the weariness in their eyes. Swinging left at the next sidestreet, I enter another world - a world with a climbing gradient, cobblestones, restaurant odours and windows with flowerboxes; the immediate and comforting 'village' feel of Montmartre. It is far busier than 'Amelie' would have me believe, yet far more enticing and comforting than any one of the young ladies whose brief acquaintance I so recently made.
Up, up the gradient climbs, growing ever steeper. Finally the streets surrender to the steps, great staircases in the side of the hill. At their peak I pause, glance back and down across the City of Lights, my eyes tracing the luminous bulks of the Opera House, the Pantheon, Les Invalides, the glittering needle of Tour Eiffel and its sweeping beacon. Before me, the steps of Sacre Coeur are filled with hawkers, beggars, tourists, a stumbling miasma of humanity bustling like ants below this incense-marinaded Byzantine hulk.
I keep Sacre Coeur to my right as I meander into the Place Du Tertre. Night has fallen, and Montmartre defies it. A proper village square, only a handful of artists left on its fringes, the Picasso Gallery now dark and silent, the restaurants bright and humming. Caricatures, Impressionism and Sacre Couer fill the easels. A waiter gives me a smile of invitation from below the scarlet canopy of Au Cadet De Gascogne. I smile back, peruse the menu and nod. He leads me inside, to a table in the corner, where I have a good view of the pianist and the singer, who warble Gallic at a half-full room while I order Assiete Vegeterienne and a glass of white wine.
This is no place like home, yet somehow I feel exactly at home. A born Europhile I must be. I sip my wine, listen to the music and think of the coming daylight, of the Louvre and Notre Dame, and nothing English disturbs my thoughts.

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