The Metro in Paris is a splendid way to get around swiftly and cheaply. After buying a combined ticket for Metro and busses for the length of your stay at a station, it is only necessary thereafter to refer to a Metro and street map of the city to be free to travel wherever and whenever it pleases you. One of the few snags is that sometimes there are many steps to climb. So old people and invalids beware. And do not expect to see smiles or hear laughter on the Metro. Passengers tend to be dull, sullen, selfish and inconsiderate. So, although the wonderful Art Nouveau entrances entice you into thinking that below ground will be a continuation of the Belle Epoque, Gay Paree will not be in evidence.
My brother-in-law and his wife came to Paris to meet us at the station. The Dutch are very keen to meet and say farewell – and, in this case, to share in a birthday. In fact, birthdays in Holland are the most important days in anyone’s year. So we planned to introduce them to some favourite restaurants and take them on a short tour of Toulouse- Lautrec’s haunts.
From our room in Hotel Terminus Nord, opposite the Gare du Nord station, we had a view of the dome of Sacré Coeur above the zinc roofs of the ubiquitous seven story blocks that form Paris. And it was beneath this church and around part of the hill on which it stands that was our target area. This, of course, included the Moulin Rouge and the Moulin de la Galette
Waldemar Januszczak, who writes on art for the Sunday Times, described in detail where Degas worked, Suzanne Valadon posed and painted, and where Toulouse-Lautrec slept, painted his cabaret artistes and lesbians, debauched, orgied, and drank absinthe to excess.
With my previously marked map, and the newspaper article at hand, we walked up and down hill to cover a comparatively small area to look at the relevant buildings and studios. The area was a small one, as befitted a man short of leg. And it was not only very interesting and instructive, but introduced us to a part of Paris previously unknown to us.
It was during this walk that we ate at Wepler in the Place Clichy (see piece on Food and Drink in Paris).
The other main quest of ours was a regular one. It was to see, once more, the bronze, Dalou sculpture on the tomb of Victor Noir in Père Lachaise cemetery.
The story is that in 1870, Victor Noir, a popular and handsome journalist, known for his partiality to women, was invited to be a witness to the fixing of terms for a duel between Napoleon’s great nephew, Prince Pierre Bonaparte, and a politician. But an argument ensued and Pierre Bonaparte, pistol in hand, shot Victor Noir dead on the spot.
Bonaparte, because of his considerable connections (he was cousin of the ruling Napoleon III), got off scot-free.
This acquittal so upset the population of Paris that the body of Victor Noir was transferred to the famous Paris cemetery of Père Lachaise and money was raised to commission the famous sculptor-of-the-day, Dalou, to make a life-size bronze effigy of the journalist to rest on the tomb.
Dalou seized the chance of enjoying this much-talked-of commission. The bronze appeared as a very dapper Victor Noir, with top hat fallen to the side as though he had just been felled by Bonaparte’s shot.
However, with Noir’s trousers slightly undone, Dalou had created a larger-than-life bulge within them.
The bulge was quite noticeable to any onlooker, especially to the female sex, who right away saw it as a fertility object. So it was not long before that particular protuberance became well polished as the infertile or sex-starved ladies of Paris rubbed a vital part of their anatomy over it. Also, those with expectations of marriage within the year might kiss him on the mouth and rub the toes of his boots.
Along with these motions it became almost obligatory to place flowers in the fallen top hat.
However, these actions were considered to be unseemly by the authorities, and a fence was placed around the statue. But the female population of Paris would have none of it, and the fence had to be dismantled.
So there he lies, the handsome Victor Noir, fresh flowers always in his top hat, and with the greeny/blue verdigris of bronze all over, except where it has been polished regularly to a fine sheen.
It is one of the more delightful sights of Paris.
The cemetery was about to close when we had, at last, found our old friend Victor Noir. So, with fading light, and calls for visitors to leave, it was a pleasure to say goodbye to this enormous collection of tombs that commemorate people that shortly after death were thought to be of great importance and are now almost all forgotten – except for a very few, like Victor Noir.
We set out to renew our acquaintance with the Marais area, its Jewish quarter and the Picasso Museum.
Starting at the Bastille, the Place des Vosges would be our first target. This large and very grand early 17th century square (the first planned square in Paris) never fails to impress with its arch-enclosed promenade pavements. The brick and stone buildings are unified, yet vary slightly in the colour of brickwork.
The Picasso Museum is housed in the most glorious of town houses. Difficult to conduct onself around without either missing rooms or unexpectedly reaching them again, there are some fine paintings to be seen – yet, I had the feeling that many were the works of a very gifted grown-up child having the most glorious time at other people’s often considerable expense. But the rooms, staircase and especially the vaulted cellar, in a way dwarfed the artist’s work housed in them. To me, Picasso was one of the most gifted draughtsmen of all time. But here there were too few of his drawings to be seen – unless we missed some rooms full of them.
On our way out of the Marais we passed the Pompidou Centre which might, or might not, be covered in scaffolding. We are not museum people, and the Picasso showing was enough for the day.
Because of the lack of “modern” buildings, and the apartment blocks that have formed Paris as it is, it is an unchanging city in which one always seems to feel at home. Though I do rather miss the smells of the drains, the Gitanes Mais cigarettes and the convenience and sniff of the pissoirs of old. At least the balayeuses still turn on the water to run down the gutters from the highest point on their length, and to sweep the detritus from street and pavement into it to run downhill to the nearest drain. But the twigs on their brooms of old have been replaced by bright green plastic. So times do change in Paris.