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Terri’s Travels: Paris – Montmartre and Musee de I’Armee

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Montmartre is known as the place that nurtured most of the great artists in France.
Montmartre is known as the place that nurtured most of the great artists in France.

Every time I go to Paris, I think I have to go to the Eiffel Tower, The Louvre,   and the Champs-Élysées…but this last trip we decided to check out some other areas and museums in this fantastic city.  We had heard so much about a very quaint district of Paris that is rich in artistic history called Montmartre. We had never been there before and were ready to explore. It did not disappoint!

As we wandered the cobblestone streets and marveled at the bohemian vibe we made our way to the breathtaking view at the highest point in Paris. At every street corner, artists from the “belle Epoque” (musicians, magicians, circus performers, singers, historical characters such as Modigliani, Valentin le désossé and Poulbot)  enable you to relive the legendary history of this famous village within the metropolis.

As we walked up a steep hill in this historic neighborhood we saw the Basilica of Sacre-Coeur (known as the big white church).  It crowns the tallest hill in Paris. We figured out that as long as you are heading uphill there is little possibility of being lost for long. Oddly enough, at the bottom of the hill is the Boulevard de Clichy, which is an area that is a little racy and somewhat seedy, but still very interesting.

We took the metro to Abbesses station and stepped out into the heart of Montmartre. But because so many great poets have told us “the journey is more important than the destination,” I would recommend you start at metro Blanche (Moulin Rouge) and gradually enter the village. This will make it feel more like a pilgrimage toward the place that nurtured most of the great artists living in France this past century.
Many artists had studios or worked in or around Montmartre, including Salvador Dalí, Amedeo Modigliani, Claude Monet, Piet Mondrian, Pablo Picasso, Camille Pissarro and Vincent van Gogh. Montmartre is also the setting for several hit films.

While on this unique journey we found our new favorite place to eat in Paris. It is restaurant La Mere Catherine and is in the heart of Montmartre. They even claim it is “The First French Bistro”. At our table, which was in a traditional Parisian “bistro” environment, we enjoyed delicious authentic French cuisine. The atmosphere was perfect with the talent of local singers,   accompanied by the piano, they sang to the beat of traditional French songs in their charming dining room. This was an unforgettable evening!

Founded in 1793, it is one of the oldest restaurants in Paris. A plaque at its entrance gives a folk etymology of the word “bistro”. In 1814, while a group of Russian soldiers were dining at La Mère Catherine, they asked for drinks, bystro (Russian for “quickly”). That is when “bistro” became a description of a restaurant where you could get food or drink quickly. All just steps away from the breathe taking Sacre-Coeur.

Ron and I love visiting historical churches and The Basilica Sacre-Coeur is no exception. We were there on a Sunday night and witnessed a beautiful service and heard a choir sing made up of only nuns. Sacre-Coeur was  built after the French were embarrassed by a brief but successful occupation by the Germans in 1870. The Basilica is based in Roman architecture and took over 40 years to build. From a distance, the stark white domes are powerful and imposing. During WWII, 13 bombs are said to have landed on the church, but resulted in no casualties, which lent the place special status among the local people. For 5 euros you can climb the 80 meter dome and get a spectacular view of Paris.

Our new museum to visit this time was quite a treat as well. It was Les Invalides Museum, officially known as L’Hôtel national des Invalides. I must admit, I had my reservations about going to a military museum. I really expected it to be boring. However…I was fascinated!

It is a handsome complex of multiple buildings in the 7th arrondissement of Paris not too far from the Champs-Élysées.  It contains museums and monuments, all relating to the military history of France, as well as a hospital and a retirement home for war veterans – the building’s original purpose. The building is the home of the Musée de l’Armée, the military museum of the Army of France, as well as the burial site for some of France’s war heroes, notably Napoleon Bonaparte.

This museum opened in 1905 just after the World Fair. We were amazed at how large it is as it extends over 80,000 square feet and is made up of a museum and two churches with some 500,000 objects. This makes it one of the largest museums of military history in the world. The permanent collections are presented chronologically in ‘historical’ collections representing time periods, from Antiquity to the end of the Second World War.

We enjoyed viewing The World War II exhibition as it is particularly extensive and covers several rooms, with displays on the German invasion, the occupation of France, the resistance and liberation. There’s also coverage of the Holocaust, the American involvement in the war as well as the war in the Pacific.

Visitors can also view a large collection of ancient arms and armor from the thirteenth to seventeenth centuries as well as hunting and tournament weapons and armour. It’s really amazing.

The impressive Dome Church, which is part of the museum complex, was originally painted by Charles de La Fosse. In 1989 the dome was given a new coat of gold leaf for the bicentenary of the French Revolution (requiring $600,000 of gold).

The church is a real military pantheon, with monumental tombs containing Vauban’s heart, the remains of Turenne and the heart of La Tour d’Auvergne. But the Dome Church is probably most famous for being the home to the tombs of the Emperor Napoleon I, his brothers Joseph and Jerome Bonaparte, his son, the King of Rome.

For fans of Napoleon Bonaparte, there are some very rare items to view, including the general’s own uniforms and hats, his field tent, his personal trophies and even his stuffed horse that is branded with the Napoleon creast. The collection of period uniforms, in general, is fascinating and is among the most extensive of any such collection in the world.

I knew Ron would like seeing this place, but to my surprise, I really enjoyed it too!

Terri Guthrie and her pilot husband, Ron, travel around the world and share their experiences with readers of The Cross Timbers Gazette.

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