Thursday, May 21, 2009

Montmartre Tour

Last Saturday was a fun filled day for Bobby and me. In the morning we took a guided walking tour of the Montmartre area, we dined on African couscous in the afternoon, and that night we took our crêpe pan on her maiden voyage!

The two hour walking tour of Montmartre (mount of martyrs) was both interesting and entertaining. Montmartre is the name of the hill in the 18th arrondisement. A 15 minute walk from our apartment, it is a very different neighborhood from our own. Famous for the Basilica Sacré Coeur (sacred heart) which caps the hilltop, the area also hosted artists Monet, Picasso, Matisse, Degas, Renoir, van Gogh, and Dali during its Bohemian days in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many young (and poor) artists flocked to this area because it was cheap. Now days, it is one of the more expensive areas to live in, not to mention crawling with tourists!

We expected the tour to focus on Sacré Coeur and the Bohemian history, but it instead focused on the history of the hill itself. The Montmartre hill (the tallest hill in Paris) is filled with gypsum, which was heavily mined by ancient Romans (mining did not stop until the 1830s). The hill was once covered with wind-mills, used to crush the gypsum. Two of these wind-mills remain today. The Romans built a temple, dedicated to Mercury, on top of the hill. The site of the Mercury temple is also where the legend of Saint Denis takes place. Saint Denis, the region's first bishop, refused to renounce Christianity, so the ruling Romans decapitated him next to the temple. The body of Saint Denis picked up his head and walked two miles, preaching the whole way. The place where he collapsed, finally dead, is where Basilica Saint Denis now sits, just north of the city. The original Roman temple was later converted into an abbey, Saint Pierre. Construction started in 1134, making it the second oldest church in Paris (Saint Germain des Prés is the oldest, with construction beginning in 990). Inside of the church you can still see some of the Roman columns, which were incorporated into the church's structure.

The vineyards of Montmartre are another ancient Roman layover. The wine produced from the very small vineyard is supposedly some of the worst wine produced in France! However, the proceeds from the wine go toward social programs (it is like going to your child's elementary school art auction: you don't expect spend a lot of money for a fine piece of art, you are supporting a cause). The arrondisement government picks one artist each year who designs a label for the wine, which is then sold at auction.

After our wonderful tour, Bobby and I headed into the true heart of the 18th arrondisement, off rue Barbès, for some authentic couscous. This area is heavily populated by African immigrants and boasts many African grocery stores and restaurants. I grew up traveling with my parents, and they taught me that when in doubt, eat in a crowded restaurant, not an empty one. With this advice in mind, we walked into a hole-in-the-wall 'restaurant'. Consisting of 4 communal tables, two dozen folding chairs, and a counter with 2 varieties of what I thought was couscous, 4 varieties of curry, and fried plantains, the place was packed! I ordered the red 'couscous' (we think it was some kind of short grain rice cooked with tomatoes) and some kind of beef curry. Bobby also ordered the red 'couscous' but topped it with a lamb curry. Both were accompanied by plantains and a spoonful of piment (hot sauce). After dishing up our plates, the man behind the counter then placed them in microwaves to warm up (I know, we should have left at this point). Once nuked, we took our plates to one of the large tables and dug into what we expected to be an awesome meal. About 3 unsatisfied bites in, Bobby and I looked up at each other and exchanged a knowing glance: there was no way we were going to escape diarrhea.

Quick lecture: our parents think Bobby and I are crazy eaters. My father in particular can not believe the food we eat. His rule for foreign travel eating: don't drink water, don't eat fruit, only eat boiled vegetables. Our rule for foreign travel eating: if we've never had it before, go for it. In Thailand, we visited local markets and gorged on fresh fruit and ate snail curry. In Cambodia, we cautiously ate whole eel curry. In Singapore, we considered eating fish head curry. In all of our adventures, neither one of us has gotten sick. I think this makes my Dad angry, or possibly jealous. When I told him about Bobby's unfortunate experience with the St. Malo oysters, Dad's response was along the lines of, "It's about time."

Back to the meal: Bobby stopped eating about half way through his plate, when he reached the cold, un-nuked portion of food, while I forged ahead and almost completed mine. Walking back home, we had a few moments of panic, but we managed to get home without incident. Oddly enough, we never did come down with the expected unpleasant side-effects. I'm pretty sure this will anger Dad!

As a way of celebrating non-exploding-stomachs, Bobby and I used our new crêpe pan that evening! With a fantastic batter recipe, Bobby made perfect crêpes which we filled with a variety of jams: lavender, violet, Earl Grey (yes, we have Earl Grey jam. It is awesome), black fig, and raspberry. What better way to celebrate iron stomachs?

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