WITH A LITTLE BIT 'O PLUCK : Perseverance Is a Prerequisite for a Discovery Tour of Europe's Lesser-Known Cultural Attractions

Isenberg writes about the arts for The Times.

The lines outside Paris' Jeu de Paume, long the home of the Louvre's Impressionist collection, were so lengthy that it was difficult to even see the front door. When I finally got close enough to see that door, it was in time to watch the guard slip the "closed" sign into place.

Yet just the next day, I was among fewer than 50 people ambling through the Musee Marmottan across town. The Marmottan may have been less famous, thus less frequented than the Jeu de Paume, but it houses what may be the world's largest collection of Monets.

Europe's castles, countryside and food may be wonderful, but Europe, for me, has always been a place to saturate myself in the arts, to pack in museums, plays and concerts until whoever I'm traveling with screams for mercy. And those arts adventures have fortunately included a fair number of wonderful discoveries.

Tourist brochures will point you to such well-heralded treasures as those on view in London's West End theaters, British Museum and Hayward Gallery, and everyone you know will recommend a day at the Louvre or the Beaubourg when you're in Paris. You shouldn't miss the Accademia in Venice, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam or the Renaissance palaces of Florence. But over the years I've encountered, both intentionally and coincidentally, lesser known, but often quite marvelous, European performance groups and museums not always found in traditional guidebooks.

Amsterdam, for instance, boasts about 50 museums and public collections, but one of the finest museums I visited in the Netherlands was the Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterlo, more than an hour's drive from Amsterdam. Built in stages over several decades, the museum is nestled in Holland's largest national park and is surrounded by several monumental sculptures. Inside, there seemed to be endless Van Gogh paintings, while out in the sculpture garden, there were works by Lipchitz and Moore, Rodin and Mark di Suvero.

Paris' Musee Marmottan is no longer so little-known as when I first learned of its existence from a travel article in an out-of-town newspaper. The museum received enormous international attention last fall when a gang of art thieves stole nine Impressionist paintings valued at several million dollars. Those paintings have not yet been recovered, but a guard recently told The Times that attendance hasn't changed despite all the publicity.

Next to a park and playground, the Marmottan opened in 1934 in the former home of an art collector and received the first of its 86 Monet paintings in 1957. (Michel Monet, son of Claude, made major Monet donations to the museum in the 1970s.) There are some Monets on the elegant main floor, but more extensive holdings are in the large, unassuming downstairs area. There, in a sizable open space, are such familiar scenes as the Cathedral at Rouen and Monet's house and garden at Giverny with its pond and waterlilies. (Still missing from the downstairs "La Salle Monet," however, are the stolen Monet paintings, including the famous "Sunrise, an Impression," as well as portraits of Monet by Renoir and Naruse.)

In addition to its staggering collection of Monet's paintings, the museum has glass-enclosed cases displaying the artist's reading glasses, palette, paintbrushes and correspondence. Letters describe the illness of his wife and his financial problems, make appeals for money and even inform us as to his reasons for refusing to authenticate--or even sign--a painting that he can not remember having done. (The letters are handwritten, with typed reproductions on hand for easier reading.) Even the gift-shop area provides insight into Monet's work habits by displaying and selling not only the customary postal cards and notes but also photo reproductions of the artist at work and at play.

Across the Channel in London is the new, smaller and far more contemporary Saatchi Museum. Next-door to a pub and just down the street from a butcher and hairdresser, the year-old museum is largely hidden by a gray gated wall topped with both spikes and a video camera. Inside the gate, however, the huge, renovated paint warehouse displays artworks by such contemporary masters as Frank Stella, Andy Warhol and Donald Judd in a space reminiscent of the Museum of Contemporary Art's Temporary Contemporary site in Los Angeles.

Showing works drawn from the highly regarded collection of Doris and Charles Saatchi, the museum is open to the public only Friday and Saturday afternoons (although appointments can be made for other days of the week). Its first show of works by Judd, Warhol and others was up for seven months, and its current, second show of work by Dan Flavin, Sol LeWitt, Stella and others is scheduled to be on view through June.

About 45 miles out of London, meanwhile, is Finchcocks, a "living museum of music" run by pianist Richard Burnett.

At his Georgian estate in "deepest Kent," Burnett plays host to tour groups and, to a lesser extent, the general public. He plays selections on the historic pianos, organs, harpsichords and other instruments for which the music was written.

Burnett says he never has the house open without music being played, and during the hourlong lecture and demonstration I attended, he played 10 of the 30 instruments that were in working order.

You arrive at Finchcocks after traveling through pleasant countryside, through the gates and along a winding road to the estate. Burnett and his wife keep the house open as a museum during much of the year, and also oversee catering everything from snacks to a cordon bleu dinner such as the one a small group of us was served in the dining room. There are assorted recitals during fall, and in winter Burnett tours elsewhere (including the United States in 1983) giving concerts.

I learned about Finchcocks from a London tour guide. Since many less frequented museums and concert halls are often better known to local residents than to U.S.-based travel agents, it's wise to leave time in your itinerary for on-site research and adventure. A good place to start is the local newspaper, especially in England where the language is familiar. Even leaflets and handouts are sometimes worth a look: On one European visit, for instance, I learned of a wonderful flute-and-organ concert in a Paris church from a sheet handed to me on the street.

Since museums frequently offer a wide range of cultural programming, it's a good idea to visit them as early as possible in your stay in each city. At home and abroad, one can often find theater, music and film programs, as well as lectures, that amplify given exhibitions or are offered on their own merits. Most museums offer either printed or posted calendars of such events, and an early museum visit can result in a rewarding experience later during your stay.

Not all of us can stay in the best hotels abroad, but any of us can prowl their lobbies, look for guidebooks (preferably in English) and ask questions of bored-looking concierges. One evening in Padua, when all of the boats were on strike in nearby Venice and we were landlocked, I asked whether there was any music in town. The hotel clerk said there was something going on at the town square. That something was England's excellent Harlow Chorus performing 17th- and 20th-Century music beneath the dome of the Basilica del Santo, one of Italy's most beautiful churches.

Timing helps. I happened to be in Venice during a Pop Art show at the Palazzo Grassi; imagine Andy Warhol's portrait of Chairman Mao sprawled across the wall of a Renaissance palace. Another time, I was lucky enough to be visiting York, England, during the York Festival and Mystery Plays. The mystery plays--which take place every three years and appear to enlist every man, woman and child residing in York as cast members--are performed in front of and upon the ruins of St. Mary's Abbey.

One can, of course, create one's own good luck. Walls of many Italian buildings--especially in Venice--are frequently cultural billboards. In a relatively short time, a slow walker can gather enough ideas from wallposters to create a pretty full schedule. Little knowledge of Italian is necessary to understand these posters, which I've used to unearth everything from a piano recital in a Venice prison to a live symphony broadcast from a Milan high school.

A little knowledge may not always be enough, however. My minimal command of Italian has resulted in surprises. Some have been pleasant--such as the time I mistakenly bought tickets not for the famed La Scala but rather for the adjacent, smaller house. I saw an obscure Polish opera that, to me, was simply spellbinding and one that I would see again by choice. But a few days later, the fine, inexpensive seats that I was able to buy at the last minute for "The Sleeping Beauty" ballet seemed less impressive when the curtain went up and I discovered that I was about to watch a performance by Italian schoolchildren.

Yet, the arts generally represent one area in which language need not be a barrier. We're accustomed to experiencing opera in a foreign language; ballet is the same in any language, as are paintings and sculpture, although their titles may require some guesswork if identification markers should be in Chinese, Japanese or Serbo-Croatian.

One of the best long-term lessons that many of us drew from the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival was the rich experience that can be gained from more adventuresome theatergoing. Theater, after all, is far more than language. I generally go to the theater in whatever city I'm visiting--whether I speak the language or not--because I can enjoy the sets, the costumes, the gestures, the staging and the reactions of the audience.

A growing number of European cities offer occasional and, sometimes, year-round performances of British and American plays in English. There are professional, ongoing companies in Vienna, Stockholm and Amsterdam, and I've heard of similar activities, by professionals or amateurs, in Paris, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Hamburg and Athens.

In Amsterdam, for instance, I found a local guidebook reference to English Speaking Theatre Amsterdam (ESTA). Tickets were readily available for that evening's performance, and my companion and I soon found ourselves in a tiny storefront theater, watching an excellent production of "Educating Rita." The company, I learned from a friendly usher, had been founded in 1971, usually played to Dutch audiences rather than tourist, and had produced its share of world premieres as well as Dutch premieres. Besides Willy Russell's "Educating Rita," ESTA has produced plays by such familiar playwrights as Sam Shepard, Athol Fugard and Harold Pinter.

Although ESTA is taking a break to reorganize, another Amsterdam-based group called the American Repertory Theatre has been producing such plays as Christopher Durang's "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You. "

In Stockholm, meanwhile, the six-year-old English Theatre Company plays eight performances a week in the 341-seat Regina Theatre between September and April, casting and rehearsing in London such offerings as Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest." Producer Christer Berg says the theater had 105,000 visitors last year, and expects to follow this winter's production of Michael Frayn's new play "Benefactors" with a production this spring of William Gibson's "Two for the Seesaw." "English is our second language in Sweden," Berg says, "and we want to present the best of English-speaking theater."

Europe's oldest English-language company, Vienna's English Theatre, is now nearly 23 years old, and founder Franz Schafranek estimates that in the last five years alone, about 20 groups have visited him in Vienna to inquire about starting similar theater companies. Although 80% of its summer audiences are drawn from abroad, Schafranek boasts of a local subscription audience of more than 7,000.

Schafranek's shows are cast in London and New York and have included both continental and world premieres of plays by everyone from Simon Gray and Noel Coward to William Saroyan and Bernard Slade. Edward Albee was recently there directing one-act plays by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights David Mamet, Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson and himself.

Czechoslovakian-born director Schafranek studied as an actor, worked in Sweden for 10 years--including, he says, time spent as an assistant director to Ingmar Bergman in the '50s--then met American actress Ruth Brinkmann while on vacation in Vienna. The two fell in love, were married in New York, then returned to Vienna and started a theater company in which Brinkmann could perform in English. "We started in 1963," Schafranek says, "and we never stopped."

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