Passages of past

We’re living in onerous times ladies and gents. And whoever you are and wherever you live, it’s beginning to become extremely difficult to separate yourself from the many toxic forces at work in today’s world. As you may have read before, when times are tough and positive reflection is needed (when it’s nice out and Downton Abbey re-runs fall short), I often choose to hang out in one of Paris’ many cemeteries. Odd I know, but you’ll soon learn the attraction, and for our lesson to begin we must convene at one of the city’s most famous (and the most visited necropolis in the world) – Père Lachaise.

I haven’t covered it before since it’s never been my aim to focus purely on Paris’ greatest hits, but rather draw attention to the less obvious, but no less delightful locations to be found on the capital’s map. Also on my agenda is a wish to highlight those must-see sites that are free, or at least don’t cost the earth, since we’re in a city with a reputation for being a financial drain of mythical proportions for would-be tourists.

And so we find ourselves in the 20th arrondissement in the city’s first and largest municipal cemetery (44 hectares), established in 1804 and named after King Louis XIV’s confessor, Father François d’Aix de La Chaise (1624-1709). Created on the site of the latter’s Jesuit dwelling by newly proclaimed Emperor Napoleon, it was forged under the leader’s declaration that “every citizen has the right to be buried regardless of race or religion”, and picked up the slack along with the city’s other large burial sites at Montmartre, Montparnasse and Passy after the closure of the central Cimetière des Innocents in 1780.

Designed by Neoclassical architect Alexandre-Theodore Brongniart, although it houses 70,000 burial plots today and has accepted an estimated million individuals over the years, initially it struggled with a bit of an image problem; being so far out of the city it didn’t attract many takers. Thanks to a clever marketing strategy, notables were transferred there to encourage would-be ‘guests’, first revered writers Jean de la Fontaine and Molière in 1804, then philosopher and theologian Pierre Abélard and his writer-nun lover Héloïse d’Argenteuil in 1817 (their tomb, left). Rumour has it if you leave a letter here, your chances of finding true love will be greatly increased.

The plan worked, and the plots were soon hotly coveted, with ordinary working Parisians being laid to rest alongside political heroes, celebrated artists and colourful famous names. ‘Grave spotting’ might sound macabre, but checking out the list before you go and plotting a route based on your own ‘greatest hits’ (printable map here) is a sensible way to negotiate the vast avenues and winding paths (I chose to pay my respects in particular to Paris planner Baron Haussmann and fountain philanthropist Sir Richard Wallace). Say hi to the likes of Balzac, Chopin, Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde (his be-lipsticked tomb pictured right before it got cleaned up and sealed off) Edith Piaf and Colette, amongst many other well-knowns, if you happen to pass by.

Alongside avenues of telephone box-sized upright tombs and flat burial stones, you’ll also find many commemorative monuments including beautiful statues in remembrance of (amongst others) victims of war, concentration and extermination camps, aerial accidents, the French Revolution of 1848, and municipal workers. There are dedicated religious enclosures in respect of the different faiths laid to rest here, and the Monument aux Morts is dedicated to the remains of unidentified Parisians. There’s something about being immersed in a place of quiet contemplation with layers of history in the air that introduces a sense of calm; perhaps a reminder of the trials and tribulations, and ultimate fragility and finality of the human experience.

From plaques and simple headstones to elaborate mausoleums, each plot has a story to tell, and it’s in equal measures fascinating and sobering trying to hear them all. Believe it or not yours could still be one of them once you shuffle off the mortal coil, if you’ve lived or die in Paris (still hope for me!) and you have enough cash to purchase a lease. Though if you’re lucky enough to call this your final resting place, there’s not much ‘final’ about it, except if you’re rich enough to afford a perpetual lease, if not, you’re only set for 10, 30 or 50 years, with remains then transferred to the Aux Morts ossuary (a sort of mini catacombs). Not that it’s a good thing to think about death in these negative times, but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared….

8 boulevard de Ménilmontant, Paris, 75020, metro Phillipe Auguste or Père Lachaise. For more information on access, opening times and the like, click here.

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View-ly scrumptious

IMG_2005Inner city living, eh? Flying by the seat of your pantalons from metro to boulot to whichever hipster hangout or cultural happening is the flavour of the moment, dodging your fellow chic citizens along the way. A constant thrill ride though it can be, sometimes you just need to take yourself off to a quiet green corner and take a few (hours of) deep relaxing breaths before you give in to the urge to boff someone across the chops for pushing in front of you at the supermarket. It’s high tension living for sure.

Thankfully large cities are fairly accommodating things and provide us with parks a plenty in which to mull over our urban woes, savour a sandwich or stroll through the leafy air without purpose to recharge our lungs. Paris may find it hard to compete with the sheer size and centrality of London’s royal parks or New York’s Central Park in its very heart, but there are enough small patches of lawn for everyone to have somewhere near to have a breather.IMG_2003

My need for the green took me up to Parc de Belleville one afternoon, sandwiched between Buttes Chaumont and Père Lachaise in the 20th arrondissement. An enormous sweeping park it isn’t, moulding itself around the hilly contours of the neighbourhood with enough steps to provide a behind-shaping workout, but with its winding leafy-lined paths, it’s probably the most Central Park-y space Paris can muster (minus the kamikaze squirrels).

It may not have Parc Monceau’s refined beauty or the classic charm of the Jardin du Luxembourg, but one thing it can particularly puff its chest out for is the view you get from the top. At 108 metres it’s the highest park in Paris, and therefore an awesome spot from which to survey the beauty of the capital spread out below. All the gang are in the picture; the Eiffel Tower, Tour Montparnasse and every church tall enough to muscle into view, plus there’s a handy plan that points it all out to you and a viewing scope for a close-up look.

IMG_1993Your only other options for getting a decent panoramic view of our darling girl is to shimmy up one of the highest buildings or climb the stairs to Montmartre, but we all know how common those ideas are. Nothing ruins a wide shot of the city scape like a strange tourist’s head. Here you can take in the scene in perfect peace without a foreign elbow shattering your sense of calm.

Once you’ve convinced yourself you’ve correctly identified where your apartment/hotel is in the geographical scheme of things, you can head down slope to a park bench, a patch of the 1000m squared of lawn, or choose instead to get to the bottom of that misty haze hanging over your vision, and check out the (free to get into) Maison de l’Air which will educate you about the importance of fresh air and the pollution problems choking it up. There’s a definite undercurrent of environmental protection in this park more than any other.IMG_1998

If the weather’s just not playing ball, check out the view and head toute de suite afterwards to one of the colourful independent cafes in the area, where the prices are far friendlier than in the packed-to-the-pavement tourist hangouts. This weekend though you won’t have to, given that we’re set to be graced with sun and an unseasonably warm 23-degrees. Time to give your sunnies their swan song and take in the panorama before the winter descends.

 

Dead interesting

IMG_1956What does one do on a beautiful autumn afternoon in Paris? Head to a terrace and sip on a glass of rosé? Stroll along the banks of the Seine and soak up the sunshine? Not if you’re Kim you don’t. You head to a cemetery.

My last seven days have been very much less than perfect (in a magnificent understatement), so you’d hardly blame me for looking for a giant hole to fall in and escape the world. But that’s not why yesterday afternoon I found myself in a burial ground, it just so happens that my usual long walk home takes me past the Montmartre cemetery and for the first time, I decided to have a wander through.IMG_1964

‘Paris is dead’, the hipster avant gardists might say. Well it seems alive and kicking to me, but it certainly is full of dead, this beautiful graveyard being one of many scattered throughout the capital. Given the host of other beautiful things there are to explore in Paris, a cemetery is a pretty tough sell. But for me, there’s so much silent beauty to be found, I might just take a detour through it every day. Plus if you’re in a bad mood, it can remind you quite convincingly that things could be a whole lot worse.

IMG_1947If it’s serene solitude you seek, there are fewer more peaceful places to sit and read, or contemplate the meaning of life (and death, of course). You won’t hear a peep out of the residents, and the traffic and city noise refuses to penetrate as if you’ve actually just stepped right into the underworld. I saw a few singular people doing exactly that as I wandered through, happily ensconced between the tombs, perhaps reading the histories of the souls who rested beside them.

Personally, the silence barely registers with me at all, and instead I feel surrounded by centuries of chatter, generated by the stories of those who lie buried beneath the ground. Their Paris would have been so very different to mine, and as I passed grave after grave looking at the dates bookending each life, I imagined the experiences they would have had, what they would have taken from, and contributed to this uniquest of cities.  Soon after this had occurred to me, I happened upon the tomb of Louise Weber, or ‘La Goulue’, the creator of the French cancan. You can’t get more Paris-stopped-in-time than that.IMG_1962

If the stories of ordinary Parisians of ages past weren’t interesting enough, there are plenty of writers, painters, scientists, politicians and celebrities of the golden age who are laid to rest here. In Montmartre you can find the graves of Émile Zola, Alexandre Dumas Fils and Edgar Degas, though it’s the two bigger cemeteries of Père Lachaise and Montparnasse that contain most of the famous names. Here you can pay your respects to, amongst many more, Jim Morrison, Chopin, Molière, Balzac, Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde (former) and Guy de Maupassant, Charles Baudelaire, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir (latter).

IMG_1963In this digital age where only the photo seems to be important, there’s something quite arresting about physically being next to the resting place of a great figure, as if you can somehow absorb part of their spirit just by being close. In any case, the time of elaborate burials is over, so you’ll be walking through a beautiful museum of mourning filled with statues, sculpture and messages of love, even if you don’t know the famous names. Doesn’t it do us all good to just sit and reflect every once in a while?

For more info about the three major cemeteries and some of the lesser know ones dotted in and outside the périphérique, click here.