Newest Review: ... long day of amazement followed by photographs. Many of the graves were in fact small crypts dedicated to entire families. Each had a d... more
The legendary City of the Dead
Cimetiere du Pere Lachaise (Paris, France)
Member Name: TheWiseMan
Cimetiere du Pere Lachaise (Paris, France)
Date: 31/12/10, updated on 31/12/10 (107 review reads)
Advantages: It's free!
Disadvantages: Needs a tea room
I trudged on foot to Pere Lachaise cemetery, from the direction of the Place de la Republique, first negotiating a street protest and then what seemed like 8.2 million cars and scooters. Eventually I made it across to the Avenue de la Republique and got into an assured stride. It was an early autumn morning and the boulevard was reasonably quiet. I had read somewhere (probably in a Jim Morrison biography) that the cemetery was huge and I became worried I would be gasping for tea later in the day, so I nipped into a lovely patisserie close to my destination. I'm convinced it was the same place I later saw in a film named 'Paris' starring Juliette Binoche. The main character in the film has an apartment overlooking the cemetery, so maybe I am right.
I knew I had reached Pere Lachaise because I saw two drunk tramps hanging about near a portaloo. Beyond them stood the grey walls of this mournful citadel. I entered through what I took to be the main gate on Boulevard Menilmontant. Turns out I could have got the Metro, but I was new in town and wanted to psyche myself up before heading below. It was free to enter - only the graveyards and parks are free in Paris. Everywhere else is rip-off city.
Once within, appreciating the scale of the necropolis, I decided to attempt to view it in sections, starting on my immediate left hand side. The first thing which threw me were the statues and busts which adorned the graves or were in fact the graves themselves. I saw an emerald green statue an old chap waving a sword (the blade was gone) and was taken by the look on his face and so began a long day of amazement followed by photographs.
Many of the graves were in fact small crypts dedicated to entire families. Each had a door and in many cases a window. Some appeared to have been long since forgotten and I considered the grave of my grandfather and how small and grubby that was. I got right in amongst the graves and crypts. I was ashamed at first, but it was very quiet and some of the most interesting busts and statues were hidden away off the main Avenues of death.
I noted many crypts had no doors to front them and I stepped inside them. Some had empty beer bottles within, but on the whole the cemetery was relatively free from garbage when you consider the scale of it. Just then, a young man in black asked me if I spoke French. I replied 'non' and he rattled through the same question in a variety of languages. Exhausted by my non compliance, he smiled, shook his head and disappeared into the maze of concrete. He may have been a junkie or a George Michael fan, or he may even have been trying to give me the secret of existence - I will never now.
I saw the memorial to those killed resisting the NAZI regime and noted a familiar name on the plaque. I realised the street I was living on had been re-named after one of the fallen. I stared at the wall were the last of the Commune were thrown against and shot. I heard the noise of children playing in a nearby school yard and the sun threw light onto the wall. It was lunch time already - time stands still in Pere Lachaise. I was gasping for some tea, but had to make do with some bottled water.
Despite the cemetery being quiet and there not being too many tourists on the day I went, I noted a man placing flowers on a grave. I looked closely without causing annoyance; it was the chap who owned the café I had dined in the previous night. I acknowledged the coincidence and it made the day more magical for me. About 50 metres along from the grave of Oscar Wilde, but no so close as to be obvious, a man proposed marriage. Just then, another man (and I stress it was not me) lept out from behind a grave and began to wipe something from his shoe in a most vigourous manner, as if his life depended upon it. He stood directly in front of the couple for about one whole minute.
I stopped to admire the crypt of the Famile Montgomery. From Scandinavia to Normandy, to England and finally to Scotland and Ulster - before a scion returned to France to both glory and infamy. I pondered my own ancestors and my insignificant place in Paris, let alone in the world. Would I have a grave when I died? Would anyone bring flowers to it and clean it?
I was stopped in my tracks by a pyramid shaped crypt - certainly the oldest of that style in the cemetery - dating to the Napoleonic days, when the discovery of the Rosetta stone and the Battle of the Pyramids invented modern Egyptology. I was somewhat taken by surprise when I read the inscription and found the crypt held the remains of a man from the same part of the world as me. Quentin Crawford from Kilwinning. Subsequent research showed he was a friend of the Empress Josephine and had owned the Elysee Palace. His life, his existence, started a chain of events which led to the Elysee becoming the official residence of French premiers.
Grave number 666 houses Kellerman - one of Napoleon's generals - though I admit I wasn't sure if it was Kellerman the Younger or his father. Marshal Ney was there also, in a wee corner where a lot of Napoleon's generals have been laid. The bullet riddled body of Marshal Murat - King of Naples - was in a tomb very close by, along with his wife Caroline, a sister of Napoleon. Marshal Davout is here also. Enthusiasts of the Napoleonic Wars would love Pere Lachaise. Alexander Walewski is there, the first son of Napoleon. David, who painted Napoleon, lies here. It's not all about Maria Callas and Balzac. When the tourists gather in numbers they head for those tombs, take a photo and scuttle back onto the coach.
There is one tourist trap within Pere Lachaise which did interest me. Jim Morrison - singer with US group the Doors - has lain here in an embarrassment of a grave since 1971. Over the years his grave had served the function of ashtray and urinal - a meeting place for posers and faux anarchist intellectuals. I am a big fan, so I had to go. I knew I was close because someone had kindly written instructions and travel directions on other tombs. I was disappointed - what else could I have been. The grave was fenced in behind a crowd control barrier and was guarded by a cemetery attendant, just in case the 5 or 6 genteel persons gazing upon it, should suddenly attempt to overthrow the government. We made a sorry sight, leaning forward in a desperate bid to get a photo without the metal barricade spoiling the shot.
I left them behind and exited through a smaller gate which led back onto the same street I had originally entered on. Those two tramps were gone and it felt safe to use the portaloo.
Summary: Vast and peaceful - one of the few relaxing places in Paris
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