Last night was dedicated to a wonderful dinner hosted by an old friend of MLW’s, one not seen in decades. Lots of wine, great conversation spanning world events and family minutiae all set in a garret apartment situated in a 17th century building, ½ block from the Seine. We walked in silent rain-slicked cobblestone streets largely devoid of people, save a few youngsters stumbling out of closing bars. The life to be found was the police contingent that guards the Rue de Varenne, the cross-street that leads to our apartment. I always find it so pleasant to wander around a big city at night. Assuming of course that it’s safe. We didn’t feel any qualms about this hike.
The sky above our airshaft was a shiny, beautiful blue this morning so we decided to take the short walk up the street to the Musée d’Orsay. When we’d been by on Easter Sunday, the queue was huge and we figured that today, being a Tuesday, it wouldn’t be. We were wrong- the tail end of the line was at the “30 minutes from this point” point so we turned around and walked home, stopping for just a second to listen to a faux Gypsy jazz quartet playing by the museum stairs. The decision was easy since I’d forgotten my wallet and we would have been reduced to charging our tickets. And now that we were outside and saw that the blue sky extended for some distance in all directions, the thought was that it might be better to use the day for something outside. Museums are always open on rainy days.
So back home and money collected and our first load of clothes moved from the washer to the dryer and we were back out on our way to somewhere else. We took a different route to Rue de Sèvres, planning to stop along the way and collect the International New York Times at the kiosk outside La Grande Epicerie. It was there, the seller gave me the price in rapid-fire French, I gave him what I assumed it cost which was wrong, he repeated himself in English, I repeated his English in French (now that I got it), he laughed and I gave him another .20 cents. I tucked it in my bag and we went off down the street, planning our destination as we went. The Luxembourg Gardens were high on our list, it being spring and their location being in front of us.
But before that, “let’s go find our old Starbucks” sounded like something to do on the way and so that’s the direction we took. Problem was we weren’t entirely sure where it was, and there was so much construction going on that it was hard to recognize the environment relative to our 2-year old memories. But we were more or less sure we were heading in the right direction.
MLW was packing some post cards and we had a standing order to try and find a post office. When one propitiously presented itself on the far side of the street we braved the traffic and went over. Once inside, the options were unclear (to say the least) so we picked a likely line and stood in it until the general action of the place sank in. We moved to another and it turned out to be the right one. Using my very best self-taught French I said, “Je veux les envoyer aux États-Unis” and the clerk didn’t respond with a look of bemused shock. Instead she mumbled the price, handed me two stamps and returned the change on my just tendered 10€ note. One tip for intrepid travelers- don’t worry about the offered price. If it’s small just pay with a 10.
So back out on the street and lo, our Starbucks appeared after only a few more blocks of walking. We had some coffee and a muffin and discussed our plan for the day. The weather was still good, so we decided to put Luxembourg on hold and instead take a grand adventure to the Cimitière Père-Lachaise, the final resting place of a host of historical figures, names that factored large in both the history of France as well as the world.
Père-Lachaise is the both the largest cemetery and largest park in Paris, covering a bit more than 110 acres. Originally the site was home to a 17th century Jesuit hospice, and named for the Father Confessor to King Louis XIV, Père Francois de la Chaise. In 1764, the Jesuits were expelled from France, for a variety of political reasons, and the property was seized. Napoleon reacquired the property in 1804 and it was then named as Cimitière de l’Est, serving its present function from that time. Today the cemetery still accepts burials, despite the fact that the current roster of occupants is estimated between 300,000 and 1,000,000.
There is a long, long list of notable people interred within its leafy bounds, ranging from military heroes to politicians to composers, painters, philosophers, musicians and writers. Somehow over the last 2 centuries it became the best place to spend eternity, for the French and many of the expatriates welcomed here by a more liberal French society. The historical interest factor alone meant we really had no choice but to go. And it was another opportunity to do one of my favorite things – ride the subway.
Having downed our coffee and experienced the wonder of the upstairs Starbucks rest room (two doors, cramped space, long list of tourists filing in and out to use it without spending a dime,) I did a quick route plan on my iPhone Paris Metro app and we left, suffering down the stairs at the Odeon station, conveniently located just across the street. One thing about the Metro – it’s old so it has none of those long modern escalators that descend gracefully under the streets in places like Beijing and Madrid. So while you save a lot of energy riding it (compared to walking,) the benefit does come at some cost. Between the dodgy weather and the distance though, the price seemed reasonable.
Thirty minutes later, we emerged into gray skies – our clear day was apparently coming to an end. But it was not yet raining as we walked down the street in the direction of the main gates. A young woman just outside the entrance sold us a map and in we went. From that moment on, the treasure hunt began.
The place certainly lives up to its reputation, and it must be truly beautiful when the trees are leafed out and the flowers in bloom. Built into a broad hillside, its laid out in sections which make grave finding somewhat easier. It’s also jam-packed which makes the same activity very difficult. The lanes are rough cobblestones and there are tons of steps going up from section to section.
We started with the grave of Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868), well-known Italian composer of operas and one of my favorites. His "Thieving Magpie" is a staple around our house. His grave was very easy to find, being about a hundred yards in on the main entry and right on the edge of the walk.
Across the street from Rossini lies the grave of Felix Faure (1841-1899) who was president of France from 1895 until his death. There was a couple there, and the woman made it a real point of not letting me take a photo, walking around and around it, rubbing her hands on the bronze statue. Not to be dissuaded, I waited her out.
Next up - Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) virtuoso pianist and composer of works for that instrument.
Unfortunately, one of the biggest draws is the grave of Jim Morrison, front man for the Doors who died here in 1971. Many fans believe he faked his death and lives on, somewhere. Regardless of the myth, his grave is sort of ironic. Much abused over the years with thefts, graffiti and vandalism, today it is protected by some metal crowd barriers festooned with those cheap little hippie bracelets you find in tourist shops. Everyone there paying homage was clearly born several decades after he went to his reward, so their passion is a bit humorous, at least to the two of us who were around when his band was a sensation. The grave itself was not much to look at, tucked in behind the tombs of mere mortals.
It was a long walk and a rugged climb to the grave of The Little Sparrow, chanteuse Edith Piaf (died 1963). We failed to find her neighbor the artist Amedeo Modigliani in spite of some assiduous searching,
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was situated a further bit up the road, his very strange Mayan inspired tomb enclosed in glass with warning signs about vandalism. The winged guardian eternally protecting Oscar was said to be rather well-endowed before an outraged woman knocked off the offending organ with her umbrella.I was glad to find Oscar here, having sat with a bronze version of him on a bench in Galway, Ireland.
We were in the home stretch now, with only a few authors and a painter left to hunt down. Marcel Proust (1871-1922) was located on a small garden off the main avenue. His grave was very modest by comparison, simple in design and statement.
The grave of poet Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) was easy to find in spite of being well off the avenue. He survived being wounded in WWI, only to die two year later in the Spanish Flu Epidemic.
The tomb of Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863) was magnificent and powerful, all done in matte black marble and certainly befitting the father of the French Romantic School of painting.
The final stop on our tour was the grave of Honore de Balzac (1799-1850,) renowned French author. He was easy to find as he was being visited by a small group of French senior citizens being regaled by a very animated tour guide.
All-told, we found most of the graves we wanted to see, missing only on a couple set back from the main streets. The other misses were those we didn’t find on the map until later. On the whole, a raging success, and the weather held too, at least until we were just about back to the subway for the ride home.