The last time I visited Paris, it was winter and a light dusting of snow covered the ground. I couldn’t wait to take the metro up to Montmartre cemetery, one of the few I haven’t visited, with my Paris guidebook featuring a guided walk there by the great photographer Jean-Loup Sieff, plus flowers for François Truffaut, Hector Berlioz and Dalida who are all buried there. My enthusiasm died a sudden death though when I found the gates firmly locked with a notice that this cemetery, and in fact, all cemeteries and large parts of parks were closed for health and safety reasons. For such a romantic nation, the French have no sense of the poetic at times – what could be more beautiful than funerary monuments in the snow? To paraphrase Henri IV, “Paris vaut bien une jambe cassée.”
Anyway, I’m happy to report that this time there was no snow. In fact, it was the perfect winter’s day and the only decent one of my trip. Returning to Père Lachaise after 16 years, everything felt both familiar and new. It really is a remarkable place and like many great French things, we owe it to Napoleon, or more specifically Nicholas Frochot, after the walls of the notoriously overcrowded Cimetière des Innocents collapsed and he ordered him to create new cemeteries outside the centre including this one, named after Louis XIV’s confessor, Père de la Chaise. Its immediate attraction for me all those years ago was the number of famous people I admire who sleep there – Simone Signoret and Yves Montand, Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrision, Frédéric Chopin, Isadora Duncan, Marcel Proust, Marie Trintignant, Balzac, Edith Piaf and too many others to mention. But one of the great pleasures is just to wander from section to section along its avenues lined with magnificent old trees, stopping to admire any monuments or graves that catch your eye and even imagining the story behind the names.
If you want to go there, I encourage you to get off at Gambetta and walk down the hill which is much less arduous and crowded. You will need a plan which you can find at the entrance at the top or from the conservation office at the bottom. I also recommend a guide like Permanent Parisians or Stories in Stone, both of which are excellent. But also be realistic – there are 108 acres to cover and it’s almost impossible to visit all the graves you want to in one day. And always be prepared for surprises – a cemetery cat greeted me after I unexpectedly found the great Claude Chabrol’s grave on my way to Chopin’s. Pausing, I saw a man with wild curly hair and glasses, carrying a folder coming towards me. When I told him I was now looking for Jim Morrison’s grave, he exclaimed, “Jim is dead?!,” before leading me on a shortcut to find it and telling me all the fascinating stories about Edith Piaf, Marcel Marceau, Chopin and so many others. He works as a guide and loves his job because he has no boss calling him on the phone and covers a huge amount of space walking each day. His secret was revealed when he opened a cigarette box to reveal large amounts of chocolate. He left me to make his way to the crematorium to see the barbecue as he described it but I encountered him again, chatting and laughing with other visitors. A true delight.
As the sun started to set, my feet began to ache and I resigned myself to not seeing all the graves on my list and felt sad at the thought of leaving this place that means so much to me. But the memories of that special day are still so vivid and I’m already thinking about my next trip to Paris when I might finally get to Montmartre.