I defy you to walk down the Champs-Elysées and say you can still imagine Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo in that famous scene from Jean-Luc Godard’s A Bout de Souffle. Too many cars, too many tourists, not many interesting shops unless you love Apple and Nike (how I miss those late night excursions to buy jazz, Jacques Brel and Serge Gainsbourg CDs at Virgin Megastore). But get away from the tourists in Montmartre and it’s still possible to imagine this area for a few moments as the artists saw it, like in the photo above. Late night dancing at the Lapin Agile and the Moulin de la Galette, Picasso working at the Bateau Lavoir and all of Paris at your feet as you compose a poem or a piece of music in your head on a walk to the top of the Butte.
I hadn’t been there for 17 years (!) and it’s true that the Place du Tertre is worse than ever, as are the crowds around Sacré Coeur. Yet turn down a side street into a quiet square and you understand perfectly why Dalida felt it was like a country village far from the bustle of the city. I spent a charming afternoon there, strolling around, eating ice cream, climbing 200 steps to the top of Sacré Coeur to find myself almost alone and with a splendid view before coming down and taking the funicular. The day ended with a walk around the Palais Royal gardens, a visit to Galignani’s bookshop and finally there was a superb and inexpensive dinner at Mio Posto in the Bastille area.
Paris is full of surprises. Not least when you arrive at the florist shortly after 8am and pick up four bunches of flowers. After explaining that I didn’t want them mixed into a single bouquet, the woman removed the lower leaves and thorns from the roses with extraordinary skill, cut the stems at an angle and an even length and wrapped them in beautiful paper for me, even adapting the plastic bag I had brought along into the ideal flower transporter. Now that’s service for you. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I was just taking them to the cemetery!
Visiting Montmartre cemetery has been an ambition of mine for many years. You may remember that on my only previous attempt eight years ago, I arrived to find it closed because half a centimetre of snow had fallen. Luckily this time it was like summer and I walked through the gate of the Avenue Rachel (the only entrance), almost finding it hard to believe I was really there.
Pick up a laminated plan and then walk up the steps to your right. There you will come to one of the most beautiful graves I have ever seen, that of the beautiful singer and actress Dalida, who lived in a fairytale style house close to here until her suicide. She was buried in the dress from the video below and the elegant sculpture of her receives the first rays of sun which seems just right. Hers is undoubtedly the most popular grave but I took out a single red rose as a tribute. What a shame someone who brought so much happiness to others had so little in her own life.
After that, the rest is for you to explore in your own way. Montmartre is definitely my favourite of the Parisian cemeteries – I love the intimate feel of it compared to Père Lachaise (which I still love!), the fact that many of the people buried here were artists and composers with a special connection to this wonderful area. I also love the cats who appear from time to time. You’ll find the graves of Nijinsky, Heinrich Heine, Henri-Georges Clouzot and many more. left white tulips for Hector Berlioz and Stendhal whose works I deeply cherish. But really, I went there for François Truffaut and Jeanne Moreau. They’re buried close to one another, the director and star of Jules et Jim and The Bride Wore Black. Taking roses to them and paying a silent tribute was definitely one of the most moving experiences of my life and not one I can really express in words. I stopped by once more on my way out to say farewell.
After leaving Montmartre cemetery, I walked up the hill a short distance in the direction of Sacré Coeur to call in the tiny St. Vincent cemetery. Marcel Aymé, Eugè Boudin, Marcel Carné, Steinlen and Maurice Utrillo are buried there and it’s a charming place to escape the bustle of tourists and you can even see the walls of the Lapin Agile alongside. Such history. I will share the rest of my day in Montmartre next time.