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.
It could have been a little warmer but the dazzling sunshine peeking over the rooftops as I set off on my journey at 6:30 am made me optimistic as I shivered in a summer dress and thin cardigan. I have a special fondness for Wales despite not knowing it very well and being unable to read the names written in its beautiful language. But my paternal grandmother was Welsh and my father often rode his motorbike from the family home in Liverpool to North Wales, especially Conwy. Bodnant Garden is justly famous for its stunning laburnum arch which is even more remarkable in real life. But what captured my heart were the roses. Endless rows of them in white, various shades of pink, crimson, peach turning to purple, bright yellow, all of them exquisite and with different scents ranging from intoxicating to delicate. No other place has quite captivated me this much.
Of course, around every corner there is a feast for the senses – tall blue Himalayan poppies, white wisteria, water-lilies on the pond, blue and brown bearded irises, extraordinary hostas in every shade of green, with the sound of a local Welsh choir singing gospel music from below the terrace as we explored all the different avenues. I wished that we could have stayed all day to wander through the meadows and woodland beyond.
We stopped on the way home at Conwy, climbing up to the ramparts of its remarkable castle, looking down at the beautiful bay below and the suspension bridge which my parents knew so well from all their earlier holidays. It felt sad to leave the sea and mountains but my mother had kindly bought me an exquisite old rose named after Gertrude Jekyll to plant in the garden so that a little of Bodnant could return with us. Its heady perfume accompanied us throughout the long journey home and I look forward to seeing it bloom each year and being transported back to that heavenly garden of roses.
Last week I made my annual pilgrimage to the bluebell woods. I have no idea exactly how my parents found them but I’ve been returning every year since I was a child. The route is still the same. Taking the narrow path just above the little car park which reaches a steep incline by some trees behind which there is already a patch of blue. Then continuing through a field where as a child, my best friend Rachel and I gathered huge bunches of dandelion clocks and blew on them, watching their seeds scatter to the wind. But nothing prepares you for the mass of blue in the woods, that particularly sublime shade and the most heavenly scent which is more beautiful than any perfume could ever be. I linger in favourite spots with nothing but birdsong to accompany my steps, except the buzzing of insects or the occasional whoosh from the trainline down below.
But no matter how slowly I go, I’m soon at the edge of the wood and push open a little gate to continue along the path by the trainline. There was a heady smell of May blossom in the sunshine and wild flowers growing by the wall. Dappled light and the fresh green foliage made me think of a painting by Sisley which features on the cover of Alain Fournier’s ‘Le Grand Meaulnes’ and I imagine it would have been the perfect spot for him to walk with Yvonne de Galais.
Retracing my steps to the top of the woods again, I take one last glance, always a little sad to leave but also inspired by the magic of this place which still has so many secrets to discover.
One of the things I miss the most about living in the city, especially one as green as Berlin, is that element of surprise. My favourite thing has always been to get up very early at the weekend and go out to walk and take pictures. Riding in the S-Bahn, I would often look out of the window and spot a group of trees in blossom, or some lilacs, or particularly beautiful light on a favourite building that would make me rush off at the next station, even if it was nowhere near my planned destination. The light changes by the minute, the sunny morning can turn to rain and dash the blossom so you’re forever chasing shadows and fleeting beauty. Catch joy while it flies. And then there are the markets. I was lucky enough to live close to an amazing one in Charlottenburg on Karl-August-Platz that took over the whole square twice a week. Saturdays were always something special and I would return laden with bags packed with magnificent seasonal fruit and vegetables, bunches of flowers, French cheeses, apple croissant and huge eggs which often had double yolks.
The setting has changed of course, but my habits remain the same, never sleeping for more than 6 hours so I can get up and catch a glimpse of the sunrise which is more and more elusive. Each day, I walk in the garden to make a note of the smallest changes which I’m sure I’ll remember but never do. But I still dream of returning to my favourite cherry trees in the Buergerpark in Pankow and lingering to talk with them for a little while, just like Proust’s narrotor does with the hawthorn blossom.
Schloss Schoenhausen in Pankow
At the market on Karl-August-Platz in Charlottenburg
My place (almost)
Spring unfolding in the park outside my old building in Pankow
No matter how much I try to notice each little sign as the days grow warmer and longer, spring always takes me by surprise. I remember walking down my street in Charlottenburg on a particularly lovely evening with a softness in the air and suddenly noticing that all those buds on the trees which had remained stubbornly closed for so long were suddenly open and that the city was in bloom.
Back then, the parks and squares were my back garden but these days I’m lucky to have one of my own where I can watch the seasons change much more easily. There is always something new. As the snowdrops dry and fade, there is a blaze of daffodils, the forsythia threading its way through the branches of the apple tree under which snake’s head fritillary have spread. And as all of those become a little less vivid, tulips start to emerge in carnival or soft colours, single or double. There is so much beauty to savour and so much still to come – the bluebell woods, the rhododendrons, the apple blossom, the elegance of the magnolia. I realise how important it is just to try to take each day at a time and look for the good things, rather than getting caught up in worries of what has been and what may be or never be. I wish you a wonderful spring.