Jules et Jim

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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!

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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.

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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.

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The grave of Victor Brauner and his wife Jacqueline with his sculptures

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I would like to apologise in advance for chopping the top off Heinrich Heine’s grave. I love his work and he deserves better!

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.

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The beautiful sculpture by Émile Bailly at the grave of René and Jean Dumesnil.

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At the existentialist cemetery

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You know you are a true taphophile when it’s your first morning in Paris and you’re already at the cemetery before 9am. But then Parisian cemeteries are the best. I visited the one in Montparnasse many years ago during my first trip to the city on a freezing cold but bright Sunday with my father who couldn’t have imagined anything less appealing. I remember seeing the graves of Serge Gainsbourg with its cabbages and metro tickets, Jean Seberg’s and that of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir to whom I made my first point of call this time too which seemed quite logical as I had just walked past La Rotonde on my way from the metro, above which which she was born.

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If you decide to go to Montparnasse cemetery, pick up a laminated plan close to the entrance which will help you find the graves you’re looking for and I also recommend the book Stories in Stone, full of great photos and fascinating anecdotes. But let yourself just wander too. I love coming across wonderful surprises such as a giant cat sculpture by Niki de Saint Phalle, the little dog on Philippe Noiret’s grave which makes me love him even more and many more interesting graves of ordinary people which allowed me a glimpse of their lives.

You encounter such interesting people in cemeteries too – a Japanese couple called out to me to help them find the grave of painter Chaim Soutine, later on the woman called me over again and shouted something unintelligible. “Coco Chanel, fashion designer!”, I finally understood. No, I told her. She’s buried in Switzerland, this is the grave of Paul Deschanel, a former French President. I have never found cemeteries depressing places – for me, they are wonderful spaces to walk and reflect, havens for nature and art and an opportunity to pay homage to those I admire.  I left after three hours, feeling hungry and a little tired but so happy to have spent a morning in such illustrious company, only regretting later that I had failed to visit Delphine Seyrig. If you go there, please pay your respects on my behalf.

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The grave of Henri Langlois, founder of the Cinémathèque Française

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The Baudelaire Cenotaph. He is buried nearby with his mother and hated stepfather.
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The grave of Kate Barry, Jane Birkin and John Barry’s daughter and photographer.

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The grave of artist Sophie Calle’s mother who used to tell people she was Ava Gardner and had 4000 lovers.

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Written in stone

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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.

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Héloïse and Abélard

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Robinson’s phantasmagoric tomb

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Félix Faure, President of the French Republic who may have died after erotic excess with his mistress.

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Vivant Denon

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Memorials to those who died in concentration camps.

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The Communards’ Wall

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Oscar Wilde

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Honoré Daumier’s grave was in a sad state when I first visited but it’s now been restored thanks to donations by those who love his work.
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Jim Morrison

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René Lalique