Ever since reading an article about Pére Lachaise cemetery a while ago, I have wanted to go there. Today, Tuesday, is the perfect day to do that. I also plan to visit the Musee D’Orsay to view the wonderful impressionist art. Other than that, I am not sure what I will see today.
I catch the Metro from Place de Clichy to Pére Lachaise station and find the cemetery without much difficulty. I buy a guide map from a man at the entrance to the cemetery as I’ve been told the place is very large – several acres – and I want to make sure I don’t miss anything that is on my list. The entrance is marked by large gates and as soon as I enter, it is like leaving the hustle and bustle of the big city behind. It is quiet, leafy with lots of large, old and gnarled trees – and lots of headstones and crypts (they call them sepulchres).
Père Lachaise is one of the most famous cemeteries in the world and is reputed to be the world's most-visited cemetery, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors annually to the graves of those who have enhanced French life over the past 200 years. It is also the site of three World War I memorials. It is named after a Jesuit priest who lived in a house on the site. Over time, it has become the cemetery of choice for the rich and famous.
My mission today is to see the graves of Jim Morrison (legendary lead singer of The Doors who died back in 1971); and to see the grave of Edith Piaf. I recently saw the movie called “La Vie En Rose” (over here it is called La Môme which was the nick name they called her meaning “little one” – she started busking as a child and singing with her father in the streets), and although not an easily likeable character, one has to admire her talent and her ability to overcome the adversities of life to become the icon that she was. She is highly revered here in France. Anyway, these are the two main things I want to do here in this famous cemetery, and I hope to stumble upon some surprises as well. It may sound odd that in this city of so many wonderful sights, I am drawn here. But it is truly peaceful and lovely.
Pére Lachaise Cemetery is hilly, with narrow rough cobblestone paths winding every which way very steeply. It seems to be set on one of the few hills in Paris. The 2 Euros I paid for my map brings some unexpected rewards, as other pilgrims in this place notice me holding it and I am several times stopped by people to let them look. It is easy to get lost in the maze of pathways and each turn looks so much like the last, even with a map. I mean, it’s not like you can knock on a crypt and ask directions. Ha ha. Most people who stop me – all are French – are looking for “Piaf”. That’s all they say – “Piaf”. They must know I am not a local.
I do not realize that there are two entrances so I am finding it hard to navigate my way. I head off for Jim Morrison’s grave first. After quite a while I round a bend and see a small cluster of people gathered round a very nondescript grave (compared to some of the very elaborate and rich looking crypts in the place). Here lies Jim Morrison. His grave is covered with masses of flowers. Not daggy dried, old ones. Fresh ones. Big bouquets, small posies, some obviously from a home garden. I had read that people do pilgrimages to the graves in here. Jim Morrison lived for many years here in Paris (and died here). He was only 28 years old when he died of a drug overdose in 197
"Riders on the storm
Into this house we're born
Into this world we're thrown
Like a dog without a bone
An actor out alone
Riders on the storm"
After a while I set off up the hill to find the resting place of the famous Polish composer, Frederick Chopin. He died in Paris in 1849 at only 39 years of age. Chopin lived and worked (composed and taught piano) in Paris for many years and called it home. Again, wreaths from pilgrims surround the famous man’s grave.
This beautiful, sunny morning spent in Pére Lachaise is like being in a park. I set off again and about 20 minutes later I spot another cluster of people gathered around a small, plain grave with masses of fresh flowers….Edith Piaf. People are crying and obviously moved. One lady is quite overcome as she kneels to lay a bunch of flowers. Edith Piaf was an icon to the French and they are very patriotic, passionate people. She died in 1963 at the age of 48. Piaf had a tragic childhood, being abandoned by her mother and raised by her paternal grandmother. As a little girl she sang on street corners while her father did acrobatic tricks. He noticed more money was thrown in the hat when his daughter sang than when he did his tricks. When Edith was 15, whilst singing in the streets, she was discovered by a nightclub owner, and, because she was tiny and very shy, was given the name by her growing fans of La Môme Piaf (The Little Sparrow). Her popularity came at a time when France was going through a horrendous time in the Second World War, and the poignant songs she wrote, coupled with her nostalgic voice, endeared her to the French people. Non Je Ne Regrette Rien!
There are many other famous writers, artists, composers and actors that I visit (or rather their graves): the Irish writer Oscar Wilde, actors Sarah Bernhardt and Yves Montand, opera singer Maria Callas, writers Colette, Gertrude Stein and the famous dramatist Molière. Certainly a ‘Who’s Who’ of dead people.
I have been in the cemetery for several hours by now so decide to leave and head into town to visit the Musee d’Orsay. I leave the cemetery by the rear gate and find myself in a little square of which I know not the name, but found a Metro station called Gambetta, so caught a train into town. I have enjoyed my walk through Pére Lachaise Cemetery on yet another glorious morning walking in Paris – warm and sunny.
I alight from the Metro into the Quatre Setembre station (would have gone to Opera station but it is closed today). Sometimes I get just a little disorientated when I come up from the Metro and this time I walk for a block in the wrong direction before discovering it. These little excursions are not an annoyance, as I often discover beautiful parts of Paris that I would otherwise not have. Once I come to Rue d’Italienne I realize I have been heading North, not south, so I backtrack and head down towards the Seine.
By now it is about 1.30, and I am hot and thirsty from my walking so drop into our favourite little café on the footpath opposite the Joan of Arc statue and diagonally opposite the Louvre. Matt and I ate here several times and it is such a lovely view, and a nice restaurant. I order a crepe with ham, cheese and mushrooms. Delicious.
Refreshed, I cross one of the nine bridges in Paris and walk the twenty minutes or so to the Musee d’Orsay. This museum is housed in what used to be a major railway station (Gare d’Orsay) which is plain to see from the two very large clocks on its exterior. Story is that it fell into disuse and for many years was not used for anything. In the 1970s, President Pompidou decided to do something and the result is simply stunning. It is a very large building (as all seem to be in Paris) right on the banks of the Seine. A gorgeous spot.
When I arrive at the entrance, I see the long queue but still want to go in. I line up for an hour in the hot sun, pay my 9 Euros and eventually (after bag searches etc) am allowed in. Took my breath away. The long, hot wait has been worth it. The Musee D’Orsay has a large open chamber with a glass ceiling which is five stories high. Therefore, all works (except the pastels) are in natural light. I read that it has been described as the most beautiful museum in the world and I can believe it. The central hall on ground level is all sculptures, with the side wings containing all sorts of works in all sorts of media. The Musee d’Orsay is dedicated solely to the Impressionist works (say from 1850 to 1914), which forms the perfect link between the Louvre which displays Ancient art and the Pompidou Gallery of Modern Art.
I am very lucky as currently there is a visiting exhibition called the “Cezanne/Picasso – Chefs-d’oevre de la galerie Vollard”.I begin my exploration on the ground floor in the sculptures, then wind my way up and through and around and in and out. I am able to take photos except of works in the visiting Vollard exhibition (which is a shame as I saw the original of Rembrandt’s ‘La Nuit etoilee’ - ‘the Night Star’ – a print of which I happen to have hanging in my house and I love it). But I simply drool over my favourite Monet works, am stunned by the colour of the Van Gogh’s, see works by Degas, Gaugin, Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne, Renoir, Rousseau….a very impressive list of artists as anyone would agree… discover that I like the paintings of Pierre Bonnard. I take HEAPS of photos. I love the place and recommend it to anyone. The Musee d’Orsay is large enough to be impressive, but small enough to do properly whereas I found the Louvre is just too immense unless you have plenty of time.
I am amazed that the museum lets us take photos. So long as there is no flash, they were happy with us all taking photos and movie, just not in the visiting exhibition.
When I eventually leave the Orsay, my feet are killing me and my blisters are making squelching noises so I decide to head back to the Hotel Cabourg and rest for a while before going out again for dinner later on. I leave the Orsay at about 6pm and walk back over the Seine and along the Right Bank for about twenty minutes until I get to the Louvre, walk up the Tuileries Jardin and catch the Metro train from Tuileries to Champs Elysee Clemenceau where I change lines, and then get my train up to Place de Clichy.
I rest for a while, then wearily walk up the road at about 8.30pm and find something to eat. Weary but happy is how I end my solo day in Paris – which in reality is my last day even though I don’t leave until 2pm tomorrow. Once you are dragging a suitcase around, you just want to get where you are going.
Another wonderful day. Au revoir.