Two things I like: a good door, and a good cemetery. So on my trip to Paris two weeks ago, I hopped a bus out to Pere Lachaise.
I didn’t know much about it other than that it is large (110 acres, the largest cemetery in Paris), that it is named for the priest who had to hear the confessions of Louis XIV, and that some famous people are buried there.
The day was warmer than my photos might lead you to believe, but there was a definite melancholy air at Pere Lachaise, not lifted at all by the fact that an actual funeral procession was going by as I entered. (If you’ve got the €, Pere Lachaise is still taking…residents.)
Trying desperately to get my head to stop alternating between “Do You Hear the People Sing?” (no, really, watch the link and then tell me which Valjean is your favorite: I’m going with Norway and, hello, Ireland) and that song about the bells from Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, I began walking along to Rick Steves’s podcast tour*. The RS tour begins not at the main gates, but at gates near the Gambetta Metro stop, exiting through the main gates. This route offers the distinct advantage of making the walk mostly downhill.
It was mid-afternoon and there were small tourist clusters moving all around the grounds, but it didn’t take me long to decide that Pere Lachaise had a creepy vibe: definitely more graveyard than cemetery. It felt older than it truly is (opened in the 1800s), with some of the monuments run-down or looted. Although you couldn’t pay me to spend time there after dark, it’s plain that someone does it.
The paths—some paved, some dirt—meander over acres and acres, sometimes in a grid and sometimes in a maze of tombs. Without a map or a guide, I don’t think you’d have much luck finding the “highlights.”
But thanks to my audio guide, I quickly found myself dropping in on personages including Oscar Wilde, Moliere, Gertrude Stein, Edith Piaf, Frederic Chopin, and—the only one with a private guard—Jim Morrison. The Doors’s frontman’s posthumous muscle prevents graffiti on his plot, but has no problem with devotees leaving flowers or gum. (Did you know that Jim Morrison died in Paris, and that he was only 27? I did not.)
At the tomb of Oscar Wilde, I sensed the vindication of all high-school English teachers as I read the following note:
Wilde’s tomb is one of the most popular in the cemetery, and has had such encounters with lipstick over the years that it was refurbished recently, and encased in glass. The writer died in Paris in 1900.
After about two hours’ wandering, I was ready for a warm cafe. I felt inspired by the heavy artistic presence at Pere Lachaise, but it didn’t feel welcoming in the way Milan’s Monumental Cemetery did, or spiritually peaceful like Mt. Auburn. Doing some research afterward I saw photos of Pere Lachaise looking more park-like in flowers and green grass. But for me, I think my one-time February wander will suffice.
*I used two of these in Paris and thought they were great. On iTunes you can download some Rick Steves tours for free, thus saving money at sights like the Musee d’ Orsay, and freeing your hands and eyes from the guidebook at a place like Pere Lachaise. In both cases, I found the audio tour useful for about 45 minutes, and then wandered on my own. In Pere Lachaise, the tour provided info about some of the famous deceased that made the visit a lot more interesting than just looking at tombs and trying to remember my art / literature/ world history.
** Wikipedia actually has a really long list of who’s buried in Pere Lachaise.