Welcome to this new category of articles, where I will try to share my favourite tips about Paris, sometimes outside the typical tourist tracks.
The Père Lachaise. I know. Not the most original place. Everybody knows the Père Lachaise: Oscar Wilde’s lipstick covered tomb, Morrison’s, Edith Piaf’s etc… But besides those well-known names, there are quite a few other residents who deserve to receive a little visit.
Before we start, some practical advice:
Metro line: 3, Père Lachaise stop, or 2 Philippe Auguste or Alexandre Dumas stops.
Duration: between 1h30 and 2h00
Wear good (hiking like) shoes: the ground is fairly irregular, there are cobbles which can become slippery with the rain, not to mention the mud.
Bring a map. I use the Super Lachaise app on iPhone (it’s in French) which is quite comprehensive. Most tombs are listed, there is a link to the Wikipedia page with the picture of the tomb (very useful) and the geo-localisation worked perfectly.
Let’s start the visit
Jules Valles: he couldn’t have been buried further away from the Mur des Fédérés (where 147 fighters from the Commune were shot and thrown in an open trench) if they had tried. This is a bit sad since he was involved in the Commune. His tomb is quite plain, with a statue of his head and a quote which roughly translates as « what they call my talent is nothing but the expression of my beliefs ».
Honoré de Balzac: another victim of the lipstick plague. Seriously, why do people kiss Balzac’s grave (not to mention Wilde… I love Wilde’s writing but I would never kiss the tomb of a long-dead homosexual writer…and I do put flowers in St Nicholas in Deptford for Christopher Marlowe)? The statue above the tomb is flattering to say the least. Not like Rodin’s statue of Balzac! Just in front of Balzac’s is Gérard de Nerval’s tomb. No lipstick, nothing just a plain white column. I would have loved to see a lobster there.
Guillaume Apollinaire: his tomb is a bit hard to find as it is in the middle of a plot. Well worse seeing though as it has a lovely calligram « my heart like a reversed flame » (mon Coeur pareil à une flamme renversée)
Oscar Wilde: no need to say more. I find this art déco Egyptian-inspired monument ugly, and I don’t understand the symbolism behind it, but I suppose it has to feature on any literary circuit of the Père Lachaise.
Champollion: because the cemetery opened in 1804, there are quite a few Egyptian tombs at it was all the rage then. But the most modest of all is that of the man who did most to bring Ancient Egypt to the modern men: Champollion. Which goes to show that very often, the greatest people have the smallest tombs.
Vivant Denon: the same Denon that gave his name to one of the wing of the Louvre. He wasn’t really a scientist but did so much for the organisation of the Louvre as a modern museum that he deserves a visit. There’s a nice statue of him over his tomb.
The monuments to the Deportation (death and forced labour camps)
There is almost one monument per camp. They are all very moving and for me this was the only part of the cemetery that actually felt like death.
The « communist » quarter
In front of the mur des Fédérés are buried the leaders of the French communist party: Thorez, Marchais etc… big cold tombs, that leave a strange feeling. In that part are also buried communists sympathiser like Paul Eluard, and a lot of immigrants who probably were involved in the party (mainly Polish and Spanish).
Gerda Taro: her tomb is just behind the Ravensbruck monument. It’s a very simple one, with the statue of a dove, a sign in French and Catalan reminding visitors of her engagement for « a better world » and some mementos left by visitors, including some empty camera film boxes and some flowers.
In the same area (besides the Mathausen monument) is the monument to the Spaniards who fought for freedom between 1939-1945. Some 10 000 Spanish loyalists died in deportation and another 25 000 fell fighting besides the allied troops or in the Resistance. The different flags (Spanish republican flag, the black of the anarchists, the red of the communists) tied around the monument are a strong testimony of the survival of the Republican ideas and ideals within the Spanish community in Paris (well, after all, the city was liberated by Spanish Republicans).
Also worth seeing are all the monuments to the foreign fighters who fought and died for France in the two World Wars (including the Russians who fought for the Resistance, i.e. « White Russians »). They’re forgotten by the history books but at least their memory is kept here.
Some photos are on my instagram account (see the A propos page)