I didn't put it all together until I looked back at my photos from Bryan's stay that I realized two of the major places we visited involved burial sights. This is not to comment on personality or favorite pastimes at all, but rather the result of what remains on the to-do list of one who has visited Paris a few times and seen the blockbuster sights. For most, the Catacombs and Père Lachaise Cemetery fall below the art museums and glamorous spots like the Champs-Élysées of must-sees.
Cimetière du Père-Lachaise is a peaceful place to take a walk and explore. And it always has the additional benefit of being free of charge. I first mentioned a walk through this cemetery back in November on La Toussaint (All Saints' Day) when it was full of flowers, but any time of year when it's not too wet is a good time to go.
Many people seek out the largest cemetery within the limits of Paris to see the graves of the famous. Père Lachaise is the resting place of many greats like Edith Piaf, Gertrude Stein, Jim Morrison, Georges Haussmann, Marcel Proust...and the list goes on and on.
It is really useful to have some sort of guide if you are interested in locating specific graves. If you have internet access, you can refer to the official guide map or at least print it out beforehand. There are free maps at the main entrance (off of Boulevard de Ménilmontant) but when I've gone, they are not always there. If nothing else, take a picture of the map found at the entrances and mark down which spots you want to search for. The cemetery is huge, and even with the downloaded map on my phone Bryan and I couldn't find Molière!
The cemetery is divided into divisions. Signs like the one below indicate the section you are in, which is the first piece of information you need in order to locate a grave. Then you have to navigate the map to see exactly where within the division a specific grave lies, and note that it may not necessarily be along the main path. If all else fails, I try to see if a bunch of people are all migrating to one place. Bonus is a tour group that comes along, which will most likely lead you exactly where you want to go.
Besides having a map, the other helpful hint is to wear comfortable shoes. That is advice I usually give anyway so I don't have to deal with complaints on what my one friend refers to as my "short walks." (She is fabulously funny and quite sarcastic. And I walk a lot in Paris) This time it is truly and unselfishly for your own good since I don't have to deal firsthand with the fallout. The cemetery is covered in beautiful cobblestones, uneven ground, and one steep hill. Charming and pretty, only appreciated by those with sturdy shoes.
I treat Père Lachaise like an outdoor museum, admiring the grave stones and mausoleums as works of art. Others come to relax and enjoy the peaceful setting.
My strategy is to pick out a few graves to find, like a treasure hunt. And along the way, I like to just admire the works of art I happen across. I stumble across names I associate with streets and metro stops, and am curious what that person's role in French history was. I pass by lots of names that I cannot connect anything with at all and wonder how they amassed such wealth for an elaborate burial plot.
But above all, I am moved by the expressive statues in the cemetery. The emotions of mourning and grief are so tangible to the ones left behind.
Each time I go, I make sure to walk back to the area by Rue des Rondeaux. The memorials to the Holocaust victims are particularly moving and poignant.
Not too far from these memorials is the resting place of Oscar Wilde. It is certainly the most well-protected grave with its tall glass barrier, yet people still manage to leave lipstick kisses on the stone.
One can definitely spend over an hour here, easily. After a peaceful walk, it is time to make the descent back down the hill (if you are exiting through the main entrance).
Someone once told me she doesn't like going to cemeteries because the space should be used for the living, not the dead. But I can't help but think that this space is for the living, for dealing with grief. And for those with no connection to the deceased but for reflection and time to re-center on the important things in life.
Do you ever visit cemeteries in your leisure time?
16 rue du Repos, 75020 Paris
Main entrance: 8 boulevard de Ménilmontant
Open daily; 3/16/2014-11/5/2014: Monday-Friday 8:00am-6:00pm, Saturday 8:30am-6:00pm, Sunday 9:00am-6:00pm; 11/6/2014-3/15/2015: Monday-Friday 8:00am-5:30pm, Saturday 8:30am-5:30pm, Sunday 9:00am-5:30pm
And check out the new post on Garlands in Paris on Cimetière Montparnasse, a cemetery in the south of Paris.