Who’d have thought that a graveyard could be so much fun. But one of the best free shows in Paris is to be had at the Père Lachaise cemetery. All the stars are here in this A-list of the deceased: from painters to poets, from Yves Montand to Marcel Marceau (who was interred here in 2007). It is yet to be seen whether admirers of the late mime artist will establish a tradition of holding a ‘two minutes noise’ at his graveside by way of tribute but a number of the cemetery’s more distinguished denizens already attract appropriate acts of homage from their disciples. Whether it be romantics of the Left placing their red roses on the grim Mur des Fédédés, where the heroic resistance of the Paris Commune came to its final bloody end; or the scarlet lipstick kisses, lovingly planted by gay pilgrims, that smother Epstein’s monument to Oscar Wilde. Whether it be the grungy little knots of Scandinavian teenagers, self-consciously puffing at their spliffs around the tomb of rock legend Jim Morrison; or the fans, of all ages, who make for the mighty marble slab that marks the last resting place of Edith Piaf – the Little Sparrow. I once threatened the French All-Comers record for the high jump when, standing at this spot in quiet contemplation, I was startled by a young woman behind me bursting into a full-throated rendition of ‘Je ne regrette rien’. At Marcel Proust’s grave it is customary to leave an apt votive offering: having no madeleine to hand I left a Jaffa Cake.
But a personal favourite is a memorial to a now, largely forgotten figure. Félix Faure was President of the Republic in the 1890s. Of course politicians back then suffered much less scrutiny of their private lives and Faure was very much a man of his time. Indeed he could be seen as an embodiment of fin de siècle hedonism making the most of what Paris had to offer the wealthy and the powerful (think can-can, think Toulouse-Lautrec).
But a dark shadow was cast over the latter days of his presidency by the bitterly divisive Dreyfus Affair. In an effort, perhaps, to take his mind off matters of state at this tense time Faure was wont to ‘entertain’ young women in the presidential chambers. Tragedy struck when, in the midst of one of these amorous encounters, the statesman’s heart, weakened by years of self-indulgence, gave way. Officials were alerted by the horrified screams of his companion and rushed in to find the stricken President stark naked on the carpet, the suddenness of his demise reflected in the rictus grin that illuminated his features and in – well – certain other physiological phenomena.
It was, so they say, three weeks before they could nail the coffin lid down.
Visit the Deportation memorial on Ile de la Cite behind Notre Dame.
It is the most poignant, peaceful place imaginable and cannot fail to bring me to tears that in the middle of such a beautiful city.
There is a reminder of the horrors that cleaved Europe in the 20th century. Everyone should visit, sit and think.
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