• Shelley Dark

20. au revoir Paris...

At breakfast on our last day in Paris, I sat trying to work out how we could go to Parc Monceau and the Musée Camondo, then Père Lachaise Cemetery, then Jardin des Plantes and the Grand Mosque, then the Pantheon, passing the Sorbonne. And a few things in between. It would mean rushing around frantically. In the end we decided simply to amble about, no pressure at all, doing what we love doing best. Taking photos.

A row of very French bollards.

A cute little puppy.

A bunch of sweet-smelling stocks.

A sidewalk café.

And a barge being spring cleaned.

We'd decided to visit Père Lachaise Cemetery. There were hardly any people going to Alexandre Dumas.

The morning sun was shining through the red lights of another of Hector Guimard's creations. It looked like a lovely day, with storms forecast later.

It's a very short walk from Alexandre Dumas to the entrance. I'm glad we did this instead of going to Gambetta métro stop, which takes you to a more modern part of the cemetery at the top of the hill, with the idea that you can walk downhill to the bottom. The first impression can't be nearly as lovely.

It's really quite magical.

Huge trees cast shade and dappled light over the old tombstones which line the cobblestone and dirt paths. I don't find cemeteries sad. On the contrary, they're full of love.

The statuary, stone masonry and ironwork reflect styles over the centuries, the workmanship simply superb.

Paths winding seemingly without plan or purpose, intersecting at odd angles.

Tombs lined up in regimental rows, looking like doorways to houses on a street.

Visitors speak in hushed tones. Tranquillity seeps into the soul and it's easy to be lost in the quietness. Poignant epitaphs express the loss of relatives and friends.

It would be easy to lose yourself physically as well. I downloaded the app which made it easy to find the graves I wanted to see. But there are lots of signposts if you really get lost. When in doubt, go downhill.

This is the most impressive tomb in the cemetery. Princess Demidov came from a Russian family whose fortune was made in gold, silver and copper.

It was Napoleon's idea to have the first garden cemetery in Paris and it was created on land bought by the city in 1804, then way out of town. It took its name from Louis XIV's priest confessor who lived on this site (imagine what he heard!) Only 13 people were buried here in the first year. The administrators thought that bringing the remains of Jean de La Fontaine and Molière here later in 1804 might change things. By 1813 there were still only 800 occupants.

The graves range from the simple headstone to the grand monument.

It took Josephine Bonaparte in 1817 to come up with the idea of the relocation of the remains of the famous 12th century couple Abélard and Héloise. That clinched the cemetery as being the place to be buried. In the photo above you can see their bodies lying side by side on top of their joint tomb. Have you read their 12th century story? An epic tale of an older man and a student girl, ego, passion, an illegitimate child, a secret marriage, treachery, intrigue, tragedy, even castration, the taking of religious orders, the triumph of enduring love over all the odds. The letters that they wrote to each other over their lifetimes are famous. So lovers come to leave notes for them, to pray that their love will last. A true tale as strange as any fiction.

By 1830 the number of burials grew to 33,000, and today there are over one million people buried there. Leases on gravesites can be bought in perpetuity or in shorter term leases, and if the lease isn't renewed, the city takes back the land and uses it again. Old bones are then relocated to the ossuary where they may be cremated to make more room.

I'll never know the Gillet family, but their bronze angel is intriguing. With eyes closed, large wings and bare feet, she is holding a rose and wearing a gown similar to a Greek or Roman goddess. I'd love to know the literary or historical reference, if there is one.

This one reminded me that Charleville is a French name. The Billy family from Charleville sounds like a sitcom. They say our Australian outback town of the same name was named after a town in County Cork Ireland.

I am transfixed by the beauty of this ironwork. I want it to look old like this, but I don't want it to rust away entirely... a perfect moment in time.

Even beyond the grave, this man looks stern and still in charge.

Is she lost in thought or just a little bored - she's probably seen it all.

The size of the trees.

So many famous people, not all of them French, are buried here. Camille Pissarro, the famous impressionist landscape painter, was born in the West Indies in 1830, sent to boarding school in France and subsequently came to live in Paris when he was 22. They all knew each other, these impressionists.

The muse of music, Euterpe, weeps as she contemplates her broken lyre on top of Chopin's grave. Born in 1810 in Poland, specialist in piano compositions, Fred had a tough time of it when he first moved to Paris in 1832. His gentle music was tame by comparison with Beethoven's, popular at the time.

Fred sounds so much friendlier than Frédéric.

Colette was born in Burgundy in 1873. She died in 1954. She first married a roué who encouraged her sexual liberation. Her racy books, lesbian affairs and 3 marriages gave her a promiscuous reputation which has been replaced by a respect for her writing, especially about women's independence from the financial support and domination of men. She wrote Gigi in 1944.

This was the one I had come to see. The egotistical reckless loveable genius, Oscar Wilde. I have a quote of his on my website. I was surprised by the very modern appearance of this tomb, even a little disappointed. 1960's I wondered? I read on its side that a woman had donated the money. To my astonishment I found it was commissioned in 1908 and sculpted by a man called Jacob Epstein. It seems outrageous and wonderful that he flies like an Egyptian superman, still.

The authorities request visitors to please stop kissing the tomb. It's not working.

Nearby is the grave of Edith Piaf, such a talented but ultimately sad and lonely woman, one of France's greatest international stars. I played her music over and over at one stage of my life, loving the way she belted out that gutteral 'Je ne regrette rien'.

I found Gertrude Stein's simple grave, where her lifelong partner Alice Toklas' name has been relegated to the back of the tombstone. As if to compensate, someone has made a drawing with stones, representing two figures holding hands. Its plainness suggests little of the extravagance of her art collection or her sparkling salon where Picasso, Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Matisse and Ezra Pound gathered.

Another insignificant grave for a big talent. Amadeo Modigliani was an Italian painter and sculptor, friend of Picasso, known for portraits and nudes with elongated faces and bodies.

The features of the mother and child on this tomb have been worn away by time but the sentiment is as powerful as the day it was carved.

You could spend days in this cemetery and not see it all. Some of the photos above are John's, some mine. I borrowed his camera for a while. He has a beautiful bright 135mm lens I simply adore. I'm getting closer and closer to deciding what camera I'm going to buy. The reason I keep delaying is the problem of weight versus quality.

I love the way that flowers light up the darkness. They're a life essential. I like them better than food.

As we walked to the bus stop, we passed some very plain buildings. This reminded me a bit of the children's books Fancy Nancy. Someone built this house with the fancy balcony. Did they stand out on it often, I wonder, or just know with delicious pleasure that theirs was the prettiest in the street?

We caught the number 61 bus, the first time I've ever caught a bus in Paris. (!) The app Citymapper gave me the confidence to do it. I think before this I've vaguely believed that because buses aren't fixed to an actual railway line like the métro, I wouldn't know where we were and I'd miss my stop and end up beyond the city limits in a scary slum area with no way back. Put into white slavery, or made to do ironing which would be worse.

Thankfully that didn't happen. We got off at the terminus, the Jardin des Plantes. I love the way people enjoy city parks. It reminds me that many of them may be living in tiny apartments, no dirt to dig, or grass to walk on. Oh dear. Don't walk on the grass. Try telling that to a three year old. We hadn't brought our umbrellas, and the sky was darkening.

We couldn't resist loitering to photograph the flowers.