I have visited Paris many times over the years and established a tried and tested route around the city. There are variations on this route and wanderings off the path but it largely involves the Pantheon, the Rue de St Geneviève de Montagne, the Marais, Notre Dame, St Sulpice, St Germain de Pres, Boulevard St Michel and the fabulous Luxembourg Gardens.
The Canal St. Martin and Place de la Republique have also featured as perambulations have widened. Most recently, the discovery of an area wonderfully known as the Enfants Rouge, has added a new dimension to the city. All of the above still only touches about five of the city’s 20 arrondisements.
Slightly beyond all of these, in the east of the city is the cemetery, Le Père Lachaise. It sounds like an unlikely tourist destination but is a must for the mildly macabre and the massively curious alike. Cemeteries are the encapsulation of local history and are quite simply the great levelers. No matter how grand the monument or elaborate the shrine, the end is still the same for pauper and prince.
On one level though the best cemeteries are not unlike a museum visit, a museum of public art, reflecting changing taste and priorities down the decades.
Le Père Lachaise is a fabulous example of this. Ranging from its nineteenth century bourgeois families to the twentieth century celebrity of Jim Morrison of The Doors, or the literary shrine to Oscar Wilde, previously covered in kisses but now ‘protected’ by Perspex paneling.
I had anticipated this much but not the monuments to the heroes of the resistance to Nazism, or those commemorating the victims of the holocaust.
This poem reflects the impact of that initial visit. Of all the things crying out to inspire an aspiring writer in Paris, I would have to end up with this!
Le Père Lachaise
The moon cries red until at last
Time spins our hearts along the track.
Galleries and fashion houses fade,
Gucci turns to grey, grande to gauche.
Washing lines, tenements, unseen Paris,
Then silence comes to rest
In Père Lachaise.
Hearse worn cobbles suffer tourists,
Gravestones struggle for a view.
Death, mapped out in five languages,
Directs us with quiet whispers
To names and families,
Marble and gilded monuments.
The famous beckon, inviting adulation.
Wilde with kisses, adored,
Unrepentant, crushed by time.
Piaf, petit, discreet, cascaded in petals.
Morrison, mournful, macabre,
Guarded against dangers beyond death.
But who can be a tourist
In the city of the dead?
Whispers, rise slowly to a scream.
The unburied dead surprise us,
Silent statues stinging tears.
Auschwitz – Dachau – Bergen-Belsen –
Here stand our hostages to fortune.
Screams die falling into city noise,
Senses re-awaken, mixed and strained.
Aching hearts, touch lonely terrors.
The smell of the past is burning,
The present tastes of sweat and sex,
A flicker from the future sees children,
And hears the sound of birds singing.