I was recently asked about my favourite spot in Paris. I considered the Place des Vosges, Montmartre and Rue Saint Honoré before settling on the slightly-less-glamorous Père Lachaise – Paris’ largest Cemetery. Largely overlooked by tourists (as much of the 20th arrondissement of Paris is), Père Lachaise probably contains more of Paris’s history in its soil than any other spot in the capital.
Follow it’s winding, tree-lined paths, and you will come across some of the most influential residents in Paris, spanning the centuries from the famous playwright Molière to France’s beloved singer Edith Piaf.
Although visiting a large graveyard is the last thing you would expect to do in the City of Light, I can assure you that the intricate design of the tombs, the cobbled paths and immense greenery make this spot as beautiful as any other in Paris.
I suggest getting to Père Lachaise from the Metro station Gambetta (Line 3, and my local metro!) This will allow you to enter near the tomb of writer Oscar Wilde.
Taking his inspiration from Wilde’s poem The Sphinx, sculptor Jacob Epstein took 10 months to complete this sarcophagus. It was fraught with controversy since its erection in 1914, due to Oscar Wilde’s rather debauched private life.
Another rather curious tomb belongs to Yvan Salmon, known by his nom de plume Victor Noir. He was a journalist that, at the young age of 22, was shot down by none other than Prince Pierre Bonaparte (the great-nephew of Napoleon), due to an altercation about a duel. This was a story that shocked the nation, and upwards of 100,000 people gathered for Noir’s funeral. The legend now is, due to the emphasis placed on certain body parts of Noir’s effigy, that by placing a flower in the top hat after kissing the statue on the lips and rubbing the groin area, you will have enhanced fertility, or even get a husband within the year. As you can see by the worn-away areas of poor Victor Noir’s bronze sculptor- many women have decided to find out for themselves if the legend is true.
A visit to Père Lachaise would not be complete without a visit to its most popular grave- that of Jim Morison. This surprisingly simple headstone can be found off the Casimir-Perier roundabout. The Greek inscription on the tomb reads “according to his own daimon” (daimon being the Greek for spirit).
The Casimir-Périer roundabout is actually a nice place to sit and rest, with a host of benches available facing the gravesite of Casimir Pierre Périer, one-time Prime Minister of France.
Along the Avenue Casimir-Perrier, you will find the legendary medieval couple of ill-fated lovers- Abelard and Héloise.
Abelard was one of the greatest thinkers of the middle ages, and a founder of the world-famous Sorbonne University in Paris. His forbidden love with student Héloise was one of the most famous stories of the time. The legend goes that, upon discovery of their illegitimate relationship, a pregnant Héloise was forced into a convent. Although a terrible end for her, Abelard’s was perhaps worse. The great intellectual was forcibly castrated and took the Holy Orders. Although the lovers never saw each other again, they kept in contact via letters for the rest of their lives. Today, you can sometimes spot letters from lovers tucked away at this tomb.
Some other graves of interest include those of Edith Piaf, Chopin, Molière, Marcel Proust, and Balzac. The cemetery is rather immense, and the graves are well spread out so I suggest picking up a map upon entry (they are only about €1).
Living so close-by has meant that I have visited the Père Lachaise cemetery in all seasons. It is definitely a more off-the-beaten-path thing to do in Paris, that many tourists seem to by-pass. There are lots of typical Parisian Cafés nearby to rest your weary legs after a day wondering around this little “village”.