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Dead Famous in Paris

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Who’d have thought that a graveyard could be so much fun. But one of the best free shows in Europe is to be had at the Père Lachaise cemetery in the east of Paris. Whether it be that shrine of the Left, the grim Mur des Fédérés, where the heroic resistance of the Communards 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 UK All-Comers record for the standing high jump when, paused at this spot in quiet contemplation, I was startled by a young Dutch woman suddenly bursting into a full-throated warbling of ‘Je Ne Regrette Rien’).

A personal favourite in Père Lachaise is the memorial to a, now, largely forgotten figure. Félix Faure was President of the Republic in the 1890s. Of course, back then, politicians suffered much less public scrutiny of their private lives than they do now and Faure was very much a man of his time. Indeed he was an embodiment of that fin de siècle hedonism (think Les Folies Bergère, think Toulouse Lautrec) that helped make Paris synonymous with all that was louche or forbidden. In a cynical age people expected little in the way of what we now call “conviction” politicians but people could at least say of Faure that he pursued his pleasures with passion.

But a dark shadow was cast over the latter stages of his presidency by the bitterly divisive Dreyfus Affair. In an effort, perhaps, to take his mind off affairs of state at this particularly tense time Faure was wont to ‘entertain’ young women in the presidential chambers. Tragedy struck, however, 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 – other physiological phenomena.

It was, so they say, three weeks before they could nail the coffin lid down.


Yes, everyone who is anyone is buried in Père Lachaise. It is the place to be seen. From literary giants like Balzac, Molière and Proust (at whose monument admirers are wont to leave a Madeleine biscuit as some sort of votive offering. Having no such sweetmeat to hand I left a Mini Jaffa Cake instead); to painters like Delacroix and Pissarro; to classical musicians like Bizet, Chopin and Poulenc; right through to those modern greats of French cinema, Yves Montand and Simone Signoret.

You can buy little maps at the entrance to the cemetery detailing where your favourite stiff can be located but I can strongly recommend two English-published guides to Paris as a whole which both contain an entertaining walk around Père Lachaise. The ‘Time Out’ Book of Paris Walks is series of short essays by a number of Paris-loving luminaries (including Michael Palin on his hero Hemingway) detailing strolls around their favourite haunts in the City of Light. Their guide to Père Lachaise is written by the leading British historian of things French, Alistair Horne. Most of the walks in the ‘Time Out’ book have a literary/cultural theme to them. Slightly more prosaic in style but every bit as useful is ‘Walking Paris’ by Gilles Desmons. With clear instructions, excellent maps and suggested walks in every corner of Paris this is an absolutely essential guide for anyone wanting to get to know this wonderful city.

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