Amsterdam and Paris 2015 – Day 6 – The Canal St. Martin, Belleville, and the Pere Lachaise Cemetery
But first, a little detour to the Hôpital Saint-Louis. The hospital was founded by Henri IV to house plague victims away from the city center and was built in the same style as the Place des Vosges.
Unfortunately, the Hospital was closed, so we couldn’t pass through the courtyard.
We did pass the Hotel du Nord. Director Marcel Carné’s 1938 film Hotel du Nord made this building (which still has its original facade) famous. Today it’s a bistro.
We started walking up the canal. This stretch is the Quai de Valmy. Here, the canal itself wasn’t much to look at, but the streets bordering the canal at this stretch contained lots of cool shops and boutiques.
The upcoming stretch was the nicest part. This was the Canal de l’Ourcq. It was created in 1813 by Napoleon to provide drinking water. It’s characterized by 1960s and 1970s tower blocks, which you can see in the background.
The Canal St. Martin ends at the Parc de la Villette. This is a vast retro-futuristic park. In the park is the Cite des Sciences museum, the Cite de la Musique music museum and concert hall, the Zenith concert hall, and the Geode 3D-IMAX movie theater with the sparkling silver dome. Below is the dome. The way it reflects the image of the surrounding park is pretty cool.
At one of the concert halls, they were having a David Bowie exhibit. I kind of regret not going in.
Before continuing our walk uphill, we took a quick detour on the Rue Denoyez, a street known for its colorful street art.
We wandered some back streets of Belleville. Here’s the Passage Plantin, a narrow little street comprised of cottages that were originally built for nearby factory workers.
Belleville is really an artist’s neighborhood, and some of the street art was really compelling. I still think New York City is the art capital of the world, and every time I walk through the lower east side and east village, I’m struck by the street art. But Paris definitely gives NYC a run for its money.
We turned down the Rue de la Mare and came upon the Ateliers d’Artistes de Belleville. This is a community art gallery that represents over 150 local artists.
We started to make our exit from Belleville, walking town the Rue de Ménilmontant, where I passed a kitty sleeping in the sun.
A right turn on Rue Julien Lacroix, and there was the Eglise Notre-Dame de la Croix, a local church. It was here that the rebellious soldiers of the 1871 Paris Commune, who had takeover th church as their meeting hall, voted to kill their hostages, including the archbishop of Paris.
Rather than take the Metro, we continued walking east. Our destination: the famous Pere-Lachaise Cemetery. It was named for Father (Pere) La Chaise, whose job was to listen to Louis XIV’s sins.
Surrounded by huge walls and filled with 5000 trees, peaceful lanes and cozy dirt paths, and thousands of graves, this 100-acre car-free cemetery is the perfect place for a serene, meditative afternoon. We entered at the Porte Gambetta entrance.
This may be a resting place for the dead, but the first thing I encountered here was something definitely very alive… a very sweet tomcat.
Apparently there are 12,000 smaller niches underground, including one for American opera singer Maria Callas, and for Aristotle Onassis (with whom she had an affair).
The next stretch of the cemetery was very dramatic and moving. Here, we encounter emaciated statues that commemorate victims of the concentration camps and the French resistance to the Nazis.
Next, we came upon the wall marked Aux Morts de la Commune. This is the “Communards Wall” and it marks the place where the Paris Commune came to a violent end. In 1870, Prussia invaded France and the country quickly collapsed and surrendered, except for the city of Paris. For six months, through a brutal winter, the Prussians laid siege to the city. Paris, in defiance, held fast, even opposing the French government, which had fled to Versailles and was collaborating with the Germans. Parisians formed an opposition government – a revolutionary and socialist one – and they called it the Paris Commune.
The Versailles government sent French soldiers to retake Paris. In May of 1871 they breached the west walls and swept eastward. During a bloody week of street fighting in which tens of thousands died, French soldiers fought French citizens. The remaining resisters holed themselves up inside the walls of Pere Lachaise and made a last stand before they were finally overcome. At dawn on May 28th, 1871, the 147 Communards were lined up against this very wall and were shot by French soldiers. They were buried in a mass grave where they fell.
and came upon a grave adorned with photos, fresh flowers, and love notes. It’s the grave of “the little sparrow”, Edith Piaf.
With her strong but trembling voice, she buoyed French spirits under the German occupation, and her most famous song, “La Vie en Rose” captured the joy of postwar Paris. Her life was a mess – she struggled with painkillers, alcohol, and poor health, but she got up there on stage and sang “Non, je ne regrette rien” (“No, I don’t regret anything”). You go, girl.
I had a map with me, so I knew what graves I was looking for. While walking to my next destination, however, I saw a crowd gathered around a grave that was not on my map. I got closer and saw what the fuss was about. It was the grave of Bernard Verlhac, one of the victims of the Charlie Hebdo killings. Pretty moving.
Next grave: the great comic playwright, Molière. In 1804, he was the first person to be reburied in Pere Lachaise, a publicity stunt that gave instant prestige to the new cemetery.
When Moliere was 21, he joined a troupe of strolling players who ranked very low on the social scale. Twelve years later, they returned to Paris before Louis XIV. By this time, Molière was an accomplished comic actor, and he totally cracked trekking up. He became instantly famous by writing, directing, and often starring in his own works. He satirized rich nobles, quack doctors, and hypocritical priests, creating many enemies along the way.
O February 17th, 1675, an aging Molière went onstage in the title role of his latest comedy, The Imaginary Invalid. He was pretty ill, but he insisted that he had to go on, for his audience. His role was of a hypochondriac who coughs to get sympathy. The deathly ill Moliere effectively faked coughing fits, which soon turned into real convulsions. The unaware crowd roared with laughter. In the final scene, Moliere’s character becomes a doctor himself in a mock swearing-in ceremony. Being a trouper, Molière uttered his final line – “Juro” (“I accept”) – and collapsed while coughing blood. The audience laughed hysterically. He died shortly thereafter.
And now, the one we’ve been waiting for. It was a bit of a trek… downhill on Chemin Moliere et La Fontaine, which turns into Chemin du Bassin, then a left turn on Avenue de la Chapelle, then to Rond Point, the roundabout intersection. You cross the roundabout and continue straight, on Chemin de la Bedoyere, then a right onto Chemin Lauriston. Keep to the left at the fork, and look for the temple with three wreaths.
An iconic, funky bust of Morrison was initially at the tomb, but it was stolen. It was replaced with a more toned-down headstone. The headstone’s Greek inscription reads “To the spirit (or demon) within”. Morrison died in the wee hours of July 3rd, in his bathtub at age 27. Morrison’s friends tried to carry out his wishes by having him buried at Pere Lachaise, but the director refused to admit him, until they mentioned that Jim was a writer. “A writer?” he said, and found a spot. Today, this city of the dead (population 70,000) still accepts new residents, but it’ll cost ya. A 21-square foot plot costs more than 11,000 euros.
Retracing our steps back to the roundabout, and then taking some lefts and rights, we arrived at a popular grave, that of Frédéric Chopin. Chopin’s music still resonates strongly with people, and the fresh-cut flowers and geraniums on his gravestone is testament to this. A muse sits in sorrow atop the tomb, and a carved relief of Chopin in profile captures the features of this sensitive artist.
And now a love story for the ages: The story of Héloīse and Abélard. Born nearly a millennium ago (Heloise in 1101, Abelard in 1079), these are the oldest residents in the entire Pere Lachaise. Their tomb looks like a church with a cross perched on top.
The dog at Abelard’s feet symbolizes their fidelity to each other. Heloise went on to become an influential abbess, and Abelard bounced back with some of his most critical writings. He was forced to burn his Theologia in 1121, and while waiting to stand trial for heresy, he died. When Heloise died, the two were buried here in Pere Lachaise. The canopy tomb you’re looking at is made out of stones from both Heloise’s convent and Abelard’s monastery. How’s that for a love story? Sigh.
I didn’t get to visit a few that I wanted to: Eugene Delacroix, Georges Seurat, Amadeo Modigliani, Marcel Proust, Sarah Bernhardt, and Yves Montand & Simone Signoret. That’s inspiration for a future visit.
My main course was also very tasty. But the dessert was best. A couple was dining two tables away. One of them (the guy) ordered the mousse. The waiter brought over a huge bowl of mousse and dropped a giant scoop of it onto the guy’s plate. Mark looked over and instinctively said “Oh my god. Wow!” The waiter looked over. “You ordered the mousse, too?”. I said yes. He put the bowl on the table, and the scoop, and said, “Take as much as you want.” Then he left. And never came back! He just left the huge bowl, containing about ten portions, on the table! Needless to say, I indulged mightily. The mousse’s reputation is well-deserved.
DAY 7 – COMING SOON