Day 6 – The Canal St. Martin, Belleville, and the Pere Lachaise Cemetery
Our first full day in Paris began with a walk up the Canal St. Martin, and then a visit to the newly hip neighborhood of Belleville. To get to the canal, you take the Metro to Place del la Republique. This is where the rally for the victims of the Charlie Hebdo killings took place. Flyers and graffiti from the rally were still present at the statue in the center of the square.
The Canal St. Martin begins at Bastille, but hides underground until Boulevard Richard Lenoir nearby.
Here’s the start of canal
and here’s the view looking north, which is the direction we were going to start walking.
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.
Also nearby was the cute Jardin Villemin.
This garden is partly managed by locals as a community project. Lots of beautiful trees, including chestnuts and pines. The building at the back is the Couvent des Récollets, a cultural centre coupled to flats welcoming artists for temporary residences. It used to be a convent and then an hospital.
After the brief visit to Jardin Villemin, we stopped at an outdoor cafe to get breakfast. I spotted a duck heading to the canal, walking with her little babies following behind. Then I saw a woman nearby looking concerned, but I couldn’t tell what was going on. I went over to look. The duck had hopped up one of the steps leading to the edge of the canal, but her little babies couldn’t make the leap up the steps. Two women were just standing by, looking worried. I went over and lifted each little duckling up and onto the walkway.
When I went over, the mama almost attacked me, but as soon as she saw what I was doing, she hung back and let me finish. I had to put down the camera, so there was no photographic record of this, unfortunately.
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.
We arrived at the top of the canal, at Bassin de Vilette. The circular building is the Barriere de la Vilette, and it is one of the few remaining 18th century tollhouses designed by Nicolas Ledoux. The modernist fountains in front channel your view up the Canal de l’Ourcq.
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 hydraulic bridge separates the Bassin deLa Vilette from the Canal de l’Ourcq.
On every post and on every building, there was lots of interesting street art, as you can see.
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.
Like New York, there’s art everywhere. We passed some clever sculptures depicting parts of a giant bicycle.
At one of the concert halls, they were having a David Bowie exhibit. I kind of regret not going in.
After the park, we hopped on the Metro and took it a few stops to the Belleville station.
We walked up the Rue de Belleville, an uphill street lined with Chinese grocers, restaurants, ands hops selling hand-painted porcelain, Buddha statues, and firecrackers. This is the heart of the local Chinese community.
Before continuing our walk uphill, we took a quick detour on the Rue Denoyez, a street known for its colorful street art.
Back on the Rue de Belleville, I spotted another veterinary hospital. Yay!
We continued our trudge uphill and found the cute Parc de Belleville, where we were rewarded for our efforts with an amazing panoramic view over Paris.
The park is filled with wonderful art.
And what a view!
Right below is a nicely landscaped area with trees, walkways, and fountains
as well as a little stadium seating, to just sit and relax
Check out some of the fascinating art in the park.
I got a little artistic myself with the soft focus in the background below.
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.
We crossed the street to Place Maurice Chevalier, but Maurice wasn’t looking too hot.
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.
The first building we encountered was the Columbarium and Crematorium. The columbarium sits in a courtyard. Inside were about 1300 niches (small cubicles for cremated remains), often decorated with real or fake flowers.
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).
A short stroll down Avenue Transversale….
and a quick left on Avenue Carette….
and you come upon a big tomb with heavy-winged angels trying to fly.
This is the tomb of Oscar Wilde. Fans of Wilde’s, with heavy lipstick, used to cover the tomb with kisses. The tomb is now behind glass, but as you can see above, it has not deterred committed kissers.)
Not too far from Oscar Wilde’s grave was another notable (and very understated) tomb, that of Gertrude Stein. While traveling through Europe, Stein dropped out of medical school and moved to Paris, where she lived for the rest of her life. She shared an apartment with her brother Leo, and later with her life partner, Alice B. Toklas. She was a very admired writer back then in Paris. Picasso painted her portrait, Hemingway sought her approval, and Virgil Thompson set her words to music. Although her writing is less well-known than her persona, she’ll be forever remembered for the oft-quoted, “A rose is a rose is a rose.”
Alice B. Toklas is buried with her. Her inscription is slyly written on the back side of the grave.
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.
Here’s a panoramic view of the wall:
We passed a few more monuments dedicated to the concentration camp survivors and Nazi resistance…
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.
Ah, there it is… the three wreaths….
Just behind the temple is the most visited tomb in the cemetery: Jim Morrison.
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.
This grave wasn’t on my map, but I thought it was impressive. The guy was a painter and sculptor. Not sure if this was one of his works, but it looked great. When I went through his pictures, I looked him up
. Turns out he was a pretty cool guy, professionally and personally.
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.
The 21 year-old Polish pianist arrived in Paris, fell in love with the city, and never returned to Poland again. (It was occupied by an increasingly oppressive Russia, so you couldn’t blame him for not returning home. Besides… this was Paris!) In Paris, he could finally shake off the “child prodigy” label and rigorous performance schedule he had been subjected to since the age of seven. He had terrible stage fright and preferred playing at private parties for Paris’ elite. They were wowed by his technique and his melodic, soul-stirring compositions. He soon became recognized as a pianist, composer, teacher, and brooding genius. He ran in aristocratic circles with other artists such as Franz Liszt, the painter Delacroix, and Victor Hugo and Balzac, and the composted Rossini.
Chopin composed almost 200 pieces, almost all for piano. In 1837, he met the scandalous, assertive, stormy novelist George Sand, who couldn’t be more different than the quiet, refined Chopin. She pursued him, and sparks flew. Thought the romance faded quickly, they continued living together for nearly a decade in an increasingly bitter love-hate relationship. When Chopin developed tuberculosis, Sand nursed him for years. (He complained that she was killing him.) Sand finally left, Chopin was devastated, and he died two years later at age 39. At the funeral, they played Chopin’s most famous piece, the Funeral March (you’d know it if you heard it). The grave her contains hi body, but Chopin’s actual heart lies in Warsaw, embedded in a church column.
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.
Under the canopy lie Heloise and Abelard. In an age of faith and Church domination of all aspects of life, the independent scholar Peter Abelard dared to say, “By questioning, we learn truth.” He was brash and combative. He was also charismatic, and he shocked and titillated Paris with his secular knowledge and reasoned critique of Church doctrine. He set up a school on the Left Bank that would eventually become the University of Paris. Bright minds from all over Europe flocked to Paris, including Heloise, the brainy niece of the powerful canon of Notre-Dame.
Abelard was hired to give private instruction to Heloise. Their intense intellectual connection led to physical fireworks and a spiritual bond. They fled Paris and married in secret, fearing the damage to Abelard’s career. After a year, Heloise gave birth to a son named Astrolabe (which has to be the coolest name ever), and the news got out. Heloise’s uncle found out. The canon exploded, so to speak, and he sent a bunch of thugs out in the middle of the night to Abelard’s bedroom, where they castrated him.
Disgraced, Abelard retired to a monastery, and Heloise to a convent, never again to live as man and wife. But thanks to the postal service, the two remained intimately connected, exchanging letters of love and devotion and intellectual discourse. These letters survive today.
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.
We finish the tour with a final few notables. Here lies Colette, France’s most honored female writer.
She led an unconventional life. She was married three times and was often linked romantically with other women. She wrote about it in a few semi-autobiographical novels. Her first fame came from a series of novels about naughty teenage Claudine’s adventures. In her 30s, Colette went on to a career as a music hall performer. Remember Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction”? Colette beat Janet Jackson to that by a couple of decades, scandalizing Paris in the process. Her large novel, Gigi, about a teenage girl groomed to be a professional mistress who blossomed into independence, became a musical film starring Leslie Caron and Maurice Chevalier.
Next is the little mausoleum belongs to Gioacchino Rossini. His most famous work is the William Tell Overture (which most of us know better as the Lone Ranger theme). Rossini was Italian, but he moved to Paris in 1823 to bring his popular comic operas to France. He was very prolific and could crank out a three-hour opera in weeks, including the highly successful Barber of Seville. When the William Tell Overture debuted in 1929, the 37 year-old Rossini was at the peak of his career as an opera composer.
And then he stopped. He never again wrote an opera, and scarcely composed anything for the next four decades. He moved to Italy where he went through a stretch of bad health, and then returned to Paris, where his health improved. This is a cute little mausoleum, but it’s empty. His remains were moved to Florence.
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.
Dinner was memorable. It was at Chez Janou, a cute place that is famous for their chocolate mousse.
The meal was great. The shrimp and avocado salad was huge, and was a great starter.
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.
As you can see, I took a huge scoop.
Now deeply in a sugar coma, we headed back to the hotel. Kick-ass day scheduled for tomorrow, as you’ll soon see.
DAY 7 – COMING SOON