Since Halloween is in just a few days, I thought it seemed appropriate to write about one of my favorite things to visit on my travels – the local cemeteries. I could spend as much if not more time in a cemetery as I could visiting a museum or church (just ask my husband who has to drag me out of them.) I have always wanted to plan a trip where I visit all the famous graveyards throughout Europe and beyond. Cemeteries fascinate me. They say so much about the history of the area, their culture and who they were. Throughout history, burials have been an art form and a very important part of the culture. In the states, nothing compares to the graveyards I’ve seen in Europe. Paris particularly has a set of some of the most famous graveyards you can encounter, which also hold many famous people.
My graveyard visit was definitely the highlight of my visit to Paris. To me, the feeling that day was nostalgic. It was a perfect early spring day. The air was cool, it was sunny and everything was quiet and calm – still. Prior to arriving at the graveyard we had made a steep walk down the hill of Montmartre from Sacre Core through a more residential area of Paris. The area reminded me a bit of San Francisco.
We stopped at a local bakery and bought French pastries that I had never heard of or seen before. We passed by some small shops and cafes and it was mostly quiet as we walked down to the city. I remember looking down one of the streets and seeing a giant narrow staircase that looked like something out of Dr. Seuss. The alley that held the staircase was bathing in the soft afternoon sunlight and stillness. I remember thinking- this is everyday Paris, not the hustle and bustle of the inner city. About halfway down to the inner city, we stopped at the graveyard we’d been looking for. This walk was probably my fondest memories of my visit; It was sporadic, unplanned and perfect.
The graveyard itself is placed in a very unique position as it is in a hollow of an old quarry in an underpass of the road under street level. During the French Revolution, this abandoned quarry was used as a mass grave. The perimeter of the yard is lined with high cement walls and coming from the opposite end of the entrance, we had to walk around the wall to figure out how to get in. It was a bit difficult trying to figure it out, but it was definitely worth it. The walls themselves made the graveyard that much more alluring and interesting, perhaps intimidating.
There weren’t any people there when we visited and it was eerily peaceful and beautiful. Actually, it was more sad than eerie. It was quite emotional to be there. The place had been overtaken by cats, as much of Paris is, which only added to the nostalgia of it. Most of the graves were not graves at all, but small mausoleums. The mausoleums were gorgeous, Gothic, detailed, and morbid. I had never seen anything like them and I was head over heels. There were small ones, grand elaborate ones, some that housed entire families and others that housed one person.
Many of the actual burials which were almost all above ground had dramatic statues that portrayed extreme emotion. I felt almost scared looking at them but at the same time, I felt like I could cry. I was absolutely captivated and wanted to know the story behind each and every one.
Our main goal of our graveyard visit was to find Jim Morrison’s grave, and according to my guidebook, it should have been in that graveyard. After a half hour of searching, I found a quite rough looking grave-keeper and asked for his assistance. He didn’t speak a lick of English, but I figured everyone knows Jim Morison right? He seemed confident enough that he knew just where it was and led me through a five minute walk clear to the other end of the graveyard. This walk through the graveyard is stained in my memory and I don’t really know why. I just remember looking at the back of the man as I followed him and wondering what his story was. He interested me. I liked him. He seemed nice, even though I couldn’t really talk to him. What I remember the most was the distinct smell of his small, hand rolled cigar as the scent floated back to me all along the way. That cigar smell, the man, the silence and the graveyard made such a combination that the memory is one I often think about. There are some things I really remember from my travels, and others things I don’t, and this one was one that stuck. It isn’t necessarily a good or bad memory, just an interesting one.
The walk ended with him pointing to a grave that was NOT Jim Morrison’s but it was ok; the man was very kind to have walked me all the way to what he thought I was looking for.
When I got home, I researched and found that we were at the wrong cemetery all along. There are actually 4 District Parisian cemeteries – Montmartre in the north, Père Lachaise Cemetery in the east, Passy Cemetery in the west and Montparnasse Cemetery in the south. Père Lachaise Cemetery is the cemetery with Jim Morrison.
Now that it’s all said and done, I’m actually glad I ended up at Montmartre Cemetery. I had it all to myself and that was one of the best things about it. I’m sure Père Lachaise is much more crowded as it is the largest and best known in Paris.
For anyone planning on touring any of these graveyards on your trip to Paris, know that Montmartre it is an easy downhill walk from the famous Sacre Core and that the area also has much cheaper souvenirs than inner city Paris. Montmartre Cemetery also holds graves of many famous composers, playwrights, actors and architects just like its counterpart, Père Lachaise.
Photos with an asterisk on the bottom left of them were NOT taken by me. All of the rest are mine.