IR INTERRAIL 2003 > Day 2 > Paris (Père Lachaise, Montmartre)

Paris (Père Lachaise)

There was no stopping me on this, my first full day of adventure abroad. The aspect of European culture that I had chosen to investigate before any other, was death. I was straight down to the fantastically atmospheric Cimetière Père Lachaise in the east of Paris, to explore the remains of many late luminaries. My brief acquaintances with graveyards in England over the years could not have readied me for this, one of the most grand, opulent, historic and breathtaking burial grounds in the world.

It was early on a beautiful Saturday morning, and the place was tranquil and unspoilt by the murmurs of other tourists as I began strolling around. I had cast my eyes over a map at the entrance, highlighting the locations of some of the more distinguished, and extinguished guests. Thinking I had absorbed the basic plan in my head, I set off exploring the vast array of tombs and stones, many built like huge chambers and mini walk-in chapels. Having exhausted one section I soon became lost and made my way back to the map, only to realize that the area I had ventured into and spent considerable time studying, represented just a fraction of the whole cemetery, and I had totally misjudged the enormous scale of the place.

The grave of composer Frédéric Chopin

I shifted the furniture in my brain to try and accommodate an extra thirty per cent of burial facts, and headed off again in the direction of French composer Georges Bizet. His grave was pleasant, a little unspectacular, and sadly rather forgotten; a bit of a surprise for somebody who had scored an opera as dramatic as Carmen.

The contrast with the grave of Frédéric Chopin (left) was equally dramatic. This Polish composer of French descent had written some of the most emotional and beautiful music of his time, and as a pianist myself who had struggled with his many nocturnes for several years, it was quite stirring to be standing by his side, hearing the sweet tones of his piano compositions going around in my head and feeling some pity that like everybody else, he had to pass away.

There were many more imposing and grand monuments around the grounds, but Chopin's memorial was very peaceful, tucked away on a quiet path amongst the trees, and was a fitting enough tribute. The lit candles and flowers in evidence around his tomb were a clear indication of the passion still felt for his music by fans around the world.

I moved on to perhaps the most famous grave of all (right), yet probably the most unspectacular to look at. Legendary Doors frontman and cult hero Jim Morrison was, rather oddly, buried here amongst the many other veterans of a quite different age, who would probably frown upon the presence of this controversial figure in their close proximity.

Morrison had died, aged just 27, from a heart attack in the bath tub of his room in Paris in July 1971. But still today, groups of fans gathered at his shrine around the clock. A security guard stood watch over the site, in which Jim's grave was awkwardly sandwiched between others that had become plastered in scribblings and etchings from visitors. It was wedged right behind another large tomb which rather obscured it from view, and made it somewhat inaccessible.

In a peculiar way, this position was also a fitting tribute to a figure whose life had been equally uncomfortable, at least in the image he projected to conservative society which, at the time, was shocked by him. Chopin and Morrison were at opposite ends of the musical spectrum, and the idea of them being buried in the same grounds at Père Lachaise added to the strangeness of the place.

Jim Morrison's grave

A path through the cemetery which was typical of many

The stunningly individual memorial to Oscar Wilde

I managed to while away several hours in the cemetery, only wishing that I had been raised in France so as to appreciate the identities of the many other famed members under my feet. A pair of tourists who were about to exit handed me their copy of the dead celebrity map, and I was able to find my way to those other deceased stars whose names were more poignant than the scores of eminent French folk.

After a detour past the remains of Edith Piaf, I reached the memorial to Oscar Wilde; a quite stunning and individual effort which had sadly since been emasculated (left). The edifice was smothered in lipstick kisses, and amongst the many quotes made by the man, it seemed that one of his most famous from The Ballad of Reading Gaol - written whilst in exile in France not long before his death - was most poignant:

'Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

Certainly there were plenty of 'cowards' in evidence here, and at least one 'brave man' who had taken a sword - or something a little more clumsy - to the most crafty part of the craftwork on the sculpture.

On the way out of the cemetery I passed some haunting memorials to the victims of the Holocaust, many of them grouped together in an eerie corner of the site. As striking and awe-inspiring as this place was, having surrounded myself all morning with such morbidity I felt that it was time to head off for the next hostel, located a few streets away near Parc de Bagnolet, and plan something more uplifting for the afternoon. There was so much to do and see in Paris that it was difficult deciding where to go next, and so I sat for a while in the local green spot with my lunch, watching lazy Parisian park life inside the gates and the noisy bustle of Parisian traffic screaming past outside. A jogger repeatedly passed making countless laps of the park circuit, his confident strides eventually lapsing into shattered shaky steps, as he cursed the beaming sunshine and the inability of his body to absorb its energy at a faster rate than he expended it.

Paris (Montmartre)

The underground took me largely overground to the northern district of Montmartre, famed for its picturesque cobbled streets and shops, and graced by the Basilica of Sacré-Coeur at the top of the hill (right). Eager to avoid the parade of touts who loitered on the steps leading directly to the summit, I practically jogged the whole way up with my rucksack, forsaking the modern funicular railway that would have done the same job but without leaving me half dead.

The steps in front of the Basilica commanded a magnificent view over the city (below). The Sacré-Coeur itself was perhaps fortunate in benefiting largely from its location and gaining a cultural reputation which extended beyond its actual value. Certainly it was a beautiful sight, but having been built around the turn of the twentieth century, it was less spectacular in style than other great landmarks that were not so well positioned in other cities.

Entrance was free and so I stepped inside to find myself in the middle of a mass, where a choir of sisters were singing some soothing tunes which echoed around the domed chambers. Unfortunately, this did not stop large numbers of extremely crass, noisy tourists charging in and yacking at each other incessantly, and answering their mobile phones to the great distraction of the service.

Looking up the steps to the Sacré-Coeur

view of Paris from the steps outside the Sacré-Coeur

With food in mind, I wandered back down the hill in the hope of finding a mini-market to buy some cheap grub, and there in the middle of the expensive eateries and overpriced tourist hangouts of Montmartre, I found my reward. Following those coffee peanuts the previous night and my dismal breakfast at the hostel in the morning, I stood drooling at the groceries in the store and the quality French wine at rock bottom prices.

I spent over half an hour looping around the small number of aisles, double-checking exactly what I could get for my money, and considering all the options. I then emerged with a litre of mineral water, a bottle of pink grapefruit juice and.......a tub of grated celery. Somehow I felt that I hadn't made the most of the opportunity. It was so hot and stuffy outside that I needed all the refreshment I could get, and being somebody with a fussy diet, I had struggled to find much else which would quench my thirsty hunger. Armed like a smugly organized traveller with my mini pack of plastic cutlery, I only needed to find a place to consume it all, and after turning a few corners I soon found myself at a famous location (below).

Outside the Moulin Rouge, with its landmark red windmill on the roof

It hadn't been my intention to visit the Moulin Rouge, but like any tourist I felt that I just had to see it once. There was no need to go inside, however, since the spectacle on the street outside was as enthralling as anything I might have watched inside at one of the famed revues.

With an underground line running underneath the street and a large vent covered by a grille above the pavement, it became a fascination of tourists admiring the attraction across the road to stand atop the vent and feel the fresh breeze whisking up from below. Anybody in this sweltering heat would have been tempted to have a go, although 'force eight gale' might have been a better description of the effect it produced. I stood back and delighted in watching hordes of naive young women in dresses clambering up onto the vertical wind tunnel, and quickly back down once they realized their big mistake. It was like watching a girl next door version of the Folies-Bergère.

Having established myself as an unofficial pervert, I continued my hunt for somewhere suitable to consume my celery. I began trekking back up through the streets, desperately seeking some idyllic green micro-park, but there was no such thing to be seen. I had walked the equivalent of several miles today and I was shattered. I continued climbing further and further to the point where I was once again greeted by the sight of the Sacré-Coeur ahead of me. It probably wasn't a popular feature on most tourists' agendas to ascend the hill of Montmartre, on foot, twice in a day. Having left the last shops behind me at the foot of the hill, I once more perched myself down on the grass outside the Basilica overlooking the capital, anticipating my salad feast after so much toil during the day in my endless walkabout.

What I had come to know as celery, however, clearly wasn't the same thing as the fibrous material that occupied my tub. After one small sample I already knew that if, upon my return to Britain the following month, I could only offer one piece of advice from my whole trip, it would have to be a plea that nobody ever dare to purchase Pierre Martinet's Celeriac Remoulade, or worse still eat it. I would never be able to put into words how unpleasant this thing was, and estimating that the container must hold at least fifty fork-fulls, I really tried to approach the third with thoughts of a will to live, but to no avail. Nothing in any travel guide could have prepared me for this, the party pooper of the grocery kingdom. I'd put all my eggs in one basket and banked on this lone vegetable providing my digestive entertainment for the evening. I'd even opted for the family size pack. Knowing that my only food salvation lay at the foot of the hill, I longed for a flash snowstorm to occur so I could ski all the way down.

I remembered that my hostel served dinners, and so dashed back on the Metro the fifteen or more stops to get there. Alas, their Tex-Mex diner advertised in my hostel guide had since been converted into a disco, and I found myself walking the streets of this seedy district searching for nourishment. It materialized in the form of an aubergine. I knew how tragic that might seem to others, but it wasn't all bad. It was scooped, grilled and filled with some kind of vegetable medley, which I had come to understand was the fashionable new term for this kind of plant-based pot-pourri. And better still it came with not just a side salad (no celery included), but also a stale naan bread. Eating out in Paris was always a winner.

HOSTEL REPORT: Paris - Le d'Artagnan, 80 Rue Vitruve, 75020 Paris
Another pricey Parisian hostel, but despite appearing trendy and friendly on first impressions, it didn't live up to expectations. Located in what seemed a slightly insalubrious district in the east of the city, in which prostitutes openly plied their trade day and night on the main street, the hostel suffered from the common problem of being a big urban noisy place inhabited by too many retards to be enjoyable. Again, all through the night there was rowdy and juvenile behaviour exhibited by other residents at their windows, complemented by parades of motorbikes and show-offs in cars in the street below, pumping out music at top volume from their bass boxes at 3am. The lack of a diner as advertised in my guide was a disappointment, although no more than just an unfortunate discovery, as it had once been there but had since closed. What aggravated me the most, however, was that having been required therefore to seek another place from which to obtain food, when I returned with my take-away and sat myself down in the eating area, a cleaner tried to turf me out, stating that the only place I could eat was downstairs in the noisy bar/disco. After much arguing I persuaded him to allow me fifteen minutes to finish my meal, and considering that the place was open and empty, I couldn't see what harm I was doing. The dormitory had a fiddly lock requiring entry by a many-digit code sequence, which after a few drinks at night caused much consternation to many residents, and there was a strange arrangement of beds in the room; my own being accessible only to Russian gymnasts who could stretch their leg over their head yoga-style to be able to clamber onto the upper bunk. There was, however, an en suite shower, toilet and two sinks. Despite arriving on time for the start of breakfast, people had to queue for a long while to get in, although there was a good selection of food and it couldn't be faulted in that respect, presenting one of the better breakfasts I found on my journey. It was a fair walk to the Metro station at Porte de Bagnolet, but manageable for all but the most burdened traveller. Score: 5/10

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