Paris walks: Père-Lachaise
The last resting place of some of France’s most illustrious corpses
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The Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, Paris's largest cemetery, is probably still best known to foreign visitors as the final resting place of one James Douglas Morrison, lead singer of the Doors. But ask a local what this 48-hectare site in the 20th arrondissement means to them, and they're more likely to mention the Mur des Fédérés or Molière than the Lizard King. On this walk, therefore, you'll pay tribute to the heroes and victims of French political history, and visit the tombs of some of France's greatest writers.
Rather than entering Père-Lachaise by the main entrance on Boulevard Ménilmontant, start at the much more discreet gate set into the southern wall of the cemetery on Rue de la Réunion, just off Rue de Bagnolet. You join Avenue Circulaire, which hugs the cemetery wall. Turn right and then follow the path round until you reach the Mur des Fédérés in the south-east corner.
It was here, during the last week of May 1871, that the few remaining partisans of the Paris Commune (known as fédérés or communards) were lined up against a wall and summarily executed by troops loyal to the National Assembly at Versailles. A memorial procession to the wall, the Montée au Mur des Fédérés, takes place every year in May.
Across the path, in plot or 'division' No.97, stand a number of memorials to the victims of Nazism and Fascism. Next to an urn containing ashes from the crematorium at the Flossenburg concentration camp is a striking ziggurat commemorating people who were 'tortured, gassed, shot or hanged' at Mauthausen. And just behind this loom two enormous manacled hands hewn from stone, a deeply unsettling monument to the women who died at Ravensbruck. A little further along Avenue Circulaire, on the same side, is the tomb of people who perished in 1962 at the hands of the police, not far from here at the Charonne Métro station, after a demonstration in favour of Algerian independence.
Follow Avenue Circulaire along the northern wall until you reach the Jardin du Souvenir. Turn left up Avenue Carette, keeping an eye out on your right for the monumental sarcophagus housing the remains of Oscar Wilde, who died in Paris in 1900.
When you reach Avenue Transversale no.2, turn left and walk down the hill, until you reach a bronze effigy of Victor Noir, a journalist who was shot by a cousin of Napoleon III in 1870. You'll notice that the effigy depicts Noir with a distinct enlargement in the region of the groin, and also that the area in question appears to have been rubbed down rather energetically: many parisiennes have believed that a little frottage with Victor would make them fertile.
Now retrace your steps in the direction of the crematorium and columbarium. On your left, in division 86, is the rough-hewn headstone of Guillaume Appolinaire. Across the path, Marcel Proust lies in an austere marble tomb with other members of his family.
Continue along Avenue Transversale No.2, until you reach Avenue des Thuryas. Turn left and walk down the hill into gently curving Chemin Casimir Delavigne. About halfway down on the right is a bronze bust of Honoré de Balzac. The bust is accompanied by a bronze book and quill, upon which, on our most recent visit, an admirer had left an apple with a heart carved in it.
Walk straight on, down Chemin Mont-Louis. Through the trees you'll catch a few tantalising glimpses of the Paris skyline as you head towards Avenue Principale, and beyond that the main gate of the cemetery, and the din and traffic of Boulevard Ménilmontant.
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