In Paris, I really do like to try and do nothing… but that’s impossible.
— Christian Louboutin —
The picture of Paris I have in my head is one of an august courtesan who never fails to seduce me with her charms. Perhaps it’s a bit selfish and indulgent, but I prefer to visit The City of Light on my own… that’s the whole purpose of a secret love affair, isn’t it? ‘Secret’ is the operative word here and Paris has many. She never leaves me disappointed as she reveals new delicious little places, hidden in all her nooks and crannies, with each of my visits.
Cimetière du Père Lachaise, located in the 20th arrondissement (district), is the largest cemetery in Paris. With over 70,000 graves on 108 acres, it is one of the most famous cemeteries in the world and the final resting place for some of the greatest philosophers, artists, poets, writers and musicians the world has seen. In fact, the tombstones of Père Lachaise are a catalogue of historic genius and talent. It’s the one place in Paris that’s always on my list of things to do while I am there.
The cemetery itself is not so much a ‘secret’ because it’s visited by 1.5 million tourists every year. However, unless you take a special guided tour, you may never see the poignant memorials — found on the far-east side of the cemetery — for the tens of thousands of French Jews who were deported to Nazi death camps during WWII. Among the most striking of all these cenotaphs are the haunting memorials dedicated to those killed at the Neuengamme, Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen Concentration camps. Even though their grotesque stature only hint at the magnitude of the atrocities committed by man against man, they left me with the heavy, sinking feeling that certain things cannot ever be undone.
Traveller’s tip: Due to its increasing popularity, the cemetery gets very busy and I’ve found that the most peaceful time is early on a Sunday morning, shortly after the gates open. This is a ‘working’ cemetery and many locals still visit the graves of family and loved-ones. Since the French are particularly passionate about food, sex and death, it’s only polite to respect their privacy.
Maps are available at the main entrance and you can also view an interactive map of the cemetery by visiting this link: Cimetière du Père Lachaise
Métro: Gambetta, Père Lachaise, Phillipe Auguste
Main entrance: Boulevard de Menilmontant
When Edith Piaf died in 1963, her last words were: “Every damn foolish thing you do in this life, you pay for.” It is rumoured that her husband, Théo Sarapo, secretly drove her body back to Paris, from her villa in Plascassier (Grasse), so that her fans would think she died in her hometown.
Even though the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Paris denied Piaf a funeral mass because of her ‘lifestyle’, her funeral procession drew tens of thousands of mourners onto the streets of Paris and the ceremony at the Cimetière du Père Lachaise was attended by more than 100,000 people. Many Parisians reminisce that it was the only time since the end of World War II that the traffic in Paris come to a complete standstill.
It’s rather ironic that this legendary singer, who supposedly was born under a gas street lamp on a policeman’s cloak and who epitomised French passion, melancholy and gutsy, street-savvy elegance, doesn’t have an official museum in Paris dedicated to her life.
However, not too far away from Cimetière du Père Lachaise, in the 11th district, you’ll find the unassuming Musée Édith Piaf — a true Parisian jewel that sensitively depicts the tragedies and hardships of her mythical life.
Musée Édith Piaf is a private museum and is maintained by Bernard Marchois, who met the newly discovered chanteuse, later endearingly known as La Môme Piaf (The Little Sparrow), when he was a teenager and became a lifelong fan. Marchois dedicated two rooms of his fourth-floor flat, in which he still lives, to Piaf’s memory and he is also solely responsible for the up keeping of her grave.
The entrance to the museum is marked with a humble plaque, “Les Amis de Piaf,” on Rue Crespin du Gast. Entry is free and if you ask him, Monsieur Marchois will share an impressive wealth of knowledge about the life and times of Edith Piaf.
The Musée Édith Piaf has so far been one of my most personal experiences in Paris — partly because it is in a private home and because of the nature of the collection held by Monsieur Marchois. The space has a sense of intimacy not often achieved in a museum. Paintings and photos of the singer cover the walls and reading Piaf’s correspondence with family and friends scattered among her personal belongings, create a feeling that you are weaving through the memories of a life lived with a mercurial creative passion.
Since Piaf spent most of her life in the suburbs of Paris — sometimes earning a living performing on street corners and sometimes owning the most majestic apartments — the museum also paints a perfect and delicate picture of typical Parisian charisma and jeux de vie.
Traveller’s Tip: Monsieur Marchois’ love and passion for Piaf oozes out of him, which is why I recommend that you make a handsome donation to help him keep this precious memory alive. Consider this when you visit. And if you’re a real fan, why not take The Little Sparrow some flowers. I believe roses are always welcome.
The museum is open Monday through Wednesday 1pm – 6pm, by appointment only. Entry code to Museum provided upon confirmed appointment.
Address: Rue Crespin du Gast, 75011 Paris, (00) 33 1 43 55 52 72
Paris works hard to keep its reputation as La Ville Lumière (The City of Light) and there’s no doubt in my mind that, much as they ‘hide’ in plain sight, the street lamps of Paris play a key role in the romantic mythology of this inspiring city.
The sobriquet “La Ville Lumière” is a name owned by Paris since the Age of Enlightenment, when it became famous as a centre of education and ideas. However, travellers later gave it a more literal meaning when the city centre became one of the first in the world to be lit at night.
Long before the dimly lit gas lamps intoxicated travellers, the first public lamp in Paris was the famous candle lantern that was placed in front of the Grand Chatelet, in 1318 — hardly a comparison to the city’s lights spectacular today. Public streets were illuminated in London, as early as 1417, by Sir Henry Barton, Mayor of London and Paris followed suit in 1524, when an order was issued to light up the streets. The early street lamps were makeshift tallow candles in iron-framed glass boxes, which were hung from ropes that stretched between houses across the narrow cobbled streets.
Later, the candles were replaced with oil lamps and to finance the ‘system’, householders had to pay a tax that covered both street cleaning and street lighting — taxe des boues et des lanternes. Some believe taxe des boues et des lanternes gave birth to modern-day property tax.
Hanging burning candles and oil lamps from ropes across streets had its logistical challenges. The lamps on ropes were easy targets for drunken troublemakers who pulled the ropes down and smashed the glass boxes as they trawled the streets at night — making them a costly fire and safety hazard.
In the beginning of the 16th century, Parisians were ordered to keep lamps and candles burning in the windows of all houses that faced the streets. An ordinance of Louis XIV, in 1667, increased the number of lamps in the streets and insisted that they should be lit — by an “allumeur de reverbère” (lamplighter) — from November 1 until March 1… even on bright moonlit nights.
The first gas lamps were placed in the Place du Carrousel in 1829. Haussmann’s redesign of Paris, between 1853 and 1870, included the installation of the first 14,000 gas street lamps. By 1870 these flat-flame gas lamps, giving a modest light of about 10 candle power, increased to 21,000. Haussmann’s gas lamps and wider streets improved the safety of the streets of Paris, which improved bourgeois convenience and social life. Shops now stayed open until 10pm and this transformed Parisian street life into a bustling nocturnal affair.
Over time, the gaslights began to blend into the cityscape and assimilate into the daily lives of the Parisians… one can only imagine how the faintly lit streets of Paris captivated the imagination of visitors to the city… a romance was born.
It is believed that the engineering brothers Louis and Auguste Lumière (developers of a motion picture camera, the cinematograph) instigated the conversion of Paris’s gas lamps to electricity.
Today, nearly 700 years after the first candle lantern lit up the Grand Chatelet, Paris is one of the most enchanting sights to feast your eyes on at night. Among many things, its street lamps have seen revolutions (when they were used as impromptu gallows for hangings), are featured in masterpieces like Renoir’s Moulin de la Galette, painted in 1876, and even witnessed the birth of Paris’ greatest songstress, Edith Piaf.
Imagine standing at the highest point in Paris, Mount of Martyrs (Montmartre), at La Basilique du Sacré Cœur, overlooking the city on a gorgeous clear evening and there are no twinkling lights illuminating the streets.
The Sacré Cœur, with its majestic Apse Mosaic (one of the largest mosaics in the world), grand pipe organ (unanimously considered to be one of the most remarkable in Paris, France and Europe) and its famous 19 tonne bell, known as the “Savoyarde”, is no doubt an important landmark for religious pilgrims.
As much as this grandiose white-domed basilica is a sight every traveller should visit at least once when they are in Paris, the Sacré Cœur is not the reason why I frequent Montmartre… Onion soup and red wine is.
Nestled at the foot of Montmartre, behind the Sacré Cœur, away from the traditional tourist route, is a small local hang-out — Le Botak Café. If you’re looking for a restaurant (though really, this is a bar at the very least and a street café at most) that is quintessentially Parisian, the picturesque Le Botak Café is where you will find it. The food is simple, rustic, honest (not Michelin starred) and prepared with care. The wine list is small but flirts with enough variety to even keep connoisseurs interested.
I had my first ever French Onion soup here, which I enjoyed with a glass of vin du Rhone and a warm fresh baguette. It was a particularly cold Sunday, close to the end of November. I was tired. In fact, I had not slept for 24 hours because Paris seduced me once again with all her charms and I spent the previous evening walking across the city — following the curves of the Seine from Port de Bir-Hakeim, getting lost in the decadent Marais district and ending up at Marché Richard Lenoir (the best fresh food Sunday market in the city). It happens… sometimes when I start, I cannot stop.
I enjoyed my garlicky, peppery, clear union soup and sweetish red wine so much, I still keep the bill for that meal in my wallet ’till today. It’s a lucky charm, ensuring that no matter where I eat in Paris, I will always enjoy my food. So far, I have not been disappointed.
Traveler’s Tip: Many artists like Salvador Dalí, Amedeo Modigliani, Claude Monet, Piet Mondrian, Pablo Picasso and Vincent van Gogh, had studios or worked around the community of Montmartre, which is why it is still known as the principal artistic centre of Paris.
So, don’t expect the staff at Le Botak Café to give you silver service. They can be temperamental and my suspicion is that they are all struggling artists. I’ve had mixed experiences here — sometimes being greeted with a smile and sometimes pooh-poohed. It’s a local hang-out after-all. Nonetheless, the place has a great atmosphere and is best appreciated as a ‘fly on the wall’… if you are a tourist, you stand no chance of infiltrating this unique and intimate inner circle… they know you are just passing through.
Aim to get a seat at the bar counter. Have the onion soup. Drink the wine and imagine Picasso dropping in for lunch… it’s Paris after all.
Métro: Chateau Rouge
Address: 1 Rue Paul Albert, 75018
Images: FR Lubbe, Little Red Shoes
Text: FR Lubbe, Little Red Shoes
Nature, International Revue of Science, History of the Public Lighting of Paris,
Nature 132, 888-889 (09 December 1933) | doi:10.1038/132888c0