diamond geezer

 Wednesday, March 13, 2013

À Paris: Père-Lachaise
It took several years for Père-Lachaise to become Paris's cemetery of choice. When it opened in 1804, on a hillside east of the city, it was thought to be too far out of town. Then they moved Molière in, or what was left of him, and before long anyone who was anyone wanted to be buried here. You have to have lived or worked in Paris to gain subterranean admittance, and these days there's a considerable waiting list. Enough celebrity bones are located here that the mayor issues a free map near each entrance so that tourists can go round grave spotting. Skim down the list, pick a philosopher or politician, then head off into the 44 acres of stone monuments in search of their last resting place. It's like being part of a giant game of Treasure Hunt. Everywhere there are tourists consulting their maps, and trying to work out where section 85 is, and whether it might be up that footpath off to the left, and OK so where's Marcel Proust? Usually you know when you're close because a cluster of people have beaten you to it, and are milling round Edith Piaf, or Frédéric Chopin, or whoever.

Two names bring folk here more than most. One is Oscar Wilde, who saw out his last years in Paris and died in the city, destitute, in 1900. Later his remains were moved to Père-Lachaise and reburied beneath a sleek plinth designed by Jacob Epstein, topped off by a flat winged angel. Until recently it was thought lucky to peck the stone with a kiss, but lipstick damage forced the authorities to erect a protective glass screen, and the end result now isn't quite so evocative. And the other famous grave is that of Jim Morrison, lead singer with the Doors, who died prematurely in 1971. The Mayor makes it especially difficult to find Jim's resting place because he's not listed on the paper map - the selection is far more worthy - although he is on the noticeboard map by each entrance so try that. Stalkers should head for section 6, in the southeastern corner of the cemetery, and look for the metal barriers incongruously sited off the main paths. You have to feel sorry for the unfortunate Parisians in graves and tombs immediately alongside, as visitors step around them, brush past them and leave puddles of mud around them, all so they can stand and stare at whatever bouquets and memorabilia have been draped over Jim recently. On Saturday that included a blue hoodie and a bottle of rum, as well as the obligatory moody staring photo.

Père-Lachaise is a magnificent cemetery. The hillside setting helps, with spring blossom now attempting to burst out across the gentle, occasionally somewhat steeper slopes. In some corners the paths swirl, in others they drive broad and straight. The tombs are generally tall like a telephone box with a family name carved across the entrance. A few of these are open to walk (slightly) inside, others have stained glass on their southern face which glints in the sunlight. Even when classically ornate, the overall effect is never as romantically over the top as you might find in, say, Highgate cemetery. But there's plenty of variety throughout the cemetery, and never a feeling of overgrown dereliction. In the upper sections expect more graves than tombs, some even fresh with 2013 inscriptions, and plenty of original mini-architecture inbetween. Ashes are still scattered in the Jardin de Souvenir along the top edge, and here too are some striking sculptures to commemorate the horrors of the Holocaust. To share your day with a million ex-Parisians, and the memory of many more, take a hillside stroll.

À Paris: Musee d'Orsay
Between 1900 and 1939, if you'd rolled into Paris by train from southwest France you'd have arrived at Gare d'Orsay. It was the first electrified urban rail terminal in the world, built in the Beaux Arts style on the banks of the Seine. Unfortunately when longer trains became the norm it proved too small, and impossible to extend, so long-distance traffic was diverted elsewhere. A brilliant idea struck the French government in the 1970s, to convert the old station into an art museum, the Musee d'Orsay, and François Mitterand got to open that in 1986. Arriving late in the afternoon meant that the queue to get inside wasn't fierce, so I braved the security frisk, paid up and went exploring. What a fantastic space. The central swathe at platform level is given over to a ramp dotted with sculptures, while to either side are linked galleries with walkways on top. Further galleries are hidden to left and right, many in the railway hotel that used to face the river. The original station clock ticks round, in golden splendour, above the main entrance. But finest of all is the arched roof, part glass, embedded with floral motifs laid out in regimented squares. When the building's already art, the paintings sing a little louder.

They're all here, and in such numbers you get a little blasé about seeing them. Gaugin, Corot, Manet, Cezanne, and that's just the first few rooms downstairs. There aren't that many insanely well known works, Paris has other art museums where those reside. But there's Vincent's starry night, and Monet's poppy field, and blimey if that isn't Whistler's mother. The very top floor is given over to the impressionists, that upstart bunch who startled the critics with an exhibition in 1874 and went on to be widely adored. These are the most memorable pieces, but I had a soft spot for the dotty neo-impressionists too. To balance things out the museum also finds space for galleries of furniture, a bit like the V&A but with chockloads more art nouveau. And every now and again you come across a giant clockface, or the name of a provincial destination carved into the ceiling, to remind you of the building's true history. I wonder what we could do with Fenchurch Street if we chucked the trains out - the people of Southend would surely never mind?

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