After a day of sitting at home and working (mostly) yesterday, I was anxious to get back out there again this morning, so I woke up early and jumped right on the train to visit the Basilique de Sacre Coeur. I used to live in Creve Coeur, Missouri (a suburb of St. Louis), so even I know that I was headed to the church of the sacred heart. This is an old Paris church up on the hill of Montmarte, a village that was taken over by Paris expanding up to the north.
It was of course a great-looking church — once inside, I sat and listened to the service, which was actually going on as I entered. It turns out that wasn’t too surprising, however: The church has actually been involved in “perpetual adoration,” 24 hours a day, for over 125 years, which I presume means there has been a service going on since at least 1885. That in itself was pretty impressive. I sat for a little while, and watched the ceremony, though when everyone stood up, I felt a little self conscious, and left the pew to look around.
The church was very impressive, but I feel a little jaded — I’ve seen Notre Dame, I’ve seen Westminster Abbey, and as nice as this one was, it just didn’t compare, really. I’d been told by a few friends that I should pay to go up in the tower, however, so I poked around a little bit to see where that might be. After a little looking around, I finally found the entrance to the tower, as well as the entrance to the crypt, and it turns out it cost 8 euros to visit both.
At this point, I almost walked away. It’s been quite cold here in France the past few days (well, like 48 degrees, but as someone acclimated to the Los Angeles weather and only wearing a hoodie, that’s cold enough for me). And today, it was also very rainy outside, so I wasn’t feeling that great as it was. Also, I’ve spent a lot of money already, especially here in France, where I’ve eaten a significant amount of food, and paid quite a bit of money to get around on the Metro (it’s a long story — getting a weeklong pass didn’t mesh with my schedule, so I’ve been buying a few tickets every day to get in and out of the city). So when I was confronted with the 8 euro price, I almost passed it up. I’ve seen these churches, I thought. Do I need to see another one?
As I was walking away, however, I considered just how far I’d come to see this place, and just what kinds of things I’d already sacrificed to get here. Did I really want to leave this city, this country, this continent, knowing I’d been here and passed down something that might be a big deal for just 8 euros? I’d been looking at a hat earlier in the day, and it was only 7.50, and I hadn’t bought that. Wouldn’t 8 euros be worth an experience I might carry around with me forever?
On that, I turned around, and grabbed a ticket to both go up to the tower and see the crypt below.
The tower was first, and though I’d heard it was fun, I wasn’t looking forward to it. My camera started dying on the way up, so I didn’t get a picture of the sign that said it would be 300 stairs to the top — because of GDC, and my back injury, and this vacation, I haven’t worked out in a while, so I’m not quite as spry as I usually am these days at full health. About 150 or 200 stairs in, I was already feeling pretty bad. And as I made my way up the circular staircase round after round after round, I could already hear the wind outside the tower whistling by.
I reached the first tower’s landing, and sure enough, the weather outside was miserable — windy at the top of the hill, and cold, and the rain was falling in big, freezing chunks. I stepped out onto the ledge to make it up the small staircase to the top, and the wind whipped me around. I was doing this for experience’s sake, I thought, so I stepped back inside, secured my belongings deep inside my pockets, locked down my umbrella, and then grabbed the handrail and kept climbing.
Once I got back inside, there were more sets of stairs, so I started up those. I would have a picture for you, but just as I reached the final set of stairs, the camera I brought with me started beeping. The battery had finally died. I wouldn’t be able to charge it until I got back to the hotel room, which mean all of my work getting up to the top of the tower had gone for naught. I wouldn’t be able to take pictures at the top, and wouldn’t be able to share with you the views of Paris down below.
I wouldn’t, that is, if I didn’t have my iPhone with me.
At this point, I’ll remind you that I’m posting all of my photos over on my Facebook photos page, so you’ll (eventually — I haven’t quite put these up yet) be able to see everything I took over there.
All of the photos I took from the top were taken pretty precariously — the wind was extremely biting and cold, and I gripped my iPhone hard with both hands. I had visions of it being swept of my grasp, plummeting down to the streets below. But it didn’t. And though I was cold, and pretty wet, and beat up by the climb, I will admit it was worth going up all those stairs to see the city from above.
The crypt wasn’t bad, either — it wasn’t quite as creepy as the catacombs, obviously, though there were some tombs down there. Most of it was just little chapels honoring this or that saint. There was one big area in the middle that served as a sanctuary of sorts, where I believe they hold concerts from time to time. But the most interesting part about that is that the sanctuary was full of the tombs of priests and members of the church who’d donated largely to its funds, so the size of their memorial was roughly equivalent to what they’d given. At the back of the sanctuary were two large statues of two men looking rather smug.
The other one was even holding a copy of the basilica up to the altar. Elsewhere in the crypt, there was a collection, behind locked glass, of all of the various artifacts and gifts that had been donated by Paris artists and heroes over the years. There were all kinds of things in there — old swords, big paintings, medals of war, looted vases, and all kinds of other old items that apparently Catholics had found somewhere over the last couple of hundred years, and figured it was important enough to belong to God. I wish I knew the stories of where all of those had come from, but unfortunately, they were just on display. Nothing around them bothered to elaborate at all.
After the basilica, I jumped back on the train again, and traveled down to the Pere Lachaise Cemetery. This is the largest and most famous cemetery in Paris. There are six million human bodies buried in the Catacombs, and only three million (including ashes) in Pere Lachaise, but this is a real, above ground French cemetery, complete with graves, memorials, and tombstones both big and small. Everyone who was anyone in Paris is basically buried in Pere Lachaise, so there are plenty of celebrities to find in among the tombstones.
The cemetery itself is called “the city of the dead,” and that name fits rather well — it’s surrounded by a high, vine-topped wall from the outside, but once inside, it’s surprisingly immense. It has its own network of named avenues and rues, criss crossing over the hill that it sits on, and the number and variety of all of the graves makes the whole place look like a disjointed flea market. Except of course that there’s nothing for sale, and everyone in there is dead.
(See if you can spot the black cat in there — I caught him wandering among the gravestones on his own.)
I had a walking tour I found online for this one, so even though it was still raining and cold (and windy — my stupid little 3 pound umbrella from London wasn’t holding up very well), I wandered through the gravesites looking for the last memorials of famous people. Oscar Wilde’s grave wasn’t hard to find — it’s a big yellow block surrounded by plastic that lots of people have come by and written kisses and thank you notes to him on. Edith Piaf’s grave was tiny, but still marked with a couple of flowers and a picture. Jim Morrison’s grave is probably one of the most famous in the cemetery, and it was marked with plenty of graffiti and gum stuck to a nearby tree.
I liked the story I heard about Morrison and why he’s buried here, too: He of course was the lead singer of The Doors in America, but he often escaped to Paris to write, be anonymous, and of course do lots of drugs. When his drugs finally caught up with him, his friends all tried to get him buried in Pere Lachaise, but the director of the cemetery wanted nothing to do with an American rock and roll star, despite the fact that he’d died in Paris. That was until they told the director he was a writer as well. “A writer?” the director replied, and found a spot to bury him.
I also read online that Morrison’s parents have now paid for the cemetery to hold him indefinitely, so despite the graffiti and his narrow ties to the city, he’s likely there to stay.
As I walked among the tombstones and pondered what made people travel around the world to see some and step right over others, I wondered where I might like to be buried. I mean, obviously goal number one is to not die, but we all will eventually — where will I want to go when it finally happens? Realistically, my family has a few plots already — one is in Farmington, MO, where my father’s family is mostly buried, and my mom’s family rests in a small town in Ohio, I believe (she’s been reading these posts, so I’m sure I’ll get an email if I’m wrong). So if I didn’t decide, I’d probably end up one of those, I thought.
But ideally, who needs a grave?, I thought. The whole point of a grave isn’t really to hold your remains — it’s to create one spot, somewhere on earth, where hopefully you’ll always be thought about and remembered. Even if everyone else in their daily lives forgets about you and what you’ve done, the idea, as I see it, is that somewhere, there will be a rock with your name on it. And someone will wander along, see it, and know that you existed, that you were here, and that you left this rock.
Well forget that, I thought. Who needs a rock? I’d rather people remember me for who I am, for what I did while here. I’d rather live on in people’s memories, let them remember what a nice guy I was, or what I did in life, or just what they’d heard about me, good or bad. I don’t need a rock in a cemetery, even if it is Pere Lachaise. I’d rather people think about me, and say, “Mike Schramm? Yeah, I remember him.” Adding “yeah, he was kind of a jerk” afterwards is completely optional.
If that doesn’t work, just have my body flung out into space past Earth’s gravitational field. That would be fine.
I saw Gertrude Stein’s grave, and Moliere’s grave (he was one of the first to be buried in the cemetery, actually), and the real first inhabitants, two people worth reading about named Heloise and Abelard. Chopin’s grave is a subtle affair trapped on a slight curve on one of the cemetery’s trails. Rossini’s grave is there, but it’s actually empty — his body was sent back to Florence in 1887.
And the most intriguing thing I saw was something called the Aux Morts de la Commune. It is a grave, of sorts, but it’s also a real piece of Paris’ history that I didn’t know anything about.
In 1871, France was defeated in the Franco-Prussian War, and the German Empire under the Prussians actually claimed both France and Paris. Parisians weren’t happy with this, however, and as I’ve learned while here, when they’re not happy with their government, they fight back. So a city government was formed called the Paris Commune, and through the month of May 1871, fighting wracked the city, as local Parisians tried their best to fight back against the national government. They fought back on as many fronts as they could, but it was a losing battle. That last week of May is called La Semaine Sanglante, or “The Bloody Week.”
Finally, a group of those helping the commune (who were called Communards, a word that sounds funny to my American ears but isn’t at all), were caught at their last stand right inside the wall of Pere Lachaise, right on the very ground I stood today. There’s a wall in the cemetery that’s been marked out as a memorial to the commune and all of the people who died in that fighting — it’s marked with a simple “Aux Morts de la Commune” and the date of the Bloody Week.
Right on that spot, where I stood alone in Pere Lachaise early today, 147 holdouts from the Paris Commune were lined up against that wall, and shot dead by the Prussians. They were placed right there, in a mass grave.
Today, there are flowers planted along the wall, and Parisians come by every May to remember the dead. I stood there for a while, thinking about where I was and why, and then walked back up the hill, pausing once to look back at the wall, and out over the city down the hill behind it.
The last thing I did tonight, after working on my job, was to cook dinner in my little studio apartment/hotel room here. I haven’t cooked anything since I started traveling, but since I need to save money and since I finally found a supermarket down the street, I decided to do a little cooking. It wasn’t much, just some pasta and tomato sauce, but I thought it worked pretty well.
It didn’t hurt, of course, that I had another long baguette from the supermarket as well. The food is so good here, you guys! I’m eating way too much. And that’s not likely to stop — my last night here in Paris is on Thursday, and I decided to go ahead and book a meal at a real, no fooling Paris bistro. I wanted to book something at a Michelin-starred place, but those apparently need to be booked weeks in advance (not to mention they cost upwards of a couple hundred euros, worth it as that might be). In the end, I decided to go for La Regulade — the reviews say it’s quality enough to live up to the Paris reputation, but it’s not going to completely break my poor, beaten down bank. I’m definitely looking forward to it, and you can expect a report.
That’s Thursday, however. Tomorrow: The Louvre.
Posted on Tuesday, April 17th, 2012 at 5:12 pm. Filed under general.