I was walking around the graveyard feeling a bit too spirited. And by spirited, I mean tipsy. There I was, exploring what many consider the world’s most visited cemetery, half-drunk. It was four in the afternoon.
I never planned on having a drink on the way here. How it happened is a a long story, but here’s the short of it. Having worked all morning and having nothing but a serving of crepe the night before, I finally emerged from my hotel totally hungry. No, famished. It was past two, and I was too starved to actually care about where to eat. I could eat the first person that I could grab in the streets of Paris, and I wouldn’t mind. With my fingers shaking and tummy grumbling, I swore to dine at the first restaurant I would lay eyes on. A block later, I was standing in front of a pizzeria.
“Bonjour,” greeted the waitress smilingly. (I know, people always say to me that Paris has the grumpiest waiters, but I never encountered any of ’em grumpy ones the whole time I was in town.) She told me that the place was open, but since my timing was weird, all that was available was pizza.
“And it might be too much for one person,” she warned.
“Oh, don’t worry about that. I am ready.”
She laughed. She then asked me if would like some wine. Of course I would love some wine, you kidding me? What size? Now, here’s the thing: This is my first restaurant experience in Paris, and I didn’t know how big the usual serving is. So I just said the medium carafe would do. When she returned with the wine, I was surprised to see that it was enough for three helpings. That’s too much for me, a guy whose ego is inversely proportional to his alcohol tolerance. But what could I do? I had my first glass and loved it. I was almost done with the wine when the pizza arrived. By the time my meal finished, I was already radiating that notorious Asian glow and sweating as though it was mid-summer.
A metro ride later, I was finally at the Porte Gambetta Entrance to Père Lachaise. Why I chose this gate instead of the main entrance was simple. The site isn’t flat. In fact, the cemetery sprawls over a 44-hectare area of a hill in the 20th arrondissement. Gambetta is on higher ground, which means I would have to walk downhill to make it across.
With a small map and a shaky posture, I began my way around the gravestones, whose blocks are fringed with towering trees. Two things dawned on me as I made my first steps. First, it’s easy to get lost here. Second, it’s easy to forget you’re in a burial site. Sure, there are 70,000 plots and tombstones all around. But many of them feature impeccable busts and carvings; it’s more like a sculpture garden or an outdoor art museum. Many funerary art styles can be found here, including ancient mausoleums, modern glass, Haussmanian, and Gothic. There’s also a Neo-Byzantine-style crematorium and columbarium, designed by Jean-Camille Formigé in 1894. The cemetery was named after Father François d’Aix de La Chaise, King Louis XIV’s confessor.
What makes Père Lachaise so well-known is that it is the final resting place for many famous personalities in the worlds of the arts, literature, and politics. Notable people include playwright Molière; actors Sarah Bernhardt and Yves Montand; writers Balzac, Proust, and Colette; and painters Pissarro and Delacroix. But I was here for these three: Oscar Wilde, Frederic Chopin, and Jim Morrison.
The easiest to find among the three was Oscar Wilde’s. I didn’t even have to look at the map; I just followed the crowd. Led by sculptor Jacob Epstein, construction of his tomb completed after ten months. It also features a plinth by Charles Holden and an inscription by Joseph Cribb. What makes this tomb interesting is not just the Indian-Egyptian-Assyrian-influenced design. More arresting are the kiss marks surrounding it. Apparently, many visitors would kiss the tomb, leaving a mark. A glass barrier was set up around it in 2011. It kind of didn’t stop the kissing tradition.
After seeing Wilde’s tomb, I went on to find the other two. I chose to walk through the area where a lot of famous people were buried so I could also see them along the way. But there were too many of them. I would even stumble upon tombs of figures I didn’t even know lay here. Many times, I found myself alone, which did not scare me at all.
Before I knew it, it was already six o’clock. (The cemetery closes at six!) Thanks to the wine, I was so confused and disoriented, I had a hard time navigating around the site. Also, I didn’t realize that at the time, the sun set much later in Paris. (I was used to the tropics.)
Still I attempted to make my way across the cemetery to have a look at Chopin’s and Jim Morrison’s, but the staff stopped me and asked that I make my way to Gambetta. I didn’t get to see them.
I blame the wine.
Père Lachaise Cemetery
16 rue du Repos & bd de Ménilmontant, 20e
Phone: +33 1 43 70 70 33
Opening hours: Monday-Friday 8am-6pm, Saturday 8:30am-6pm, Sunday: 9am-6pm
How to get to Père Lachaise Cemetery: Take the Metro Line 2 or 3 to Père Lachaise Station. The Main Entrance is just a short walk from here. But if you’re like me who tire easily, you may take Line 3b to Gambetta Station and walk to the Gambetta Entrance, which is on higher ground, ensuring that your walk across the site will be an easy downhill stroll.