Not far from the Boulevard de Clichy at the foot of Montmartre but a short walk from the Moulin Rouge there is a place invisible to most visitors to Paris. It is a small cemetery; a magical place. It is not seen by the majority of foreigners that flock to the city each year, yet it holds for me what is the essence of that great city. It is the resting place of some of that city’s greatest artists; that made Paris such a drawcard for the world.
The main entrance is hidden down a side street, the Avenue Rachel, although you can reach it by one of Paris steep staircases from the Rue Caulaincourt Bridge which spans the south east corner of the cemetery. Once you enter, you visit a wondrous world.
Immediately the street sounds are hushed and you are confronted by a tranquil oasis where those in that corner sleep. Most of the memorials are built on a grand scale by families who pack their relatives in these stone mausoleums that dot the walkways like sentry boxes.
The first name I recognised was Emile Zola, that novelist whose heroes and heroines were influenced by the fateful blood and passions of the Rougon Macquart family. A little further on is the tomb of Hector Berlioz whose Symphony Fantastique was inspired by his love for an Irish actress who he later married.
On the same path is the elaborate tomb of the painter Jean Baptist Greuze whose social commentary paintings in the 17th century warned of a revolution that was to come.
But a few paces from there is the resting place of Jean Honoré Fragonard, a contemporary who painted the idyllic France that existed only for the elite. Who can forget his painting “The Swing” showing a young man on the ground admiring an amused girl on a swing as she reveals her petticoats as she swings above him?
While we were walking around the cemetery we had this feeling of being watched. We rested on our climb up the steep paths and slowly when these were cleared of visitors the true residents of the cemetery emerged. From behind the tombs, from out of openings came the owners of that patch of Paris. Quietly we observed the cats of Paris emerge from hiding to stalk and play and rest in the weak October sunshine. As we rose again to walk on they just as quickly disappeared not wishing to have contact with us.
At the cemetery’s high point close to boundary wall there is a massive family crypt; it bears the name “de Gas”. On it is affixed a medallion showing a man with a long nose wearing a floppy hat. Here lies Edgar Degas, impressionist painter and master draughtsman who is ever immortalised by his paintings & crayon sketches of ballet dancers. His hands were able to create the movement and expression of their every action, capturing on canvas all the excitement of the dance, the stage and the swirl of muslin.
Seeing the tombs of these heroes of France is a most moving experience and our rest stops were many. The names went on; Leo Delibes and the Flower duet from Lakme, Jacques Offenbach and his music of “Gaité Parisienne’ echoing the nightlife down the road and now here is Stendhal and his novels “The Charterhouse of Parma” and “Scarlet and Black”.
We were approaching the overpass bridge again and the sound of traffic could be heard once more. To our right was a box like tomb some steps from the path. It was that of the family “Du Plessis.” Interred here was Alphonsine du Plessis a beautiful but tragic heroine. She was Dumas’s Lady of the Camellias, and Marguerite in Verdi’s “La Traviata”. She was real!
As we left the cemetery I felt we had seen more than a collection of graves, we had been in touch with the artistic spirit of France.
On looking back down over the cemetery from the Rue Caulaincourt which wends its way around the back of Montmartre like a comforting arm, I saw the cats emerge again to reclaim their territory.
Illustration "The Swing" by Fragonard