Day 19 – In Which we Visit Oscar Wilde, Marcel Marceau and a VERY bad man

Up until today we had not seen a drop of rain since we left Melbourne almost three weeks ago. In Italy the weather was hot and sunny virtually every day and we joked that we would love to see a few clouds and a little rain, even if just to settle the dust and lower the humidity. Our first two days in Paris have also been hot and sunny, however today the weather pendulum has finally swung to the other extreme and it has been drizzling or raining for most of the day. Like a spring garden, the city has bloomed with the opening of a million umbrellas. The Parisians are used to coping in the wet and never seem to be too bothered by something as trivial as a torrential downpour.

This of course leads to another question – why do so few countries think to erect verandas over the fronts of their shops ? Certainly in Paris they are non existent. It really is essential to carry your own veranda in the form of an umbrella. Thankfully there was a $2 shop around the corner from our hotel and I am now the proud owner of a new 9 Euro folding black umbrella.

When looking for something to do this morning we considered a few options before deciding to head to Paris’ largest cemetery – the Pere Lachaise Cemetery. This is a huge (110 acres) plot on a rise in the 20th Arrondissement.  The oldest graves date back to 1804. If you want to see what happened to all those who died before that time you will need to venture far underground to the sprawling catacombs that hold the bones of literally millions of ex Parisians.

David, Carol, Maggie and I caught the crowded Metro to the closest station (Phillipe Auguste) and wandered in through the large front entrance to the cemetery. It was soon apparent that many of the residents here must have belonged to the privileged classes, judging by the numbers of huge mausoleums that crowded every available space. We slowly made our way between these structures until we came to perhaps the most prominent mausoleum of all, situated right at the highest point. I pulled open the rusty gate and made my way to peer into the cavernous interior when I was interrupted by a voice from behind. At first I thought it might have been a guard abusing me for desecrating the building, but when I turned around I saw a rather scruffy looking character with shoulder length scraggly hair and the very minimum quota of teeth. In very poor English he told us that the resident was a past President of France and a “real bastard, a megalomaniac”. Apparently a nasty piece of work indeed, according to this expert at least.

Carrying his tattered folder of newspaper cuttings our new acquaintance explained that he had been a guide at the cemetery for the past 28 years. Apparently, because we did not tell him to go away, this meant that we had now entered into a binding contract for his professional services. David and I looked at each other and held tightly to our wallets, fearing that we had been ambushed.

In spite of our misgivings, the guy certainly knew his stuff. Over the next hour or more he walked us up and down, back and forth and revealed a whole insight into history that we would never have discovered. He explained that the famous residents were guaranteed a permanent tenure, but for the others they would be dug up in 100 years and anything still remaining would be “barbecued” and their plot used for a new resident.

Among the famous graves he took us to were the final resting place of Marcel Marceau (died 2007), Ferdinand de Lesseps (Suez Canal builder) and Oscar Wilde. Another interesting grave was to commemorate the young journalist who was shot by Napoleon Bonaparte and whose grave is used as a pilgrim site for those wishing to fall pregnant. It was also easy to recognise the graves of prominent freemasons as they had HUGE pyramids built over them. One such freemason grave also had a vast underground chamber which acted as a great echo chamber when we yelled into it. I was also somewhat surprised to find the grave of James Morrison, adorned with dozens of gifts and mementos. It reminded me of the famous Evita Mausoleum in the Ricoletta Cemetery in Buenos Aires.

We were also shown the final resting place of Fred Chopin, or at least part of him. Apparently his heart was removed and buried in his homeland Poland. The government of Poland still pays for the upkeep of his grave and for fresh flowers to be placed there every week. In fact it really did turn out to be a very informative experience, but we were now getting exhausted and could not figure out how to terminate his services. Every time we told him we had to go, he would reply with “one more thing, must see”. I was beginning to worry that we could end up spending the next 28 years of our own lives here, if we did not force the issue.

After another half dozen or so of “one more things”, we were back near the entrance. Now we had the difficult part. We knew we would have to pay him something, but how much ? From the look of his lack of dental work it looked like he was doing it tough, but for all we knew he might have a Porsche parked out the back. We finally handed over 40 Euro and he seemed happy enough. He should be, it was not bad money for 90 minutes work. On the other hand, it was another example of just what makes Paris so unique. He certainly put on a real show for us, his knowledge was unquestioned and it really had been fun. We went away thinking that it was worth it for the experience and it will certainly be an experience we will never forget. Another example of where the very best travel experiences are always unplanned.

This evening quite a few of our team have decided to go to a concert at St Chapelle. That leaves me sitting alone in the hotel room, taking an opportunity to catch up on a few chores. Our plan for tomorrow is to go to the famous Palace of Versailles, but that may depend on what the weather is doing. At least I now have a good umbrella.