Paris Noir: The dark side of the City of Light
Forget Paris in the spring, the best time to see the City of Light is in the dark of winter, when its illuminated architectural masterpieces stand out against inky-blue skies, and a steaming mug of chocolat chaud à l’ancienne is the only proper conclusion to a well-wrapped walk among the lesser-known attractions.
When I visited, in the company of friends from the Hidden Glasgow website, Père Lachaise, the first and still the grandest ornamental cemetery in the world, was high on the agenda. This, the ultimate address (in every sense of the phrase) for such luminaries as Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison and Édith Piaf, is one of the most overlooked tourists attractions, and deserves to rival the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe in popularity.
But first, there were the lights of the city to be seen. Friday afternoon saw us ascend the Butte de Montmartre, from the north west, through the pocket-handkerchief sized cemetery of St Vincent and past the only vineyard in Paris, to the steps of the Sacré Cour, that fabulous white church that dominates the northern skyline.
Montmartre, the only hill of any size in the city, affords a perfect view at any time of the day. At dusk, it becomes a sibling to the magic kingdom that is Disneyland Paris, 20 miles to the east, as the sky slowly darkens and the lights of the city come twinkling on.
Watching the sun set and the electricity rise is perhaps a bit of a tourist cliché – as the crowds and the souvenir sellers attest – but it’s worth braving the hordes to see the city from above. Then, a vertiginous descent down the stairs (there is also a funicular railway) that link the lofty heights of Montmartre and the flat plain below for some restorative hot chocolate and kir royale.
We are now in the mood for more illumination, so we set off towards Pigalle, the tourist-friendly red light area that houses the whirling neon of the Moulin Rouge (red windmill) cabaret and a myriad of other, less wholesome entertainments. We find a warm and inviting Italian restaurant and the evening melts away in a haze of pasta and chianti.
On Saturday, we visit Notre Dame Cathedral. Entrance to the 12th century Gothic masterpiece is free but for just €3 you can breach the treasury and see relics that have real meaning for the faithful and sheer goggle-value for infidels such as ourselves.
The star attractions are a sliver of wood and a nail from Christ’s cross and the crown of thorns placed on his head during his crucifixion. These culturally charged items are stored and displayed in elaborate and ornate reliquaries, small art works that are alone worth the price of admission.
Saturday evening is spent in Les Furieux, a heavy metal bar in Rue de la Roquette, a few streets to the east of Opera Bastille, chasing la fée verte (the green fairy), as the romantically inclined call drinking absinthe. To the sounds of heavy rock, industrial and goth classics, we peruse the detailed absinthe menu, choosing one of the strongest and most expensive brands. We have the first round in the Parisian manner, dripping icy cold water onto a sugar cube that is suspended above the glass of absinthe on a slotted spoon. The sugar dissolves, and the sweet mixture both turns the liquor a cloudy off-white and takes the edge off the herbal bitterness. The resulting brew tastes like Pernod laced with more than a hint of rocket fuel.
The second round is taken in the Bohemian style, with the sugar dipped in the absinthe then set on fire. Setting the table on fire, as our heavilly-metalled and tattooed barmaid did, is apparently not part of the ceremony but it does increase our enjoyment. Two rounds in, we switch to beer, but not before the green fairy pays a fleeting visit, and our exuberance slips into a few moments of mania. I am told to calm down by my companions.
The following day is spent in Père Lachaise, with only a break for lunch in one of the many stylish cafe bars around Place Gambetta. We stroll the cobbled boulevards and admire the often eccentric monuments to France’s leading artists, entertainers, warriors, writers, inventors, architects and even to death itself.
We visit the obvious attractions: the monument to Oscar Wilde, carved by Jacob Epstein, the modest stone to Jim Morrison, overlooked by a concealed security camera, and the family grave of Édith Piaf. We also pause to reflect on the lives of Jacques Macdonald, one of Napoleon’s most trusted generals whose father came from the Western Highlands; Sir Richard Wallace, the English philanthropist who donated fountains to the city of Paris; and Isadora Duncan, the flamboyant American dancer.
We navigate the 100-plus acres of this city of the dead using a map bought in one of the many flower shops clustered around the entrances to the cemetery and there are small maps available free from the office in the cemetery. This burying ground is certainly a heaven for taphophiles (tombs enthusiasts) but it is also a world-class sculpture park, a social history museum and a tree-lined suburb all rolled into one.
For another, more shocking, taste of the French cult of death, tour the Catacombs of Paris, 20 metres below Place Denfert-Rochereau, to the south of the city. There, the artfully-arranged remains of six million Parisians rest in the former gypsum mines that were first worked by the Romans but abandoned in the 18th century. As the churchyards of Paris were cleared from 1785, their residents were decanted into the mines. The sign at the entrance to the ossuary says it all: “Stop! You are now entering the kingdom of the dead.”
Another underground attraction is Les Egouts de Paris, a museum showcasing the city’s sewage heritage, which lurks beneath the Quai d’Orsay near Pont de l’Alma. Not for the sensitive of nose or weak of stomach.
Our weekend tour of Hidden Paris merely scratched the surface of the underground and less-travelled city. Which is a great excuse for a return visit … but probably not in the spring.
All images by Ronnie Scott. Main pic – the Arc de Triomphe by night. From the top – Dusk descends on Paris as seen from Montmartre, The bright lights of the Moulin Rouge, A piece of the true cross in Notre Dame, The grave of Édith Piaf in Père Lachaise.