Paris Dead and Alive

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Paris is beautiful in the rain – or pretty much any other time you might have the good fortune to be here. There is something remarkable about Paris. Despite being at the heart of two world wars – almost captured in the opening days of World War I and occupied for four years in WWII – it suffered little damage and so remains much as it was during the glorious days of La Belle Époque.

Indeed the most damage Paris ever suffered was in peacetime when Baron Haussmann, under the command of Napoleon III, rebuilt the entire centre of the city. Tearing down ancient neighbourhoods to build the great boulevards, he transformed a medieval warren into the broad and open city that now graces France. Traces of old Paris, dating back more than a thousand years, remain, tucked into corners.

The city bears the marks of so many changes commanded from above. In the central part of Paris, the 20 arrondissements, there are only three cemeteries. All the remaining dead were transported by order of the first Napoleon, removed from their resting places to lie deep within the underground caverns below the placid streets. You can still visit them if you choose to climb down into the Catacombs.

The three graveyards are packed tight with bodies, sometimes 20 or 30 to a single tomb. Famous men and women have their graves marked so tourists can drop by and have their photos taken with such icons as Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde or Chopin.

There is, in fact, a fourth burial spot. The Pantheon holds the remains of the most famous of Frenchmen, some like Victor Hugo (who chose a pauper’s grave for himself) buried there against their will. Except of course that once you are dead your will counts for nothing against the demands of the survivors or the state. Fame transcends choice in that case.

But for all that, Paris is for the living and no-one knows how to live like Parisians. Restaurants, art galleries, parks – these are as important to them as banks or offices. Beauty, not business, is the first command.

Some think that makes Paris a lesser place. They are wrong; Paris will still be alive long after their tawdry obsessions have turned to dust.

But that’s ten minutes.

 

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