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2006-11-01 Walking past graves of creative giants

Why is it the living seem to have such a macabre fixation with the dead? I have always exercised a curious but respectful fascination with cemeteries. The story of each town lies partly within its cemetery's walls.

 

Recently, as I wandered around the world's most visited cemetery at Pere Lachaise in Paris, it was clear to me that many of the one million souls interred in the grandest of tombs within its walls had furthered their extravagant and opulent ways even in death.

 

It is truly humbling to walk past the graves of such creative giants as Chopin, Rossini, Molinare, Sarah Bernhardt, Edith Piaf, Jim Morrison, Maria Callas and our own Oscar Wilde, to name but the tiniest handful.

 

The French Revolution had unleashed a wave of free thinking , where people spoke and behaved as they wished. But even before that time, philosophers, writers, artists, musicians and performers had been drawn to this hub of genius, culture, gastronomy, art, music, opera, ballet and design. The French have contributed so many words to our international vocabulary, many of which appear to me to advertise Parisian class and sophistication cuisine, couture, cafe rendez-vous, gourmet, chic, ballet, boutique, champagne etc. French designer names such as Dior, Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Lacroix and Gaultier are giants on the international catwalks.

 

In Ireland, we assemble and exercise many of the ingredients of continental sophistication, but coffee and a pain au chocolate taste somehow different in a French boulevard cafe. The French have been perfecting it for years, instructing the rest of the world in the art of sophistication.

 

On my recent trip I decided to leave aside the obvious Parisian hallmarks which I have visited many times The Eiffel Tower, Sacre Coeur, Notre Dame, the Champs Elysees, and the Arc de Triomphe. You have to be ruthlessly realistic when visiting such architecturally-rewarding gems of cities.

 

I was staying in an apartment in the newly-fashionable Marais district. Centuries of history are inscribed on medieval and pre-Revolutionary fassades. I revisited Europe's grandest, most famous, palace of Versailles to marvel at Louis X1V luxurious and expensive tastes, as displayed in the Grand Apartments, Chapel, Opera House and acres of garden art. I took a half-day trip to Giverny to visit Monet' pink and green house and permanently blooming garden. I stood on the Japanese bridge which straddles Monet's famous lily-pond, stepping for a moment into one of my favourite impressionist paintings.

 

Back in Paris I attended top drawer performances of Lucia and Salome at the new Opera Bastille, and a Mozart gala at the splendidly refurbished old Opera House, with its breathtaking Chagall ceiling. Generous funding for the arts in France reaps obvious rewards. I concentrated on viewing only one floor's treasures at the gargantuan Louvre (just the Dutch and Flemish masters this time), and one floor of Impressionism at the wonderful Musee de Orsay.

 

I savoured perfect Parisian cuisine at the classic Bofinger bistro, at the ultra-hip but conversation-unfriendly Buddha Bar, at the buzzing Trocadero-like Grand Colbert, and with a view second to none from the top of the Pompidou Centre at Restaurant Georges.

 

This fun, cosmopolitan, eloquent, sophisticated, mantic and sexy city is a veritable feast for the senses, and yet again, I had barely touched the surface, only tasting the appetisers.

 

This is a city imbued with the spirit of creativity. As I wandered through Pere Lachaise I began to realise I was actually more fascinated by people's creativity, immortality, and their artistic and personal legacy. I stood by the graves of Oscar Wilde and Maria Callas, and was aware that, while some of these reposing souls had been seen, by some, as shameful during their earthly existence, their creativity most definitely transcends the stone which entombs them.