After several visits to Paris spread across four different decades, it feels bittersweet to once again wander along the narrow streets.
I have so many memories from this city, garbled by the fog of memory. And the city is in itself constantly changing and innovating. The neighborhood that I remember as being rough in the 1990s now feels boring and gentrified beyond belief, while a once mainstream location now holds artisan food stalls.
Yes, Paris may be the city of light and the city of love, and even city of breakfast as Anthony Bourdain once paraphrased it. But it is also the city of ghosts. The magnificent cemeteries of Père-Lachaise, Montparnasse and Montmartre feels like entire neighborhoods, albeit without complaining tenants. Some of the tombs are larger than living quarters for “les misérables”.
Even proper housing for the living still speaks of the dead. L’Hôtel is a perfect example. Located on Rue des Beaux Arts on the left bank, it has seen a fair share of guests during the years and would probably be popular on its own, but one of the main reasons that people go there is a bit macabre.
Oscar Wilde died in 1900 while staying at the hotel, where his famous last words were about the wallpaper. Even though the original room he died in is now the bar area, it hasn’t stopped the flood of people choosing to stay in the current room number 16, aptly named the Oscar Wilde suite. For instance, the suite was the default preference for Anthony Bourdain on his frequent visits to Paris, as seen in the very first episode of No Reservations (2005). To make sure that you won’t miss out on the gloomy dread of “memento mori” on a sunny day, Wilde’s death details are clearly embossed in a marker at the facade.
As I explore the nooks and crannies of the hotel, I listen carefully and try to hear the voices long gone.
A few blocks to the west is another remembrance of the past. Serge Gainsbourg used to live at Rue de Verneuil from 1969 to his death in 1991. For more than 30 years, fans have turned his former home into a shrine, filling the wall with messages of love and affection.
The apartment will supposedly open to the public as a museum in September. Expect to see a very arranged mess, full of cigarette butts from Gitanes. For a sneak peak, simply have a look at his album cover photographs, many of which were taken inside the house. His grave is located in the southern end of Montparnasse cemetery.
As I stand on top of the Montmartre hill, I find it amusing and nostalgic to think back on my old photos from Paris, 25 years ago. How deserted the alleys of Montmartre were back then in comparison to today’s horde of tourists armed with selfie sticks. I run away from the zombies that are swamping Rue de l’Abreuvoir and go to the only place in Montmartre where I am alone with the ghosts once more.
Saint-Vincent Cemetery is less known than its big brother the Montmartre Cemetery, but it still got some flair. The tomb of cabaret artist Michou is a striking example, which depicts his famous blue glasses. As I roam the area, I revel at the sudden isolation, a few minutes walk from the tourist armageddon. It’s just me and the singing birds in the entire walled area. And an army of the dead.
When all is said and done, and you are filled to the brim of all this death and misery, be sure to have an ice cream. The best ones are usually found at Berthillon on Île Saint-Louis. They are often said to have the best ice cream in the world, and who am I to disagree? (Ok, maybe some gelato shops in Rome will tend to disagree).
For a not-so-classic taste, I strongly recommend the Lebanese artisan ice cream found at Bältis just a block from Place de la Bastille. Their specialty “achta”, milk cream flavored with orange blossom and orchid root, together with a sprinkle of pistachio was simply sublime. It made me forget about the doom and gloom for a few minutes.
But just for a few minutes. Then I had to pay my tributes by going to 17 Rue Beautreillis, Jim Morrison’s last residence, which is located a few blocks from Bältis. This is the apartment where he supposedly died in 1971 at the age of 27, when his girlfriend Pamela Courson found him dead in the bath tub. As with all proper myths, there are alternate versions, such as that he died from a heroin overdose in a bathroom stall of the left bank nightclub called Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus.
Anyway, as everybody know, his tomb at Père-Lachaise is where the party is continuing. Bring your own and long live the lizard king.
Both mind and feet are weary, but I simply cannot get enough of this city. All you need is fresh croissants, red wine and ice cream. Paris, je t’aime.