Everybody’s got a favorite hideout for escaping the quotidian hassles of the world. My own beloved haven is the Cimetière de Montmartre. Here Dame Nature dresses to the nines—winter, spring, summer, and fall, and most definitely at l’heure bleue. Gifting all with grab-the-phone moments as she works her crepuscular magic on the crumbling ancient tombs and crypts, mine eye has seen her glory.
Where to start?
Keeping it real: Montmartre Cemetery spans 110 acres, so it’s nearly impossible to pay homage to everyone buried here. Believe me, I’ve tried. That said, with a little planning, you could narrow the field to suit your own passions. Love art? You might visit Degas, Picabia, and Gustave Moreau and make a fine afternoon of it.
Are you a music fanatic or super fan? I hear you. You could go from the classical grave of Hector Berlioz to that of diva pop superstar Dalida, with a detour to see the monument to Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone. Literature, the sciences, politics, cinema—there are enough heroes for any passionate pilgrim.
My own personal idols aren’t human at all, though. When I go, I seek out the gentle caretakers of the cemetery, les chats. Power dressing right on point with stripes and spots, the sleek poise and expressive eye contact of the cemetery’s clowder never, ever fails to raise my spirits or touch my heart.
Back during the 1970s, in an attempt to control the feline population here, the city banned local cat lovers from visiting with food. But after photographer Michel Cambazard witnessed one too many vicious cat chow shakedowns at the entrance gate, he created L’École du Chats. Made up of volunteers and animal advocates, the organization not only feeds the cats, but also administers vaccines, identification tattoos, and arranges spay and neuter operations. They’ve also installed sturdy cat shelters.
Today les chats libres (“free,” not feral!) legally have full access to the cemetery. And roam they do when they’re not napping (or fussing as they not-so-patiently wait for dinner; #Icanrelate).
Meet my beasties
Jane Goodall may have her chimps, but I’ve got my cats at the Cimetière de Montmartre.
After years of observing my little mousers, I’ve noticed they especially seem to watch over the gravesites of actor Pierre Dux and composers Lili and Nadia Boulanger. So if pressed for time, I’d take wing directly to division 33 on avenue Saint Charles, located next to the entrance and restroom. Here portable maps are also available. Don’t think you need one? Trust me, you do. I learned my lesson during a sudden downpour. Turned around, I was drenched by the time I reached the exit and found shelter at the nearby Irish pub.
I’ve also spotted the kitties a-leaping with wild abandon next to the sculpture of dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, located in division 22 on rue Samson. Here the squad also sunbathes on the nearby graves of dancers Marie Taglioni and Emily Livry. There is something incredibly hopeful about seeing their contagious contentedness in this place of death that makes them all the more glorious to watch. After exploring the cemetery, I highly recommend heading to the aforementioned pub for more reflection and celebration.
But not before stopping by writer Théophile Gautier’s gravesite in division 3 on rue Cordier. Where’s the love for cats? It’s here. Keep your eyes peeled for the cat statue.
Lastly, here’s my plea
If you stumble upon the kitties, resist the urge to feed them. According to what one of their caretakers told me recently, they already receive too much food by well-meaning cat ladies and gents. “They need to lose weight,” she said. So instead, after paying homage to these furry fairies, say merci and bid farewell. Or better yet, become a member of the L’École du Chat organization. Here’s a link: www.ecoleduchat.asso.fr
Now, let’s take a walk on the wild side.
After all, as writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette once wrote, “Time spent with a cat is never wasted.”
However, don’t forget cat lover Théophile Gautier’s wise words from his 1869 mew-all book, Ménagerie Intime: “Winning the friendship of a cat is a difficult business. The cat is a philosophical creature… who does not scatter his affections about indiscriminately… He is quite ready to be your friend, should you prove worthy. ”
I completely concur. And so does my Parisian cat, named Kitty.
Cimetière de Montmartre
20 Avenue Rachel, 18th arrondissement
Métro: Abbesses, Pigalle, or Blanche
Lead photo credit : Dinnertime: Two of my favorite cats keeping peepers peeled for their caretaking peeps, 2019 (Photo by Theadora Brack)