Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Paris’ hue and rues


Singing nuns, happy artists, encounters with the dead – it’s hard not to love the City of Lights

Neo Chai Chin, chaichin@mediacorp.com.sg

090416-ParisBasilica Sacre-Coeur Basilica at Montmartre has volunteers to restrain overzealous photographers.

“Are you looking for Jim Morrison?” a well-meaning stranger with a wool beanie and snazzy red-rimmed spectacles asked, after seeing me walk circles around the grave of Morrison — legendary lead singer of The Doors — without actually spotting it.

The setting was Paris’ Pere Lachaise cemetery, final resting place of Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, Chopin and other luminaries. I had set my heart on traipsing its cobbled paths on a cold winter’s day in January and, thanks to the chance meeting with Olivier at Morrison’s grave, what a day it turned out to be.

An expert of sorts on Pere Lachaise, Olivier told me tales of the dead for the next three hours. He visits often; the place attracts him the way a great script draws an actor.

090416-ParisDanceStatue Statue at a dance school

On many visitors’ must-do lists: Smooching Wilde’s grave (though oils from lipstick are said to have corrosive effects), paying homage to Morrison (whose grave is now fenced up to prevent die-hard fans from damaging the surrounding graves), and rubbing the groin of assassinated 19th century writer Victor Noir’s bronze statue for luck in love. Noir became a romantic figure after he was killed in a duel in 1870, supposedly the day before his wedding — countless women hoping to get pregnant have laid their hands on the bulge in the statue’s trousers. I wasn’t one of them.

Paris is one of the most visited cities in the world, and places like the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Montmartre and the Notre-Dame Cathedral loom large. You could spend weeks in the Louvre, which houses a gargantuan collection of paintings and other artworks up to the 19th century, including the Mona Lisa. But its size and crowds can prove tiring. The Musee d’Orsay and Pompidou Centre are great for Impressionist and contemporary art lovers.

090416-ParisFurnitureExhibit An exhibit by Israeli furniture designer Ron Arad at the Pompidou Centre

The Notre-Dame Cathedral was another attraction that fascinated and frustrated. Its Gothic arches and gargoyles were as impressive in real life as in pictures, but be prepared for camera-toting hordes relentlessly snapping away even during a sermon — at the priest, no less. Montmartre’s Sacre-Coeur (Sacred Heart) Basilica was much lovelier, in my opinion. For starters, volunteers tut-tut at those taking photos. The nuns sing during services, and to hear their glorious voices filling the cavernous interior verges on the surreal.

Paris is also a city where the little things matter — exploring lesser-known neighbourhoods like cafe-lined St Germain, watching a street performance, or just basking in the artistic, liberal vibe of the city.

090416-ParisStreetArtist No one is ever going to become a member of the Gulf Stream jetset doing this... but who cares?

— Davy Lim (above), who’s born in Penang, on being an artist in Paris

We met street portraitist Davy Lim at Montmartre’s artists’ square, or Place du Tertre. Penang-born Lim’s eyes lit up when he heard our accent and, meeting two people from this part of the world, he couldn’t resist talking about food. It was the eve of Chinese New Year, and he told us how good a bowl of “tau you bak” (stewed pork) would taste after a chilly day sketching outdoors.

Unlike some of the other artists, Lim isn’t at the square every day. And when it rains, he shrugs and packs up for the day. “I’m a free man, y’know,” he said.

What’s it like being a street artist in Paris? “I love my work,” he said. “I don’t have a boss, my hours are flexible, the remuneration is adequate. No one is ever going to become a member of the Gulf Stream jetset doing this, but who cares?”

If ever you need a dose of reality in the City of Lights, or proof that workers are well aware of their rights, labour strikes — a regular occurrence in Europe — are it. A strike was brewing the entire week we were in Paris, and it happened on the day of our departure. Supportive though he was of the workers, our landlord Nicolas (who had rented us his apartment) was apologetic as he advised us to book a private shuttle to the airport.

Perhaps, the test of a much-hyped and romanticized destination is the ability to enchant, warts and all. I hadn’t expected the city to be as charming as on film (Before Sunset, Paris Je T’aime, the list goes on), but it was. And if you’re lucky, you’ll also return with tales of encounters with lovely strangers.



Accommodation: If you’ll be in Paris for a week, try renting an apartment. Rental websites include www.parissweethome.com and www.parisattitude.com — the former is ideal for those on a budget, while the latter offers posher, pricier choices.

Pere Lachaise cemetery:

Located in the eastern part of Paris, the nearest metro stations are the Pere Lachaise (Line 2, 3) and Philippe-Auguste (Line 2). Entry is free. The website www.pere-lachaise.com provides an interactive virtual tour complete with pictures.


From TODAY, Traveller – Thursday, 16-April-2009