Paris – although not a big city in terms of size – is densely packed with unique activities. So much so that even I who have lived here for over 6 years am sometimes overwhelmed and stumped! But part of our goal is to share the unique, interesting, off-the-beaten path aspects of Paris.
That’s why today I’m taking you to the Montmartre Cemetery. When I say ‘hidden,’ I mean it literally, too – the entrance is not easy to find unless you know just what you’re looking for (or have a map – which you do at the bottom of this article!). As a traveler, when you think of a Parisian cemetery, you’re liking going to first have “Pere Lachaise” pop into your mind. And good! That’s a lovely cemetery and the most famous. But it can be crowded due to its fame, and everyone and their mom has been there.
Of course when you think of Montmartre, you also probably have other things in mind (Moulin Rouge, Sacre Coeur, artists’ Square, etc.). But there is far more to Montmartre than just that!
Visiting the Montmartre Cemetery will kill two birds with one stone, in a way… it will take you to a new, mostly undiscovered-by-tourists cemetery. And it will also take you to a new, mostly unexplored-by-tourists activity in Montmartre.
What is so immediately intriguing about the cemetery is the juxtaposition of the new and ancient. The sky-blue urban bridge that spans over the cemetery seems at odds with the ancient moss-covered tombs which lie below.
At the center of Paris used to lay a huge cemetery, called Cimetière des Innocents. However, it was an extremely dirty place… imagine kids and dogs playing among poorly-buried bodies, just a stone’s throw from the main city food market, Les Halles. It was a recipe for disaster. Not to mention it was very costly to be buried there, since it was in the center of the city! That’s some expensive real estate…
So in the late 1700s, the Cimetière des Innocents was closed and it was declared illegal to bury the deceased within Paris city limits. But wait, you say… Pere Lachaise is in the city! Montparnasse and Montmartre Cemeteries are both in the city! Ahh, but remember that Paris used to be only a fraction of the size it is now. In the early 19th century, all three of those locations were mere suburbs of Paris.
The Montmartre Cemetery was built in an abandoned quarry (Paris is littered with quarries – that’s part of the reason there are very few skyscrapers!). Since the quarry was basically a huge hole in the ground, the cemetery is below street level, which gives it that unique perspective. It also makes it a bit difficult to find the sole entrance… but I’ll help you out with that.
It’s interesting to note that the quarry had already been used as a grave site. During the French Revolution, it was a mass grave
The Montmartre Cemetery opened in 1825. I’m not sure what ‘opened’ means in this case… but let’s assume that’s when you could begin burying your loved ones there.
The Montmartre Cemetery is the third largest cemetery in Paris (after Pere Lachaise and Montparnasse). Buried here are many Montmartre residents of note. Very few are internationally famous, which is another reason this cemetery is often skipped. However, you can find: Dalida, Edgar Degas, Alexandre Dumas, Francois Truffaut (director), Léon Foucault (invented Foucault pendulum), Edmond de Goncourt (patron of the Goncourt Prize for literature), Adolphe Sax (inventor of saxophone)… You can even find Emile Zola’s original gravesite (he is now interred in the Pantheon).
Entrance to the cemetery is 20 avenue Rachel, and this is the ONLY entrance (and it’s not too easy to find if you don’t know what you’re looking for). In fact it is down the stairs just after the bridge I talked about earlier, on the Place de Clichy side. Avenue Rachel is also accessible from Boulevard de Clichy. Here’s a map to help you out.
I definitely recommend this is a unique addition to your exploration of Montmartre. It would nicely complement our Time Travel to Montmartre tour, if I do say so myself!