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Visiting Edith

photo: bar edith piaf

The one, the only, Bar Edith Piaf.

But Not Cemeteries, Folies or Prisons

Paris:- Wednesday, 17. September:- The last 'tour' I took, two weeks ago, was called 'The Nowhere Tour' and I can't quite remember anything about it. I used to choose the subjects of 'tours' by picking an area on the map of Paris, going there, and hoping it would be 'interesting.'

Sometimes it was a 'hit' and sometimes it would be a 'semi-miss.' I could walk around for a couple of hours without seeing anything much terribly arresting, and then discover in the street-history book that I had tramped though oodles of Paris' unique history.

Edith Piaf has been a 'countdown' candidate in the 'Café Metropole' column for some weeks now. The 40th anniversary of her death is coming up on Saturday, 11. October. I went to the library to find a biography, but there was none in my local branch. And try as I might, I don't remember much about the one I had that I read some time ago.

So today I take my chances and ride the Métro out to the station Porte de Bagnolet, near the outer edgephoto: rue robineau of the 20th arrondissement. I even manage to leave it by the right exit - out of three - the one that puts me right on the Place Edith Piaf on the edge of the Rue Belgrand.

The buildings in the steep Rue Robineau.

As I rise to the surface I am aware of a lot of noise that sounds like compressed something - water or air. I am also aware that there is a huge amount of afternoon sunshine. My first peek of the surface shows rolled bright yellow marché covers like Van Gogh paint against the deep blue of the sky.

The marché equipment is being dismantled by a city crew, and the rest of the small, triangular place is being renovated by a contractor's crew. They are de-mucking a brick shed. Some of the place has been resurfaced, and includes cement or stone steps, because the place rises to the back, away from Belgrand.

Green and gray construction barriers are all over the place. They do not hide any wonderful elements because there aren't any. but with the steps that have been put in, I can imagine it will be a neat, terraced stage of a place when it is finished.

There is a modest café on the Bagnolet side of the place, called the Bar Edith Piaf. Inside there are drawings, paintings and photos of the singer. It is pretty small, old and very simple.

I have a café. The madame who serves it gives me a small 2003 calendar with a photo of Piaf on it, because, she says, she saw me photographing the bar. This sort of small surprise doesn't happen every day.

After I finish the café and say goodbye, I tour the Place Edith Piaf. The Rue de la Py and the Rue Capitaine-Ferber form the two other sides. The Rue Capitaine-Ferber was called the Ruelle Chanut when it was a trail in the area of Charonne, part of the Chemin des Montibúufs. It received the name of an unlucky aviator in 1915.

I head west, uphill on the Rue Belgrand. It hasn't much to say for itself - less than the streetsphoto: ex prison, roquette crossing it, like Pelleport. After the Tenon hospital, there is a Rue de la Chine, followed by a Rue du Japon, before coming to the Place Gambetta.

All that is left of the former women's prison the the Rue de la Roquette.

When this place was laid out in 1862, it was called Puebla. The city hall of the 20th is here, built in 1878 in a 'Renaissance' style, with a campanile topping it off. The place is fairly large, with five major streets entering it, plus a smaller one leading to the Père-Lachaise cemetery three blocks away.

One wedge between two streets holds three out of the four cafés on the place. With the mairie not being overly large, it almost looks as if it is the centre of a smaller town elsewhere in France.

A couple of short blocks further on, the Rue Gambetta takes a slight turn left, at the Place Martin-Naudad. This is at the northern corner of the Père-Lachaise cemetery. Paralleling Gambetta, there is a narrow park running along the edge of the cemetery.

Opposite, starting from the place, I take the sharply descending Rue Robineau. This one-block street dates from 1887, but its houses on the north side are so well kept up that I wonder if they aren't replicas. At a guess, I imagine the top floors of the houses at the lower end might be level with the lower floors on the top end.

Then I return to Gambetta and follow it down to the Boulevard de Ménilmontant. Along both streets there are a lot of stone cutters and granite warehouses. For a while I imagined everything was handy to the endstation in the Tenon hospital, but every cemetery in Paris has its surrounding suppliers of accessories.

The Boulevard de Ménilmontant was created in 1864, as a fusion of former edge-of-town streets. The cemetery on the east side dates to a 12th century property belonging to the Bishop of Paris. It was bought by a merchant around 1430, who called it, a country house, 'La Folie-Régnault,' which was a combination of 'leafy' and his name.

In 1626 the property was purchased by Jesuits, for use as a rest-home. The father - père - François de La Chaise d'Aix - called Père La Chaise for short - lived here when be became the confessor to Louis XIV in 1675. On account of a battle with the Fronde in 1652, the area was known as Mont-Louis.

As the king's confessor, Père La Chaise was very popular with those who hoped for royal favors. In addition, his brother was the chief of the king's bodyguard. Apparently there were some fairly extravagant fêtes on the premises as a result.

But the Jesuits were expelled about 1762 and the property was taken over by the Baron family, enlarged, but ruined by the Révolution and the Empire, they sold it to the city for 180,000 francs in 1804, the year the first part of the cemetery was opened.

The cemetery's architect, Brongniart, was buried in it in 1813, and the property's former owner, Baron, wasphoto: painted walls, menilmontant planted in it in 1823. In the beginning it was called the 'Cimetière de l'Est.'

Decorated buildings beside the Boulevard de Ménilmontant.

Being unfashionably 'out of town' when it opened, the city arranged to have it planted with famous personalities, such as Abailard and Héloise, who died, respectively in 1142 and 1164, both at the age of 63. It only took seven centuries to finally reunite the famous lovers. Louise de Lorraine - died 1601 - also came to rest here, after occupying several other places. Molière and La Fontaine are also represented, but their bones may not actually be here.

But all of this is across the street as I make my way along the Boulevard de Ménilmontant, to the Rue de la Roquette. This was indicated in 1672 as the route to the Convent of the Hospitalières de la Roquette.

The was a big property in the 16th century, with a fun house, built around 1545. The name apparently comes from that of a plant with yellow flowers, called 'rochette,' because they grew from between stones.

The history differs about exactly how the property came into the hands of the Comte de Cheverny, but he sold it to the Duchette de Mercúur in 1599. After more changes of hands, it became a sort of branch location of the Hospitalières de la Place Royale. Then the two branches drifted apart, the religious aspects were suppressed a century later, and the Rue de la Roquette cut it in half in 1818.

A prison for kids from six to 20 was built on the northern half from 1825 to 1836. The Prison de la Petite-Roquette was transformed into a women's jail in 1935 after the one called Saint-Lazare was closed. Between 1940 and 1944, according to the historic sign outside the remanent of the entry, 4000 French 'resisters' were imprisoned here during the occupation.

After being torn down in 1974, a small park was created, plus some public housing. This I do not see, but there is a modest fountain surrounded by landscaped pools. Further up the street on the opposite side, there was another prison, built in 1837 and demolished in 1900.

The Rue de la Roquette the Place Léon-Blum, which was the Place Prince-Eugène until 1870, then Place Voltaire until 1957. The Mairie of the 11th arrondissement here was used by Commune in 1871 after they torched the Hôtel de Ville.

At this point I think I have been 'looking for' Edith Piaf enough, so I turn left and follow the Boulevard Voltaire - whose real name was François-Marie Arout. This street was one of Haussmann's creations and it was inaugurated on Sunday, 7. December 1862 with tremendous pomp, bells, whistles and a plaster replica of the Arc de Carrousel - at the Place de la Nation.

As a 'new' street it gobbled up a lot of bits of older, existing streets - many of which still are around. Up at the other end, towards République, there was a concert hall called the Ba-ta-clan. It was named after an operetta that played at the Bouffes-Parisiens in 1855.

The Ba-ta-clan was built in 1865. It resembled a Chinese pagoda, about four stories high - not countingphoto: cafe l'etoile d'or flag poles and spires. It looked like an insane birthday cake. The building was part of the show. There still is a concert hall called the Bataclan at the same address.

The café L'Etoile d'Or, just off the Avenue Gambetta.

But the other way, south of the Place Léon-Blum, there is no history. This is not the Quai Voltaire in the 7th arrondissement after all. There was the inauguration party for Napoléon III in 1862, and that was that - until the Commune took over the city hall in 1871.

There has been a lot of 'forgetting' on account of the Commune. And some remembering, here in east Paris, not quite so forgotten - right in the Père Lachaise cemetery.

But the weather today is exceptional. There hasn't been much of Edith Piaf on this stroll of mine down from the eastern highs of the city. Every day can't be a total winner, just as few days in Paris are total losers.

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