The day started simply enough, with lunch at La Tartine on the rue de Rivoli in the 4th arrondissement.
Donna Morris of Best Friend in Paris told Robin and me that they had spectacular salads; we feasted appropriately. My salade bergere featured smoked duck breast, a big slice of dried ham and goat cheese on toasted bread, all atop a heap of lettuce dressed with the ubiquitous salad cream that seems to be de rigueur at all cafés and bistros.
We’d planned to spend the day indoors at a museum, but the sunshine called us out insistently.
“Let’s go find Lafayette’s grave,” Donna suggested. Every time I visit her in Paris, she takes me off on another unexpected adventure. I’d just been reading about the Marquis de Lafayette in the book Portraits of France by Robert Daley – a book I heartily recommend.
So off we charged to the Place de la Nation, not too far away in the 11th. During the Terror following the French Revolution, residents living near the guillotine at the Place de la Concorde had complained about the stench of rotting blood, so the guillotine was moved here, further from the center of the city.
A few blocks away, at 35 rue de Picpus, is a private cemetery where the Marquis de Lafayette is buried. Lafayette was married at the age of 16 to Marie Adrienne Francoise de Noailles of the wealthy and influential Noailles family. He got her pregnant and promptly romped off to America for the Revolutionary War. He returned to France an immensely popular hero.
The cemetery is hard to find, and only open to the public in the afternoon, for a fee of two euros. On entering a gravel courtyard, we faced a spare church where nuns have been saying mass for the souls of the state-murdered victims for several centuries. (I wonder if they still do.) On the walls of the chapel were listed all of the victims of the Terror.
There are three mass graves in the gardens, places where beheaded bodies were tossed in – after having their clothes and other valuables stripped off and “inventoried.” They were carried in on carts after the guillotine. The state tried to keep the location where the bodies were buried a secret, but – so the story goes – a young girl followed a cart and discovered the remains.
The cemetery was begun by Lafayette’s wife. All of her relatives had been killed (crime: being aristocrats), but the people in power left her alive because of fear of popular outrage if they touched the very popular Lafayette or his wife. She and other nobles wanted to be buried near their loved ones.
And now, her grave is here, with that of Lafayette and their son George Washington Lafayette. On his last visit to the United States, Lafayette shipped back a large trunk of dirt; he wanted to be buried in American soil. An American flag flies over his grave daily, even — according to the Daley’s book – during the Nazi occupation of Paris, because they never found the place.
We walked around the grounds, down a long allée of trees. Dark yew trees, symbols of mourning, studded the lawn. Two big fig trees, bearing not-yet-ripe fruit, clustered near one of the mass graves. There were almost no other people around; the place was quiet and peaceful, as it should be.