Paris: Follow the pavement in homage to Piaf

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In 1915, six days before Christmas, Edith Piaf was born into poverty in Paris. Natasha Edwards captures the mood of the places where she sang her way through tragedy to triumph.

Listen to a few Piaf songs and almost every part of working-class Paris is there - the Faubourgs, the Bois de Vincennes, the Canal St-Martin, the dance halls and the bars. It's a long way from the Paris of the Louvre or elegant Marais mansions, but what can beat the pathos of songs such as "Les Amants"? You could even say that Piaf was literally associated with the streets. She was born, legend has it, on the pavement outside 72 rue de Belleville, now one of Paris's most racially mixed quartiers, up the hill beyond the Chinese restaurants; the house now lies between a kebab shop and a derelict Jewish shop, and opposite a Caribbean restaurant.

Given her extraordinarily complex life, that is an appropriate start for a pilgrimage in her memory. A stone tablet above the door reads "On the steps of this house, was born the 19 December 1915, in the greatest poverty, Edith Piaf, whose voice would later move the world".

As a child she helped her father in his street turns, before herself singing in the streets, mostly in this area of north-east Paris. There is a small monument - and a bar named after her - at place Edith-Piaf. Devotees can visit the tiny museum at 5 rue Crespin-du-Gast (ring for an appointment: 00 33 1 43 55 52 72, Monday to Thursday, 1pm-6pm) which is run by fans.

Two rooms are filled with posters, gold discs, her little black dress, pieces of her furniture, her lucky monkey mascot, porcelain and other memorabilia.

Also in the area, half-way down the hill towards Republique, is the Java (105 rue du Faubourg-du-Temple, 11th) dance hall, an old Piaf haunt of the sort typified in "Bal Dans Ma Rue". It's not exactly Piaf any more, but the mood is much more relaxed than in most Paris night-clubs. The red Morocco leather booths remain from when it opened in 1928, and you can dance to live bands here on Thursday and Friday nights, even if today they are more likely to be belting out Cuban salsa and bolero than musette (some elderly couples still take to the dance floor on Sunday afternoons).

In 1935, singing outside her habitual territory, she was spotted by Louis Leplee, who soon put her on at his cabaret Le Gerny's, off the Champs- Elysees, and gave Edith Giovanna Gassion the name that would last: "La Mome Piaf" - the kid sparrow. It was the start of a rise to fame, but also tragedy, that included the assassination of Leplee and the deaths of two lovers - Marcel Cerdan, a boxer, and Douglas Davies - in separate plane crashes.

After her start at Gerny's all the cabarets and concert halls of Paris were open to her: the Moulin Rouge in Pigalle, where she sang with young Yves Montand (another lover); the Canotier du Pied de la Butte at 62 boulevard Rochechouart, where she performed with Maurice Chevalier, still a tiny late-night cabaret today; and the Olympia concert hall, a listed monument currently being reconstructed a few metres down from the original on boulevard Capucines.

Time for a trip west. Piaf mythology decrees that her name be ever associated with Belleville. It tends to be forgotten that at the end of her life, a wealthy woman and an international star, she lived in a very different milieu, in a huge apartment at 67 boulevard Lannes in the salubrious 16th arrondissement, until her death on 9 October 1963.

Death and a return east to the Pere-Lachaise cemetery, almost a city within the city, with its neat, cobbled streets lined with sometimes fantastical mausolea. I was fascinated to learn that shortly after the cemetery opened in 1804, they moved in selected celebrities - among them Heloise and Abelard, La Fontaine and Moliere - to bring it into fashion.

There is no such problem today. The cemetery positively groans with famous names and is awash with tourists every weekend. It is not easy to find the tomb of Piaf, though. (Don't follow the crowd - that will take you to Jim Morrison, complete with police surveillance.)

Pick up a map at the entrance and head for division 97 in the north-east corner of the cemetery. A simple, polished granite slab is marked, somewhat unexpectedly "Madame Lamboukas dite Edith Piaf 1915-1963"; next to it is the tomb of Theophanus Lamboukas - her fourth and 20-years-younger husband. On the top, vases of flowers - many roses - remember "La Vie en Rose".

How to get to Edith Piaf's home town with no regrets

Eurostar (0345 303030) operates trains from London Waterloo and Ashford to Gare du Nord. The fare is pounds 69 if you travel midweek and stay away a Saturday night; pounds 89 if you leave on a Friday; pounds 179 if you want an unrestricted ticket.

For specimen fares on some of the many air routes from the UK to Paris, the following airlines were called and asked for quotes departing the UK on 9 January and returning 12 January.

Air France (0181-742 6600) from Edinburgh (pounds 132.30) and Birmingham (pounds 126.30); British Midland (0345 554554) from Heathrow (pounds 109.50) and East Midlands (pounds 129.50); British Airways (0345 222111) from Heathrow or Gatwick (pounds 109.50) and Manchester (pounds 120.50).

More information: French Government Tourist Office, 178 Piccadilly, London W1V 0AL (0891 244123).

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