Paris, France: The Empire Of The Dead

I was in Paris for two and a half days, and I had already exhausted the usual things to see: the Louvre, Musee d’Orsay, Eiffel Tower, Champs-Elysees, yeah, yeah, whatever.

I mean, I could always check out the Asian Table Tennis Championship being held at the two outdoor ping-pong tables down the street from the hostel, which I did, but I’m pretty sure I’d get bored, which I did.

And the action shot …

Winner! Note the solid plastic divider instead of a classic net, very clever.

Instead, I had something a little more interesting planned. I read about it in the LP, and it’s a little outside town, but I figured it’d be an interesting site: the Catacombs.

You see, sometime around the end of the 18th century, the French realized that they were running out of places to bury people. The cemeteries of the city were overcrowded to the point that the living who resided next to the poorly managed graveyards were getting sick because of all the decomposing matter.

The city decided to unearth the skeletal remains of several cemeteries and, to put it bluntly, chuck ’em in a quarry. A series of abandoned quarries connected by tunnels outside the original Paris walls were used as a stockpile for the bones (so really they chucked them over the fence into the quarry).

Now I didn’t know what to expect. The description in the LP went something like “This is a cool, but kinda creepy place.” I got there just as they opened and entered a very nondescript, low-lying brick building. The “lobby” had enough room for a few peoply to stand single-file and buy their tickets from a window. You pass a standard, train-station turnstile and then embark on a 240-plus-stair descent into the quarries

If you needed to be told, here it is:

The beginning of the tunnel that takes you to the quarries began with a small historical record. It seems the Catacombs were used as a museum from as early as the late 19th century. The tunnel itself … well, it put the fear of God in you. What I’m about to do violates every impulse in my body and is truly unprecedented here in this blog: I’m going to post a terrible picture. It’s just awful. Bad lighting, wrong exposure, no tripod. But I’m keeping it — and posting it — for a reason. To show you just how dark and ominous the tunnel was.

Now imagine walking down that hallway without those handy wall lights. Imagine doing it with a single candle held in your trembling hand like it ’twas the friggin’ nightmare before Christmas.

After a set of confusing turns, we reached the carvings of one of the quarrymen. He had been imprisoned in an English prison, and while employed in the subterranean rock mines of Paris, carved into the soft stone a replica of what he saw from his prison window.

This was followed by more walking. I began to wonder if these narrow, barren walls were the Catacombs themselves. After all, it did vaguely resemble the hellscape to which my soul would be undoubtedly banished: uneven dirt floors, limestone walls that dripped water and oozed mold, and low ceilings that only imps and demons could navigate comfortably. The lights were bright enough just to let you know if you were going the right way. I would frequently turn the wrong direction only to be faced with a passage as black as the plague which killed most of these inhabitants, or one that was lighted only well enough to presumably lure you to where you could become the next permanent guest of the Catacombs.

Finally I passed through another door marked with an alarming phrase:

Halt! Here is the empire of the dead. OK that’s actually kinda cool.

It’s hard to really describe the feeling of what came next. I already didn’t quite know what to expect. I mean, how do YOU think you would turn a pile of skeletons into a museum? Would you lay each body out on top of each other? Would you group them by body party, like all the femurs on the left and the ulnas on the right? Maybe you would stack them in the creepiest way imaginable, then provide only enough light to scare the living daylights out of whomever is so brave to open their eyes? Yeah, let’s do that last one.

The funny thing is that a security guard warned us not to take pictures with the flash on. What, are you worried about damaging the decomposing organic matter? Running out of dead people to stash down there?

Can you believe how they arranged the bones? A wall of the longer bones, say the humerus, femur, tibia, fibia, maybe some ribs … they had all been laid flat, interspersed with skulls, to hold back a landfill of the rest of the bodyparts. Or for example the second picture above, where it’s almost architecturally sculpted like a fat, bulging pillar. I can imagine the conversation in Heaven: “So, what did your family do with your remains?” “Oh, they cremated me and scattered my ashes in the rivers, mountains and valleys of my ancestral lands.” “Wow, that’s beautiful.” “Yeah. What about you?” “Well my left arm and ear are going to be part of the renovation of the east wing, my head is on display at the entrance and my lower body is at the base of a load-bearing column.” “Hm.”

It is said that 5 to 6 million people are buried in the Catacombs. Truly, it is an incredible, creepy, and incredibly creepy place. Well worth the visit.

You know what else was worth the visit? A bakery across the street that had a line almost out the door. It was one of those neighbourhood joints that the same people went to every morning and afternoon to buy their daily fix. The “showcase” spanned yards and was filled with every kind of pastry, bread, cookie, tart and cake you could dream of, but I had only one thing on my mind. Croissant aux amandes. It was delicious. Almost as good as the one from the night before, except I think they overdid the croissant part. It probably stayed in the oven too long, but the filling was spot on. As Vivek so poetically described it: “That’s the closest to heaven I have been.” Croissants in France. Lord, I am ready.

That night I headed back to Montmartre and had some wine at a small bar just up the street from the Moulin Rouge.

Walking around the historic neighbourhood, it was interesting to see the dichotomy of tourist influence, represented by packed bars, cafes and galleries, alongside the true artist colony, manned by such painters finishing a particular work before the weekend:

I went back to the hostel and packed my things. I had spent a lot of time deciding where my next destination would be, debating between places like Northeast France, Amsterdam, and Luxembourg. Finally, before going to the Catacombs I made my decision and bought a train ticket for the following afternoon. You’ll have to keep reading to see where I go next, and why.

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One comment

  1. I’m sure arranging the bones would have been a public works project by some administration – giving jobs to people in a time of previous recession, y’know. Hey, that’s an idea. Why not employ a bunch now to rearrange them?

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