I suppose I should really hold off this post until next October. But I have such a problem only doing the things I should do. And I really have a problem holding off on things I should hold off on. So I'll just ignore the whole hold-off-till-October thing about this catacomb post. The great news is that I run this blog and I get to decide what gets held off and what gets...the opposite of held off. (Dropped On? I'm not sure about that one. Anybody have any suggestions?)
So on a rainy day in April, with a good bit of cold wind tossed around, we spent the morning seeking out Charles Baudelaire's grave at Montparnasse Cemetery. It was pretty cold, the French guard gave us a map of the cemetery in Italian (presumably because Jennifer's French sounded like it came from Genoa) and we found good-old-Chuck's resting place. Jennifer cried. I didn't.
So after this wonderfully uplifting experience (and here, you think I'm joking, but cemeteries really do sort of perk us up, which I would try to explain, but I just don't think I adequately can) we slowly sauntered up Rue Froidevaux, past Chez Papa's, to Place Denfert-Rochereaux, watched the school children line up at the little theater that was showing Charlie Chaplin movies (oh, yeah, I wanted to join them!) and then finally found Le Catacombes.
This was one of the longest (or slowest-moving, to be more precise) lines we stood in during our entire trip. We huddled on the sidewalk, as the wind, and occasional rain, worried at us. We occasionally used the umbrella, chatted with the couple behind us from Washington DC, and took pictures of the lion statue in the center of the traffic circle, dedicated to la Defense Nationale 1870-1874 (which really didn't go too well, as I recall). People were allowed into the catacombs a few at a time. We never saw anyone come out. The French lady ahead of us, speaking with her little girl, made several jokes about that. The little girl thought that was funny.
To enter the catacombs, you must descend a tightly spiralled stone staircase that drops down over sixty feet to the old mines of Paris. Down here, some of the most iconic stone buildings of Paris began as rock quarried from these mines centuries ago. In order to deal with the overcrowded cemeteries within the city, Paris officials finally decided on removing the nearly six million bones collected in the aboveground "charniers", which were ossuaries filled with the bones of the bodies from the many mass graves that were used in these early times. Once a mass grave had been covered long enough to allow the decomposition of flesh from the bones, the mass grave was reopened and the bones stacked in the "charniers". We call them charnel-houses. Most of these bones came from near Les Halles, the food courts, from a cemetery known as The Innoccents. From 1886 to 1888, most of these millions of bones were stacked in the cavernous mines under the old "porte d'Enfer" city gate.
After a faily long walk (the entire tour is about one and a half miles) through bare corridors, you will finally come to the entrance to the catacombs. The wonderfully dark sign that announces the entrance reads: Arrete! C'est Ici L'Empire De La Mort. (Attention: Halt! Here is the Empire of Death.)
Right off you notice how damp it all seems. Water drips down from the low ceilings. Stalagtites have formed over the centuries, and there are puddles of water everywhere. The path is this wet, gritty surface that adds a constant crunching sound all around as you pass through the halls of the dead. Amazingly, though there are so many bones, they have not been haphazardly thrown into piles. There are orderly stacks of femurs, tibias, and skulls. What I did not see were hands, feet, hips, spines, or shoulder blades. I suspect they were either hidden by the orderly piles of the straighter bones, jumbled below, or they were smaller bones that mostly fell apart and were not taken below. I did not use an audio guide, and have not read enough on the subject to know for sure. I kind of like not knowing that tidbit. It sounds like something from a movie: Look at all these legs, arms, and heads...but where are the rest of the body parts? (I might have to use that in a story one day.)
Great care was taken to label the bone collections. Stone signs designate the dates and the cemeteries from which the bones were taken. There are many stone signs with bible verses on them, as well as selected poetic verses. Too many to mention. The winding tunnels are not too narrow, so if you have trouble with tight spaces I wouldn't worry. However, realize, that once you begin, there is no going back. The entrance and the exit are not in the same place. You will have to walk the full tour to get back out.
Eventually you climb another set of stairs and pop out on the Rue Remy Dumoncel. Even this is wonderfully mysterious, since the exit is unmarked, and you can be pretty disoriented as you try to find your way out of this little neighborhood.
There is a strict ban on flash photography, which makes little sense to me. These bones are constantly wet, which is not doing them any favors, and flashes of light would not really do more damage to them, thought I suppose it would be distracting to have so many flashes going off in the semi-darkness. But I was disappointed that I could not get many good shots with such low light.
|A rare photo of yours truly, as photographed by my wife,|
I wish we had been able to spend more time down there, but the self-tour is just one long constant walk, and you do not know how much is left, and before you know it you are at the end. And you are aware that there are many people standing in the rain and wind waiting to get in. But this is certainly a trip worth taking. There is nothing like this in the world, that I am aware of, and if you are in Paris it must be a part of your trip.