Paris: The catacombs
I don’t know about Tina, but man did I ever enjoy Paris the second time around.
When we finished with the city the first time, as we were roughly a third of the way through our trip, we hadn’t done nearly anything close to what we had hoped to. Some tragedies with a lost museum pass meant bypassing a climb to the top of Notre Dame (Tina still weeps herself to sleep at night over that I’m certain), and my insistence on a scenic walk through Montmartre meant that we ran out of time to visit the Picasso museum as well. After we packed for Lyon and waited for the transit day, we passed the time by rationalizing away all the sights we missed.
Picasso was just another art gallery, Tina consoled. We had done enough art galleries, and we would do even more on the rest of our trip. It wasn’t so bad.
We climbed enough stairs, I thought. We had been to higher places in Paris, seen what it looked like from more scenic outlooks. And really, if the roof of a cathedral is the prettiest part, then the cathedral really needs to have better things going for it.
No, we could live without having seen every last single thing we wanted to in Paris, it was decided. We cracked the cork out of the last bottle of wine we had illicitly smuggled into our room, sat back to watch CNN International’s story about cars in China or whatever since it was the only thing on in English, and decided to rest up.
Somewhere in around our third plastic bathroom cup of a particularly pleasant red wine, purchased at a delightful price at the gas station across the boulevard, Tina turned to me and said, “But I really wanted to see the Catacombs.”
Cue the needle-scratching-a-record sound.
For those of you who are unaware, the Paris Catacombs (officially the l’Ossuaire Municipal) is a considerable underground ossuary beneath the streets of Paris. Throughout the 18th century, Paris suffered from the presence of the cemeteries within their city limits — the combination of mass graves, improper burials and the condition of the burial grounds was a serious source of disease in neighboring areas. The idea was consequently hatched to open up a bunch of alternate grounds in Paris’ suburbs, condemn the cemeteries inside the city, and then re-locate their residents to the huge network of quarries beneath the streets.
The result is a maze of interconnecting tunnels several stories below Paris, quiet and cool, where the bones of an estimated six million Parisians now rest permanently. Neatly stacked, reverently preserved, and accessible by those willing to explore. You can see why we had to add an extra day in Paris for our return — and it was only the first part of an amazing afternoon.
The catacombs are accessible through an entirely nondescript entrance, just off a busy boulevard in an area of Paris not far from our hotel. Nervous about whether it would be open on a holiday weekend, we hustled over there within a short time of returning to the city — neither of us were willing to take the chance of missing it, not again. If it meant we had to hustle, well, we were prepared to accept that.
After passing by a security guard performing double-duty as a ticket taker, visitors descend about 20 meters to a tunnel that’s about a mile long, taking them through a slightly dry history of quarrying that gets interesting very quickly. At first, you’re confronted with a series of plaques about the types of work done, how quarrying beneath a city is carried out, and methods of keeping the world from caving in on top of diligent miners. Interesting enough if you’re keen on the perils of 18th-century earth-working, but then the whole thing takes on a human dimension.
Sometime during the mining process, an accident occurred that resulted in the death of a group of diggers. As a tribute to them, their fellow miners carved a replica of their home district, the Quartier de Cazerne. Struck in miniature with surprising and exquisite detail, it provides a sudden and immediate understanding of the hundreds of people down here all the time, working every day to chip out the rock that provided a face to the city above.
It was an odd surprise, but one that helped prepare us for what we found next.
Look, it’s one thing to read that you’re about to descend into a labyrinth of tunnels populated entirely by the bones of Paris’ citizens for the past two-hundred and fifty-odd years. It’s an entirely different moment when you do.
We heard a lot of reactions, as we stood there trying to find the best way to capture our own thoughts. A young married couple, him equipped with his up-to-date DSLR and her carefully dressed in her beret and taking pictures with her antique top-down camera that was a fashion accessory more than anything, competed to see who could be more ironically detached from the experience; a pair of teenaged girls shrieked every thirty feet at how totally gross it was, one to convey that princesses such as she should never consort with skulls, and the other more out of a grim form of compliance, to reduce the risk of social suicide; an Australian couple hustled through very, very quickly indeed, heavy with the sudden knowledge that this wasn’t actually such a romantic idea after all.
We lingered, hoping that the groups would pass us by, surprised that we couldn’t always judge the books by their covers. A trio of French boys passed us by, trying their best to look stylish and unfazed by what they were seeing, but failing utterly; a tour group of war veterans and their wives were next, intent on reading and deciphering every plaque, inscription and marker, as if by doing so they could ensure they’d done the place proper justice. It was a moving study in every method you could imagine to be confronted with such a sight — a cemetery without the trees, the grass, the earth or the caskets to stand between you and those who’ve gone before you.
I don’t know if it’s possible to convey the enormity of the catacombs to you. But I’ll try.
I live in a town that’s populated by, at its peak, a hundred and fifty thousand people; I commute every day to a city that’s populated by over a million and a half people. When you can say without hyperbole that you were in a tunnel populated with more dead than everyone you might have ever seen alive times five, you cannot help to consider your perspective. That they are all buried together, regardless of rank or wealth or age, is another thing entirely — it is merely enough that they have been committed to the earth, to be preserved forever, together with their fellow Parisians
That their bones are intermingled amongst each other, free of tombstones and memorials and even their own names, is an even more stunning statement. The bones are marked only by the church that they came from, their individual identities subsumed entirely. The departed of Paris have therefore become very much a part of their city, resting below the always-busy streets, the literal foundations of the vibrant life above.
I loved it, without reservation. After having seen so many parts of France, and all the ways that the country had celebrated life and beauty — through its art, its architecture and its faith — this struck me as the most simple, and the most profound.