Monday, 1 February 2010

The catacombs of Paris - January 2010

Our last visit on our Paris weekend took place while Antonia was at her rehearsal. Mike and I dropped her off and made a wild dash across town to Denfert-Rochereau metro station. We knew the catacomb entrance was somewhere around there, but unfortunately we had forgotten to bring the address. There is very little signposting for the discreet entrance, but it is right there on Denfert-Rochereau square, near the sculpture of the lion, and noticeable, even on a wintery Sunday afternoon, by the queue outside.

It was a very interesting visit, but not for everyone. Not only do you have to stand in line until there is space for you underground - only 200 people can be down there at a time - but you have to climb up and down stairs and walk two kilometres underground. Furthermore, for half that time underground, you will be walking between walls constructed of human femurs, stabilised with rows of skulls. Mike rightly estimated the number of human remains present as being in the millions. If you have seen photographs, and think it will just be one or two rooms of bones, well, it isn't quite like that. I do not think it would have suited Antonia, who is on the sensitive side.

What fascinated me was how we were able to discover how Paris had faced urban disasters and responded to them. The first part of the visit is through underground quarries from which stone was drawn for buildings over the centuries. This eventually created a major subsidence problem and the state formed an organisation to shore up the tunnels. Then there was the issue of the overcrowded cemeteries. To deal with this, it was decided to transfer millions of remains to the tunnels. I can hardly imagine what it was like to have the job of digging up the bones, hauling them across town on carts and stacking them in neat walls. There is virtually no ornamentation in the ossuary, other than that formed from the bones themselves and some panels carved with mostly French quotes, encouraging the visitor to reflect on death. Compared to the luxury that is often prepared for the dead, this is utter destitution.

As the explanatory panels point out, the ossuary in the catacombs inevitably contains major figures in French history (Rabelais, La Fontaine) as well as countless ordinary people of all classes with ordinarily extraordinary lives and deaths. Many victims of the Terreur and the Revolution are here. When you think of the complexity of the life of a single human being, its humbling to think of what all these people once represented. And to see the skulls staring out in rows, of people who might have been separated by social class or many years. And then perhaps by chance, some skull finds itself next to that of someone that it knew in life.

The quarry part of the visit had its own little tribute to just such an ordinarily exception life. Some rather crude carvings of grand buildings by one Decure, a quarryman, who had previously been a captive of the English in Menorca. He had remembered these buildings which were visible from his prison and made the copies many years later. He died trying to dig out an access stairway to them. One suspects a scheme to make a few extra francs by charging for a visit. I wonder if his skull is in the ossuary.

We emerged subdued, and were greeted by a bag check at the exit, rather than at the entrance. Mike didn't understand what the attendant was saying to him at first, so I told him he needed to open his bag to prove he hadn't tried to make off with a skull. I was joking, until I noticed a small pile of skulls on a table. The attendant assured me that they had been recovered from people's bags as they left. I don't know what is wrong with people, but I suppose in general they are just the same kind of people as the ones whose skulls they were trying to pinch. And on reflection, if Paris ever has a problem disposing of its dead again, offering free skulls to all comers might help.

Incidentally, if you think of visiting the catacombs, note that you emerge in some part of Paris that you may not be familiar with, about two metro stops away from where you started, so bring a map!

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