Thursday, April 2, 2009

Memento Mori

The subterranean world of Paris comes to life when you read Les Miserables or attend a showing of Phantom of the Opera. But while you can dream of escaping Inspector Javert, taking a boat ride on an underground lake, or having clandestine meetings with other members of the Resistance, in reality, there are just two venues deep below ground available to visitors these days: a tour of the sewers or a visit to the Catacombs. I've done both and for my money, the Catacombs is the surefire winner. Okay, so if you have a problem with bones, this may not be the place for you. Long story short, at the end of the 18th century, the municipal authorities in Paris had to come to grips with a serious problem: the city was running out of cemetery space. Not only that, the overflow of, shall we say, organic matter, was posing a threat to public health -- to say nothing of what must have been an unbelievable stench.

The solution: transfer the remains from dozens of cemeteries to the limestone quarries no longer in use below the city's streets. The result: a labryinth of artfully arranged bones belonging to 5 or 6 million Parisians who died between the Middle Ages and the early 19th century. It was a tourist attraction in its time and remains so today. Skip it if you're squeamish, don't like the dark, or have limited mobility (since access is by two deep, winding staircases.) Any 10 year old boy will think it's way cool and for that matter, I did too.


Linca said...

Many other parts of the catacombs are reachable if you know the right people... Apparently there was at one point an underground cinema ; also, a few years ago the police found out that some people were extending the catacombs - under the La Santé jail.

Starman said...

There are several groups who hold parties in areas of the catacombs that tourists never get to see. Of course, these parties are illegal and the police are constantly trying to find them. Obviously, the paid entrance is not the only way in.

Carolyn said...

Ooooh Anne, just read this and I couldn't do it in a million years. Clive thinks he could do it, especially given the amazing history.

We're in the midst of watching a BBC DVD series on Paris while we're here, and just saw snippets of the Catacombs on the episode last night (shudder, shudder).

I appreciate reading your description of the experience and give you tons of credit for going down there!

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