Deciding to keep up Cultural Fridays has proven to be one of the best moves that I and my friend(s) could have imagined. This time, we had our hearts set on something more somber, but something strangely romantic and enchanting nonetheless: the Catacombs, eternal home to around six million souls, a seemingly incredible number until I start thinking of how many tourists the underground chambers must attract each year. Ever since I became aware of their existence ― quite a number of years ago, now ― I have been eager to see the incredible structures myself; luckily, my extended stay in Paris gives me more than ample opportunity to act on such exploratory urges.
To begin, my entourage (fellow grad students Sarah and Willie) and I met incredibly early in the morning ― at least, much earlier than we are typically used to on Fridays ― to get a good head start on the day and on the expected crowds. A friend of ours told us to be diligent in securing a very early place in line because of the hordes of tourists that supposedly arrive just before the opening hour of 10AM. Diligent we were: we showed up around 7:30 to find that not a single other soul had thought as far ahead as we had. Instead of waiting in the cold for two and a half hours (it had begun to snow), we made our way to a nearby café for a Parisian breakfast before touring the underground. We enjoyed a leisurely morning chowing down on some croissants and other assorted breads with butter, jam, and Nutella, orange juice, and our respective hot drinks of choice (coffee, tea, and my own little chocolate adventure: chocolat à l’ancienne, a very elegant and refined version of hot chocolate). When we noticed a few catacomb-goers begin to line up from our strategically-chosen table at the café, we paid and made our way across the street once again.
We only waited for about fifteen minutes or so before they let us in; they have to regulate how many visitors enter the underground based on available space below (from what I gather, no more than 200 people with functioning organs at a time are allowed to explore the rows of bones). The entrance definitely delivered the introduction that I had hoped for: we descended enough stairs to give us an eerie idea of just how far underground we were actually going, certainly further than I had ever walked to reach a quay below ground on the metro. The initial passageways ― repurposed mines, if I’m not mistaken, from once-upon-a-time in France’s history ― roused in me an excitement and suspense that I don’t think I’ve felt since I was a kid in line for Runaway Mountain at the amusement park, though this time certainly brought a more ethereal ambiance to the experience.
…despite what shenanigans it looks like I might’ve been championing. Anyway, once we were into the first chambers, we were greeted by some eerie sights: there were a few old, preserved sculptures and creepy staircases and corridors closed to the public that led to mysterious wells and cells, rendered all the more phantasmal by the fogged lens of my camera. (This was due to the humidity of the underground, a palpable presence that definitely added to the otherworldly aura.)
And finally we arrived to the first of the bone chambers. I knew that it would be a strange experience, being around so many actual human remains, but I don’t think that any amount of mental preparation would have been enough to significantly reduce the absolutely indescribable feeling of sharing space with the dead. It wasn’t a sense of fear, nor was it uneasiness ― not even uncomfortable, really; more than anything, a presence of excitement filled me, tinted by a shade of tame claustrophobia that took a back seat to curiosity. Without a doubt, I felt much of the same dark wonder that I had while exploring Carlsbad Caverns and other such subterranean wonders back in the States a number of years ago, but there was a more human element to these sprawling corridors, an affirmation of the admirable and crazy attempt ― ultimately a successful one ― to carve livable space beneath the skin of the earth, and ironically to populate it with the dead. I couldn’t begin to fathom the number of skulls and tibias that composed the walls around me; instead, I found my mind wandering alternately to the fate of Fortunato, to the calming and maddening sound of water droplets seeping in through the ceiling, to the fact that the American Civil War was underway when bodies were being transferred to these halls of a manmade underworld!
Again, it’s perhaps appropriate that my photos turned out much more abstract and painterly than usual, due largely to the low lighting and restriction of using flash in the chambers, so you’ll be experiencing the event from a dimension even further removed than my own:
I’ll end with a few colorful shots from the final chambers, before our ascent to the world of the living. There were certainly things that I missed, whether because portions of the underground were blocked off or because my attention was diverted elsewhere, so a return to this incredible place is definitely in my future. It might sound a bit morbid, but there is something strangely attractive about the realm beyond life, a desire, perhaps, to know that which is unknowable, to experience an enviable peace reserved for those who have traveled to the ultimate destination.
Not to break the ambiance, but my day didn’t end with the catacombs: Willie and I decided to make the most of the day as we exited the underground before noon even rolled around. We took advantage of unusually sunny weather to walk the lovely streets of Paris ― something that I have promised myself to do much more frequently than my previous metro tunnel lifestyle has allowed ― and take in her magic. By chance or perhaps cosmic design, we stumbled across the only Vibram FiveFingers® toe shoe retailer in the city, and I was ecstatic to try on a few new models that I had yet to see on American shelves. We had lunch at what has become our choice bar (The Moose, a “Canadian bar,” as you might imagine) and went back to Willie’s to watch Midnight in Paris, the cinematic culmination of what has become the magic of our everyday. I was lucky enough to come home to a dinner invitation with my host folks (endives à la sauce béchamel) and enjoy their company and conversation on top of a delicious, home-cooked French meal.
Vive la vie à Paris.