Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Tuesday 22nd June Part 1 - Paris Catacombs

Our last day in Paris included something that I have wanted to do for a long time and that is take a tour of the Catacombs.

Like many major cities, Paris used to have a large number of cemeteries located within the various inner-city 'villiages'.  Around the middle of the 19th Century, these cemeteries were long since full and, in some cases, were literally overflowing.  Poor people were often buried in unmarked graves and also not very deep.  In fact, during heavy storms, it was not uncommon for bodies to be washed back up to the surface.

To solve the problem a number of large cemeteries were built at various locations outside the main city centre.  The problem, however, was what to do with the hundreds of thousands of bodies that were buried in the original, inner-city cemeteries so that the land could be cleared and used for new building projects.

Paris had a rather unique solution to this problem.  Most of the grand buildings are built from a particular type of stone and this stone was quarried from deep under the city itself.  Years of quarrying had led to miles of tunnels below the new sewer system (and also below the Metro lines that would be built later).

It was decided to move the corpses from these old cemeteries and deposit them in these tunnels.  As most of the corpses had been in the cemeteries for many years, they had decayed to skeletons. 

It is not unusual to reuse parts of cemeteries for new burials and the existing bones are usually moved, intact, to another part of the cemetery.  The tomb that they are placed in is know as an Ossuary.  However, the decision to move so many corpses was unprecedented.

It would have been impossible to identify each corpse once moved to the new location so it was decided that the bodies themselves would be anonymous but that all the bones from a particular cemetery would be located together and marked with the name of the cemetery and the date moved.

These Catacombs as they have become known stretch over a huge portion of Paris and only a small part have been mapped.  This has now become a tourist attraction and, as it was located close to our hotel, it was an attraction that I could not resist visiting.

We got there around 11am and I was quite surprised to discover that a large queue was waiting to go in.  This is not a major attraction and I didn't think there would be that many people there.  Although the tour of the Catacombs is taken at your own pace, to preserve the solemnity of the place only 200 people are allowed in at any one time.

After a wait of around 40 minutes, we found ourselves at the front of the queue and, after paying the entrance fee, we were on our own to start our exploration.  We stated by descending a long, winding, stone staircase that continued downwards for around 4 minutes.  You could hear the distant rumbling of the Metro but we were soon well below that.

At the foot of the staircase you lead your way through a little over 500 metres of winding tunnels cut into the solid rock.  The tunnels continue to slope downwards, ever deeper under the city.  After a few minutes it is impossible to picture where you are in relation to the streets above.

After around 10 minutes of fairly brisk walking (with Hamish going 'woooo' in a spooky voice every few minutes) we arrived at a rather unexpected cavern where the quarry men had carved little cityscapes out of the rock.  Everywhere there were gated tunnels leading off in different directions and at one point there was a gated stone staircase that descended even deeper into the dark.

A couple more minutes of walking and we came across another cavern with a doorway, the lintel of which read (in French), "Silence - You are now entering the temple of the Dead".

And they they were.  Thousands of bones.  The leg and arm bones had been laid end on to form the walls and every few inches, embedded in this wall, were skulls.  Behind the wall of bones were more skulls and bones, not placed but heaped around 5 feet high.  Occasionally there were crosses made of arm bones set into the walls.  This went on as far as the eye could see.  We walked on for at least 20 minutes and the skulls and bones continued in an unbroken line forming the walls of the tunnels.  Every so often was a marker, like an over sized tombstone, with the name of a cemetery and the date the bones were deposited here.

It became hard, as I got acclimatised to what I was seeing, to remember that each skull was a person who had lived, laughed and loved.  It was a very humbling and moving experience.

Eventually, we came to the end of the tunnels and another stone spiral staircase, this time leading up (although curiously not as long as the one we had originally descended) and we found ourselves back in the blazing sunshine of the living, bustling, vibrant city.  We were some way from where we had gone in and it took is a few minutes to work out where we were.

I implore anyone reading this who is planning a trip to Paris to make a visit to the Catacombs - I guarantee that you will love life that little bit more if you do.

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