Whether you ever go to Paris or not (and I hope you do go), you should read The Parisians by Graham Robb. The book relates the stories of Parisians, some famous, some not so famous, who have contributed to the history of this great city. One vignette is about Héricart de Thury, the man who masterminded, engineered, and directed all the work done to create the famed Catacombs beneath the streets of Paris.
Since the Middle Ages limestone of superb building quality was quarried underground in and around Paris. The Cathedral of Notre Dame is made from this stone, as are most of the great Paris monuments and buildings, so lots of tunnels (quarries) are under the city.
In 1790, one of the largest cemeteries in Paris was closed because it had become a health risk. In 1795, all the bones from that cemetery were unceremoniously dumped into some of the old limestone quarries under the city. More and more old cemeteries were emptied as the city grew, and these bones, too, were dumped in the quarries. Then in the early 1800s, some of the quarries began to collapse under the weight of the city above, creating a real problem for Paris.
Héricart de Thury was hired in 1810, to shore up the collapsing quarries, and it is he who also turned the ossuary with its piles of bones from over 6,000,000 (yep, 6 million!) souls into a proper funereal monument. The billion-plus bones in the quarries/tunnels were meticulously arranged by de Thury and his crew into walls, columns, and variously shaped objects. In doing so, de Thury and his men also created a huge underground “city” of streets, all mapped and marked, and they built numerous stone columns and supports to keep any more quarries from collapsing. Some of the workers even carved little monuments in the stone. In the spring of 2015, Richard and I were in Paris for a week. Our plan on May 5, was to see the Catacombs in the morning. We arrived at the entrance of this popular tourist attraction to find that the ticket line stretched 7/8 of the way around the big block! The end of the line was nearly at the entrance, but we had to go all the way around the block to enter! Hundreds of people, nearly a thousand, were in that line. I suggested that we wait 15 minutes to see how quickly the line moved.
At some point within that time limit, we learned that 200 people were admitted every 45 minutes. Hmmm! Forty-five minutes. No wonder we weren’t moving very quickly. Those bones didn’t mean a thing to us. We didn’t even know who the people had been! It was going to be a long wait. We had to decide if seeing this sight was worth the wait on this, our last full day in Paris.
Also, before the fifteen minutes were up, we started to talk to the young people in line ahead of us–Kristian from New Zealand and Katie from New York State. They weren’t really a couple, just friends. They had met a few weeks before in a hostel in Barcelona and had decided to meet up again in Paris. They were such interesting young people.
Kristian quit school when he was 15 and went to work on a dairy farm for three years, getting up at 3:30 each morning and working 70 hours a week “for peanuts.” At 18 he started working in construction. He was now in his late twenties, and here’s what he did. He worked a year and saved money like crazy, then he gave up his apartment, turned his bull mastiff over to his mum, and headed out for 12 to 18 months of travel. He had been doing this for the past six years. He had been all over South and Central America, including Cuba and Jamaica. He’d been to Thailand, Viet Nam, and many other Southeast Asian countries (although not Bhutan, where he did want to go), and all over Africa. On this trip he was doing Europe and Russia for 18 months. He mostly traveled alone, stayed in hostels, usually took buses or trains, but thumbed on occasion, and cooked for himself whenever possible. He was very articulate, polite, and engaging, and although his schooling stopped when he was 15, it was obvious that his education was ongoing.
Well, except for one incident. During the course of our conversation, someone mentioned Les Miz, the popular musical which contains a scene under Paris, not in the Catacombs, but in the sewers (we also toured the Paris Sewer Museum, but that’s another story). Seeing a quizzical look on Kristian’s face, Katie said, “You know, Les Misérables? by Victor Hugo?” Kristian said, “I’ve always heard of Les Miz. I thought it was a department store.” That was good for a big laugh.
Katie, in her mid-20s, spent four months in Rome while in college (flunked the classes she took there and gained 40 pounds (!), which she did lose), and fell in love with Europe. She and her “boyfriend-until-recently” had saved enough money to make this trip, then they broke up. Katie was coming to Europe no matter what, so her parents paid another friend’s way to accompany her. This “friend” was off seeing Notre Dame on this day, which was fine with Katie, as she said he “keeps trying to parent me and is driving me crazy.” Katie would be going home the next day, but she had an au pair job lined up for two months that summer in a town about an hour away from Barcelona. She’d be back in Europe by mid-June. In the fall she was planning to go to grad school to become a child psychologist. Kristian still had several months of travel ahead of him.
The line was moving at a snail’s pace, but the day was beautiful. The 15 minutes we had allotted for waiting in line were long gone, and we were having a good time getting to know one another and talking about far-ranging topics. Then the couple ahead of Kristian and Katie brought out a bottle of wine and plastic glasses. Katie thought that was exactly what was needed, so off she went to find some wine and beer. When she returned, the other couple (also interesting young people, he an art dealer from Paris, she an advertising executive in Manhattan) gave us some of their plastic glasses, and the party began!
We stood in that line for nearly three hours, laughing and telling stories, taking a group picture, drinking a little wine or beer. When we finally got to the ticket window, there was a lighted counter on the wall. Richard was number 194, and I was number 195! Whew! We had just made the cutoff! I don’t know that we could have kept up with the young people for another 45 minutes of that kind of fun!
When we entered the Catacombs, we went down a skinny, spiral staircase FOREVER! I kept thinking, “How will I ever get back up? They’ll just have to toss me on a pile of bones.” Then when we hit the bottom of the stairs, we walked FOREVER before we ever saw a bone. Then when we came to the neatly stacked bones and skulls, we walked by bones and skulls FOREVER.
There were only two “rules” down in what should have been a place of reverence and respect for the dead–no flash photography and don’t touch the bones. Very reasonable requests. You cannot imagine (or perhaps you can, depending where you are presently on the “Cynic Scale”) how many people could not keep their hands off the bones (one of the last things in the world I want to touch).
A young woman was reprimanded by one of the very few guards for touching the bones. Richard then heard her say, “I don’t care. I’m still going to steal a skull.” I doubt that she did, but it was obvious from spaces in the bone piles, that many have done just that. And there were camera flashes on a regular basis. I will say, however, that since there is electricity down there, they really should light the place better. The “street” surface is very uneven. Sometimes we walked on gravel, sometimes on slippery, hard-packed dirt, sometimes cracked, chipped, pot-holed concrete, sometimes loose dirt. It was really treacherous footing, and it was very hard to see where we were walking. I didn’t need flash with my camera, but a little more light, and no one would have needed it.
At one point I stopped to take some photos (so gruesome, I know). I was walking past an alcove to catch up to our “group,” when something moved in the nearly pitch-black alcove. I let out a shriek and nearly leaped onto my husband’s back. Kristian had stepped into the darkened space with his video camera to film something on the other side of the grate at the end of the alcove. He hadn’t meant to scare me at all, but he did get a good laugh when I screamed and jumped.
Our walk under the city through “streets” and “avenues,” passing only stones and bones, took about an hour and a half. We passed one placard that stated only 1/800 of the numerous underground quarries were used for the Catacombs! It’s impossible to imagine the scope of this underground labyrinth. Finally at the end of the Catacombs, we were thankful that we only had to climb about half as many steps to get outside as we had trudged when descending.
Back in the sunshine, we exchanged email addresses with our new friends and wished each other a safe journey. Although it had taken much longer than expected, seeing the Catacombs and spending time with these young travelers made for an exceptionally fun morning in Paris. Lunch beckoned.