diamond geezer

 Wednesday, May 10, 2017

It's not usually the done thing to walk amongst the remains of the dead. Across the Channel, however, the remains of over six million Parisians are open daily for respectful perusal. What's more the Catacombes de Paris only allow 200 living people inside at a time, so unsurprisingly there are queues.

The queue for the catacombs curls round the Place at Denfert Rochereau, and even if it doesn't look particularly long it moves very slowly. Pre-booked tours are allowed to jump the line, to the detriment of others, so sometimes even the intermittent shuffling forward pauses. My two hour purgatory was enlivened by the sudden appearance of a slew of gendarmes (sealing off the centre of the square for no obvious reason), and by chatting with a delightful Canadian mother (who reassured me from a previous visit that the wait was well worth it).

When you do eventually step inside the surface building there's only one ticket window, where the entrance price isn't as good value as it was a year ago, and then you set off down 130 spiral steps. Visitors need to be reasonably fit and able, not least because what follows is a walk of over a mile along a winding underground passage. Initially it's not even overly exciting, bar a few ornate dates chipped into the wall.

The history of the catacombs is displayed just past the foot of the stairs, and updated further on. From the 13th century onwards numerous limestone quarries were dug under what would later become the suburbs of Paris, and these had a nasty habit of collapsing. From 1786 to 1814 the strengthened tunnels were used to relocate the contents of the city's overflowing cemeteries, with nightly processions of bones piled high on horse-drawn carts, and public visits began in 1850.

Beyond the exhibition space is the portal to the ossuary proper, with the warning message ARRÊTE! C'EST İCİ L'EMPİRE DE LA MORT. There's also a very peculiar graphic which I deciphered as "Please do not touch the skulls", not that I was ever intending to. Prepare yourself, because what lies beyond is what's left of umpteen generations of Parisians, artfully stacked.

The initial display has instant impact. Each wall is packed, not quite up to the ceiling, with thousands of bones and the occasional skull. What's more most of the visible bones are laid perpendicular to view, knobbly joints to the fore, reinforcing quite how many dead souls are represented by the tableau. The skulls are proportionately fewer in number and appear to have been inserted to make patterns, sometimes a line, sometimes a cross, and on one occasion a heart.

Each of Paris's old cemeteries has been piled up separately, presumably so that mourners would know where to find the remains of their departed. In each case the name of the cemetery and the year of reinterment is given on a plaque or memorial, the style of which differs each time, often with a quotation in Latin or Frenchi. And there are dozens of these funereal clusters, with yet another at each turn, or through each archway, or round each bend.

The sluggishness of the initial queue really pays off now, as you're free to wander through this amazing space without any sense of overcrowding. You can stop and contemplate the enormity of what you're seeing, reflecting on collective lives passed, from medieval peasants to the victims of the French Revolution. Or you can take lots of photos. Most visitors take lots of photos, occasionally even a series of skull-selfies, because it's not often you get to stand unsupervised in front of millions of bones.

Eventually, after more twists and turns than you'd originally have anticipated, the tour exits la Tombe-Issoire via 83 more steps up to the surface. A guard will check your bag to ensure you're not making off with any consecrated souvenirs, and you emerge via the gift shop, some considerable distance from where you entered. I found visiting the catacombs a sobering experience, and quite unique, agreeing with that Canadian woman that the wait really had been worth it.

Just maybe don't make it the centrepiece of a day trip to Paris, because that's three hours gone, and the rest of the city is so full of life.

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