Below Paris, Part the First…
Well. No question this trip has been the adventure of a lifetime. And you know, if earthquakes and spy ships in Japan, the journey up the Alps in the world’s steepest and highest cable-car, or racing through the chaotic, steaming and beautiful streets of Mumbai had been the only highlights, I would have been thrilled. But after what happened in Paris…
You be the judge.
My plan was to make a quick return to Paris, en route to the UK, and then, ultimately, home again. The principle goal for this visit was to get into the Parisian Catacombs. I’ve always wanted to see this incredible ossuary, and I’d been hoping to set a scene in my new book there, if I could make it work.
Because of the crazy, last-minute nature of this trip, I was too late to book ahead, as all the guided tours were packed for weeks in advance. I decided to go early, line up and take my chances. The heat wave in Paris was at its peak, [44 C!] and I preferred waiting in the comparative cool of the morning rather than later. This paid off, and I was among the first thirty or so to gain admittance.
The kiss-bedecked gravestone of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre in Montparnasse Cemetary, Paris
The Parisian catacombs were envisioned in the 18th century as a solution to the problem of massively overcrowded cemetaries. After a series of land collapses and other health crises, the decision was taken to relocate millions of bones to some of the even-then old mining caverns that snake deep beneath the city. I visited a couple of Parisian cemetaries, and can attest to the fact that every inch of ground is accounted for, even today.
As for the mining caverns? More on them later.
These cemetaries had originally been located outside the city, but as Paris grew to envelop them, the long-dead had become a serious problem. Initially, the bones were fairly unceremoniously dumped into the old caverns, but by the end of the nineteenth century, the catacombs took on more of the shape we can see today.
There are 131 tightly spiralling stairs to climb down, and at the bottom, the temperature in the catacombs stays a level 14 degrees, year round.
At the foot of the stairs, a flurry of explanatory photos and information is offered, and then the walk under the streets of Paris can begin.
The names of the streets above are carved into the walls, along with the dates that much of the work was done, to help orientate visitors to their location under ground. Black lines were initially painted on the ceilings, so that the earliest visitors could follow them in the dim light of the torches they carried.
For contemporary visitors, these caves act as a kind of introductory passage before the real thing begins.
And how does one know one has reached the catacombs? Look up…
The empire of the dead holds countless bones and skulls and life stories beyond number. It is mesmerizing.
Rather than macabre [which I had been expecting], I found it strangely moving to wander through all the remains of all the ex-Parisians.
So many lives lived and loved — I felt very lucky to have been able to visit, and pay my respects to their memories.
I left the catacombs delighted on a personal level to have finally been to see them at last. But the walk through had shown me that the plans I had for my story were not going to work, and that was disappointing. This story is WILDLY implausible, but I don’t want it to be entirely impossible, and the scene I had envisioned clearly wasn’t going to work, based on my on-the -ground — or more accurately, UNDER-the-ground– research.
I was resigned to making some changes, and was just settling down at my computer that afternoon to do that very thing, when my email pinged.
And that’s when things got really crazy.