Monday, June 2, 2008

Beneath Paris

On a trip to Paris we decided to go underground into the Catacombs, as the locals call the quarries of Paris. Our friends thought it was a horrible idea and tried to talk us out of it. "Why be so morbid?" and  "We hear there are skeletons down there-real ones!"

It was a self - guided tour and we walked through very narrow passages, stooped to get into smaller tunnels, and spent time thinking about all of the humans who had once used these skulls and bones to house their brains, to bring a glass of wine to their lips, to walk around, to wave to a loved one, to dance. The bones were piled up everywhere. It was, at times, overwhelming and no photos I've ever seen of the dark corridors ever do it justice. I took many photos myself, but they cannot capture the feeling you get walking past endless walls made from human bones. Walls of solid skulls or femurs. Walls with designs in them made from skulls like crosses or hearts. There were many wide passages and open spaces in the tunnels too - plenty of room for an altar and a crypt. We slithered into blocked off passages that were marked no entry, and had to double back when we reached a dead end. Sometimes we could see beyond the pile of stone and dust blocking the forbidden tunnel. Some sort of cave-in had occurred. And we wondered if anyone walked through at closing time, making sure all the tourists had gotten out. I seriously could not imagine spending the night in the tunnels, but surely some people have tried to do just that?
When we finally surfaced again, joyfully drinking in the fresh air and misty rain, we were far from our starting point, in another arrondissement. We stopped at the nearest bar for a glass of wine. We looked down and saw that our clothes, and especially the hems of our trousers were coated with a white film. Calcium dust? We shuddered, then realized it was limestone dust from the former quarry, now a sacred storage facility. 

I've read slightly conflicting histories as to how the Paris Catacombs came to be, but instead of making us feel sad, it made us appreciate life all the more. Someday we hope to walk through the tunnels again.

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