Thursday, February 25, 2010

Catacombs of Paris!!

As a bit of a change of pace, let’s discuss skeletons. Specifically, let’s discuss human skeletons. Now this probably seems like a morbid way to start out a conversation, and I wouldn’t recommend that you attempt to start conversations with other people about skeletons unless you know a lot of doctors or horror movie set designers. And if you do know a lot of both doctors and horror movie set designers, then I’m guessing you lead a somewhat interesting life.

Skeletons are scary. I don’t know much about them other than they live deep within us and often act as the antagonists in science-fiction movies. If you watch a lot of old fashioned cartoons, skeletons are often portrayed as having the ability to dance in unison, which I guess is useful if you are trying to scare a group of ballerinas. I once saw a show on mummies, which are like skeletons but grosser because they look like they’ve spent the last 1000 years getting botched face-lifts. And that officially ends the list of things I know about skeletons. So why do I bring this up? I bring this up as a flimsy pretense to discuss the time I went to the catacombs under Paris.

So get this. Paris is a big city with all sorts of buildings and people and baked goods. There’s trees, parks, roads, revolutions, all the stuff you’ve come to expect from foreign places. But not all is normal in Paris town. But a few dozen feet below the streets of this city of living French folks are stuffed a whole bunch of dead French folks. It would seem that the good people of old-time France ran out of places to put dead people, so they decided to just stick them under the streets. How many people? Without resorting to childish exaggerating, I would guess somewhere near a bazillion quadrabillion.
Now, you can’t just get off the airplane and start asking a Parisian how to get to the dead people they have stuffed under their streets. No, that’s a question best asked at one of the many cafés that line the living Parisian streets. And so, in broken French, I casually struck up a conversation with a Frenchman and demanded to know where the dead people were. After sorting out some misunderstandings, I learned that the enterence to the catacombs is located next to a big lion of some sort. Only later did I figure out that the frenchman was talking about this guy....

I don't know why this was built, but I could probably find out with a little searching. But I will leave that up to you. The enterence to the catacombs was located next to this lion guy. Also by these two guys...

As was the case with the lion, this advertisement was confusing to me. I don't know what product these two ruffians were attempting to peddle even though the advertisement was in english. Anyway, this was next to the catacombs too, and "end to end" seemed appropriate.

Whatever you do, don't mistake this as the enterence for the catacombs.

Obviously most of you wouldn't, as it is clearly marked as a toilet. Mostly I put this here so I could post this picture...

That's me coming out of the toilet. Well, the outhouse (I never actually entered the toilet). These things were crazy. After you would exit the toilet area, the thing would seal up as tight as a drum and then start making all sorts of crazy sounds. Almost like a seagull fighing with an otter. Then the door would unlock and the next person could go in. Later I learned that the bathrooms would clean themselves after you left. This included the walls, toilet, floor and everything else that one might find in an urban bathroom. It was all very futuristic and oddly a little terrifying.

Back to the skeletons. You pay an usually large amount of money to begin your journey at the top of a scary, winding staircase. Then you go down the staircase for a good 60 feet, down into the very bowels of the city of Paris. It's really dark.

Falling down become a real concern, as I'm not sure you would stop at any point before hitting the ground far below. Once you get to the bottom of th stairs, you walk along a gravel pathway for a good little while. Then you come across this little guy...

This doorway marks the enterance to the dead. In fact, it says that very thing on the plaque above the doorway. "Arrête, c'est ici l'empire de la Mort", which means, "Stop, this is the empire of death". Most people ignore this sign and go right on in. I mean, what are the dead going to do about it? I guess this is a very dramatic way of saying "Stop (unless you paid your $40), this is the empire of death".

Once you go through this doorway, things get wierd fast. The walls become tigher, the roof becomes lower, and a muffled funk permeates the air. Also the walls are made of skulls. All around are skulls. Skulls to the right of you, skulls to the left of you, and, well, that's about it. If you like skulls, then this place would probably appeal to you. There are also a bunch of other bones. Like leg bones and arm bones and stuff. I didn't see any rib cages or hip bones, but they've got to be there somewhere. Here's a picture of me and some of the afore mentioned skulls.

I think that skull on the left is all that's left of Harry Potter. That's what happens when you practice witchcraft kids.

The problem with the catacombs is that you can't take pictures with a flash anymore because it melts the bones. Honest. The flash makes the bones fall apart. This wouldn't be a problem except that you are 60 feet below the streets of Paris and light is at a premium. So all these pictures are hard to see. But I can't stress enough that if there was enough light, you would see nothing but skulls.

In case you forgot where you were, there are also a lot of stone tablets all over the place with cheerful little motivational statments carved into them.

This one says "Where is death? Ever in the future or the past, Once here, already gone". Cheers!

Here's another...

This one is in latin. I don't know what it says. Something about death I suspect.'s a good one....

This plaque is spooky. It says something, but I'm not sure exactly what it is. The general idea is that this is the massive pile of bones where the body of Marie Antoinette and her hubby were thrown. Also somewhere in there is Robespierre. They all look the end in the same.

As might be guessed this place is suspected of being haunted. You might tend to agree, or you might dismiss such things as childish, depending on how attuned you are to the supernatural. I think it's haunted. If there was going to be a place that was haunted, why not this place? Skulls are basically condos for ghosts. Many people have taken pictures like the following that feature "unexplainable" crazyness.

There are many pictures like this, with odd flashes of white light standing in front of the skulls. I don't know why ghosts never really look like ghosts. Maybe this one really had to be somewhere, and we are just seeing it as it's chasing down a cab. I like to think that if they WERE ghosts, they were ghosts that are standing there ready to tell us their story about how they died. I bet a lot of them would involve the plague, which would get old after a few tales.

The story behind the catacombs is fairly simple. Paris ran out of room for the middle and lower class dead people. Having dead people laying around is a bit of an eyesore, so something needed to be done. A guy named Alexandre Lenoir noticed that several large prexisting rock quarries that had been constructed within the city were going to waste, and could probably serve as a final resting spot for a lot of people. And so, in 1786, the various parts of dead people started to be put in the abandoned quarries. This continued for quite a while. I'm not sure when it ended. Sometime in the 1800's I think. And there was no reason they had to just be thrown in a heap down there. Why not stack them in an artistic way? You would be surprised how much you can do with a couple of skulls.

As long as you are building a creepy place full of dead people, why not go the extra mile and carve creepy faces into the wall itself? Some people can't get enough of that sort of stuff. They're called teenagers.

At some point the roof of the cavern began to cave in. This was distressing to the people up above. It created these huge caverns right under the places where the living still went about their daily activities. This is what it looks like when you look up at the roofs of the caved-in parts.

This was scary for a whole different reason than the rest of the catacombs. Being squished is something that probably scares more people than not.

And so, then you leave the catacombs feeling an odd mixture of depression, fascination, and hungry. You climb the steps back out and very suddenly you are spit back out into living Paris.

I don't know who that guy is. He was just standing there. He doesn't play any role in this tale. Stop bugging me about him.

The tour of the catacombs covers only a tiny portion of the overall structure. There are miles of tunnels, each filled with bones and skulls and ghosts and stuff. I've heard that you can access these through sewage tunnels, and that games of soccer are sometimes played in the abandoned portions of the catacombs where the walls are practically lined with potential soccer balls. I, for one, would feel bad about using a skull as a recreational item (other than as a puppet in a hilarious play) but I'm not here to judge. Also, both the Nazi's and the French Resistance used the tunnels during WWII. I imagine that they tried their best to not run into each other.
And so this post ends. Go away.


Mrs. B. Roth said...

I want to nominate THIS post for the BEST something award!! WOW. I wanted to go to Paris for the art and maybe a croissant. BUT HOLY WOW!!! CATACOMBS, baby. Yeah ... That has got to be my FIRST stop. Thank you, Thank you for this super important and brilliantly written post. Best Something Ever!

Dan said...

That is a really creepy place. It doesn't look like what I thought it would. Hollywood has deceived me again. Stupid Indiana Jones.

Cheetah said...

After reading it over, it appears to be full of spelling and gramatical errors. Sorry. Glad you liked it.

Dan, I was also expecting an Indiana Jones experience. Instead I got an AFI concert experience. Still, a neato place.

Katy & Mike said...

In a strange twist of fate, the joke on the Laffy Taffy I was eating as I sat down to read this post went as follows:

Q: What is a parasite?
A: Something you see in Paris.

I thought it was very appropriate.

Less appropriately, the other joke was:

Q: What would you do without your memories?
A: Forget.

Matt W. from Muskogee, Oklahoma will grow up to be the worlds most depressing comedian.

Cheetah said...

That joke about forgetting is really sad. Matt W. will be a great comedian, but only for the Insaine Clown Possie.

Anonymous said...

This is my second stop on the tour of your blog. I was expecting less skulls. I don't know why, I just was.

What I got was more skulls.

Yay bonus skulls.

Bonnie the Boss said...

I have often said that if I ever get to Paris, this is one of the first things I want to see.
If you wonder why I am stalking you today, it is because I am sick, in bed. I do have a delightful Clive Cussler novel to read, but for now, it is you.

Ash Kirk said...

Hey did you find it creepy in there I'm not a believer in ghosts and would like to experience the catacombs however I'm not sure if I'd be freaked out

The Hill said...

Are you sure that 'toilet' wasn't in fact a Futurama-esque suicide booth?

The Hill said...

I saw some catacombs once, in Malta. It was the freakiest moment of my life - terrifying, but cool.

I wrote about it here
but I also wasn't allowed to use a flash so the pictures are all lame.