Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Creepy Paris. The Catacombs.

In the Catacombs, beneath the streets of Paris.

W     
   e spent part of our afternoon on a tour of the Catacombs that lie beneath the streets of Paris.

We arrived via metro, exiting at the Denfert-Rochereau stop. It wasn't hard to figure out where the Catacombs were located - we just had to follow the long ling around to the front entrance. It was almost 3:40p when we arrived. The tour was slated to begin at 4pm and we were suppose to arrive 15 minutes before then but I knew Z was hungry. We needed to get some food into him.  I had no idea where to go get fast food.  There was a McDonald's and for most 20-somethings, they would have made a beeline to the place but not for this 20-something.  He is not a fast food kid.


Luckily, we found a pedestrian only street that was filled with food places - mainly to buy and cook at home.  On any other day, I would have strolled and checked everything out but today I was on a mission to find cooked food that could be carried out.

I spotted some rotisserie chicken under a counter.  It wasn't the best looking of chicken but it would have to do.  I got a quarter of chicken with some potatoes for about 4.70 euro.  Z found a stoop to sit on and quickly took a few bites.  I didn't want him to gulp the food down but I was keeping a close watch on time.  I figured if we made it back to the front entrance by 3:55p, it would be okay.


When we got back to the entrance, there was already a crowd gathered - they were all part of the same tour we were on.  For some reason, I thought it was just Z and I and a guide but it turned out to be a group of about 20 people.  Our guide, Anna, came by and crossed our names off the list.  This was a *skip the line* tour so she had to do the needful to get us in ahead of all those people who were already standing in line.  Too bad for them :-)


Before we headed inside, she told us that it would be about 130 or steps down to the bottom via a set of narrow spiral steps.  To avoid getting dizzy, she recommended we not look down.

She handed each of us our tickets and we made our way in.

 The stairs were narrow indeed - only wide enough for one person to descend at a time.  I was right behind Z.  I have no issues with going up and down stairs but even so, I was glad there was a rail to hold on to.



There was a small room at the bottom of the steps.  It was damp, chilly and dark.  I'm glad I came dressed prepared for the walk which would take about an hour.

Once everyone had made their way down, Anna proceeded to tell us a bit about the Paris underground in general and then more about the catacombs.  Since I had already done my pre-trip reading, I was already familiar with everything she was telling us about.  The one bit of interesting trivia was the black line that marked the path.  In the days before electric lights, the tunnel engineers had  marked the ceiling of the tunnel with a thick black line to indicate the direction of the path to go in.  The line could easily be seen by the light of a hand held lantern.


The first section we were in was definitely part of the underground; we weren't quite at the Catacombs yet.

Anna stopped the group to mention that as we walked along, we would see dates that were carved into the rock walls.

Back when Louis XVI was king, he formed a commission to evaluate the state of the Parisian undergound as areas above ground had started to sink. The head of the commission was an architect named Charles-Axel Guillaumot.

Guillaumot set about mapping the entire underground and every underground chamber was assigned a name that corresponded to the street above.  He then chiseled his signature into the rock wall, a letter "G" and date.

Following in the tradition of Guillaumot, engineers working on the mapping project also inscribed their names, order number and year(s) they were on the project.


The underground really is a labyrinth of paths and chambers.   Some sections even have street names!



Anna assured us we couldn't get lost but I had no intention of testing out that proclamation.  Even though I often lag behind because I'm taking photos, I kept close to the group today.

We soon got to stretch of the underground that features a series of carvings.  The first was pretty amazing.  Apparently, an accident occurred that that resulted in the death of a group of minerss.  As a tribute to them, their fellow miners carved a replica of their home district, the Quartier de Cazerne.


The next set of carvings were created by a former quarry inspector named Decure.  He recreated a miniature of France's Port-Mahon fortress.


Then it was on to the quarryman's footbath.  Unfortunately, I was standing too far back to hear what Anna was saying about this pool.  Not sure why the quarrymen needed a footbath but later I read that subsequent to it being used as a footpath, it was used by the miners to mix cement in.


Sad to see that there's modern day graffiti down here too.  Here, in the catacombs, I much prefer the old inscriptions to stuff penned with ink pens and magic markers.


The path led us up and down as we moved towards the catacombs.  I kept wondering where they were.


We also passed by a small exhibit of some of the fossilized shells that were found in the underground - another reminder of the ancient geology of this region.


Then....we arrived at the entrance to the catacombs.  The warning was clear.

“Stop! This is the empire of death”

On the other side of the entry were mounds of bones, lining the path, for as far as my eyes could see!  What a creepy sight!  Before we entered, Z told me that he had taken an anatomy course in school but I didn't need an anatomy lesson to identify all the skulls and femurs that lined the exterior side of each wall of bones.  Apparently, the smaller skeletal bones are tossed into the middle of the wall.


Someone with a slightly twisted sense of art even used several skulls to create a heart shape on the wall.


Signs indicate the cemetery and year that the remains were transferred into the Catacombs.



Standing back a distance, you get a better effect of the mass of bones that make up the walls that line the paths in the Catacombs.  I seen skulls and bones on walls but never anything like this!


Whoever moved the bones here most certainly took time and effort to stack them up very neatly.  I don't believe there's any mortar holding the bones together so they had to carefully arrange and balance everything.  What a job that must have been!




The dead who were buried in Cimetière des Innocents (The Holy Innocents' Cemetery) were the first to be moved into the Catacombs.  It took several years to complete the undertaking, especially since the work of moving the skeletons could only be done at night.



I don't know how thick the walls of bones are but the bones were stacked within inches of the tunnel ceiling.  Seeing the bones was just another reminder to me that when I die, I want to be cremated - I don't want to end up, even if it's not intended, to be a tourist attraction somewhere down the ages!


Oddly enough, we came across something that looked like a tomb.  On the front was a verse from a poet named Nicolas Gilbert (1751-1780) who apparently is buried somewhere else but for some reason, someone decided there should be a cenotaph here with his words inscribed on it.  Later I read that the this is actually a structural reinforcement of some sort - perhaps to prevent the tunnel from collapsing.


More typically, you would see pillars used as structural elements.


As expected, there were quite a few commemorative plaques to the soldiers who,= died during the French Revolution and other combat wars and are buried here.



As I walked along the path, I could occasionally feel a drop of water hit the top of my head.  I'm guessing it was ground water seeping down through the rock.  In places I noticed it was damp enough for mold to grow on the bones.  Ewww....


One of the most well know *landmarks* in the Catacombs is this barrel shaped collection of skulls and bones.


On the way out of the Catacombs was a sign in Latin.  Roughly translated, it says. "He who has learnt to despise life fears not death."  I get chills running up and down my spine whenever I utter this phrase to myself.  For some reason, it's a bit of a creepy sentiment to me.


The next place we went to was very interesting.  I had to read up on it afterwards to really fully understand what I was seeing.

The sign read, "Cloche de Fontis" which translates to "Subsidence Bell".   All the time we've been in the catacombs, the ceiling has been fairly low.  Taller members in our group would often have to bend down slightly to make their way along.  Here, the ceiling was high up but based on it's outline, it was obvious it was not something that was deliberately carved out by a human being.


I found an excellent article, written by Dr. Jack Share on the Paris Catacombs that is posted on a blog called "Written in Stone...seen through my lens".  In in Dr. Share explains what a Cloche de Fontis is.    In fact, if you are at all interested in the Catacombs, I highly recommend that you read his article.  It makes the Catacombs even that much more fascinating when you learn scientific facts!

A subsidence is a type of a sinkhole.  A fontis is a cavity that develops when the roof of a subterranean gallery caves in. A cloche is the rounded top of the rubble pile.  The image, from Dr. Share's blog post, illustrates the definition.

Image by Dr. Jack Share (From Written in Stone...seen through my lens)

What we were looking was the rounded top of the subsidence -  essentially,  a stage in the development of a sinkhole.  Had it somehow not been reinforced to prevent further collapse, then it would have reached the surface and swallowed up a section of the city!  There was a date, 1875, painted on the apex of the rounded top.  If we go in line with the general reason of why dates were inscribed on the walls of the Catacombs, I would then assume that this was the year the sinkhole was reinforced.  In fact, there were several sinkholes discovered between 1874 and 1875.  Paris was already quite large city by that time and how horrible would it have been had all of them collapsed!!

After this, our visit was over.  It was 80+ steps, up a narrow spiral staircase, to get back up to the surface.  It took us a few seconds to readjust our eyes to daylight.


From here, Z led us back to our neighborhood.  As usual, I just walked, took in the view and took lots of photos.

If I ever get to live in Paris, I definitely would want a place with a wrought iron balcony.  Such an iconic sight in this city!


Modern day Paris offers charging stations for your electric car!

There is nothing vacuumed sealed here!  It's all nicely presented, costs a small fortune to buy but so worth the delicious taste!

Fromage de tête....a favorite of mine along with pâté de tête. Tête is the French word for "head" as in what sits atop your shoulders.

Chocolate mousse cakes.  Seriously beautiful to look at and decadent to eat.  But, who would ever want a brownie if you can have this?

So many food places, so little stomach room so I have to carefully pick and choose.  Today, it was the "ouefs en gelêe (egg in aspic) that caught my eye.  They came in a little plastic container.  On the bottom of the container were were a few small, poached shrimp and some chives.  All around was a slice of raw, cured (but not smoked) salmon.  In the middle was a perfectly poached egg.  Binding everything together was the gelatin - perhaps flavored with a consommê of some sort.  I bought one of the salmon and one of the ham.  The ham version had tiny bits of veggies instead of the shrimp and chives.


Update:  September 25.    We finally had our ouefs en gelêe today.  Absolutely scrumptious!!  The yolk was still runny - perfectly poached egg.


Back on Rue Mouffetard, the poissoneries aka seafood shops that were closed yesterday and open today.  It was late in the day so business was slow.  For the most part, the seafood looked fresh and of course, there quite a few things sold here that we don't get at home.  For example, whelks. I have never seen one let alone eaten one but I am such a Francophile when it comes to food that I am most certain that in the hands of a skilled French chef or even a skilled homecook, whelks will be cooked to utter perfection and taste sublime!  One day, I will have to try some!


One of the prettiest buildings on Rue Mouffetard thanks to the murals.

For dinner, we just went to one of the bistros on Rue Mouffetard.  On the outside and inside, this place looked liked a rustic restaurant you'd find somewhere in the French countryside.  Unfortunately, the meal was not good.   Z had the pork chop and I had the steak which I ordered medium rare but it was almost raw.

His first bowl of French onion soup which didn't look like French onion soup to me.

Z's pork chop on the top, my steak on the bottom, and the sorbet on the left

Sadly, the best part of the meal was the blackcurrant sorbet I had for dessert.  The flavor was excellent! Unfortunately, the delicious sorbet was not enough to lure us back for another meal.

Back in the apartment, we shared a treat.  When we were in Lafayette Gourmet, I had bought two eclairs from L'Eclair de Génie, a patisserie owned by Christophe Adam, who specializes in eclairs.  Like Pierre Hermé, Christophe Adam is part of the vanguard of modern pâtissier who use traditional pastry techniques applied to new, often exotic flavors and ingredients.  The result is something familiar looking but very different tasting.  Adam's eclairs look like eclairs and the choux pastry tastes as it should but the flavorings and toppings are a dramatic departure from the traditional crème pâtissière filling with chocolate ganache topping.


After our after dinner snack which we really didn't need considering we had already had dessert, it was a quiet night.   Like last night, Z went to bed early which means before midnight.  He definitely needs the rest and I hope that he gets better with each day.

Tomorrow, we're going to sight see in earnest - Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower, Louvre.....

Our studio apartment.  The door leads to the bathroom.  The chairs face the TV and the front windows.

Good night from Paris!