Paris the city of lights has its share of darkness – and this comes alive in the Catacombs of Paris.
I had one last weekend in Paris before returning to Fontainuebleau and had a choice between the Chateau du Vincennes, and the catacombs of Paris. I chose the latter. While I had seen several chateau’s before – catacombs still remain a rare sight.
So on a Sunday morning, right after my morning coffee, I picked up my Lonely Planet Paris guide and reached the Delfert – Rocheau metro station – the destination of the Catacombs. I was surprised to see how even though I had reached at about 10 30 am in the morning –as per the books’s recommendation-I was terribly late. The queue was so long that I had to wait straight until 2 pm to enter the catacombs. I guess this is because not more than 200 people can be inside the catacombs at one time. As for the remaining ones who were not inside in time – we remain stranded in line for hours! So I asked a friendly French chef who was behind me in the queue to hold my place while I ran to get a French croissant to keep me company. While the croissant was not bad, I still remain loyal to the Italian brioche.
Yet spending about a total of 5 hours for a visit to the catacombs is something I would still call worth the effort. The 5 hours are an investment because there are very few places in the world like the catacombs. Having the dead conjured in a world of art is by no feat something easy.
The Parisian catacombs were established in limestone quarries of the Montrouge Plain. Indiscriminate underground quarrying of limestone in Paris right from the end of the 12th century eventually made the structures above unstable, ultimately needing some concrete reinforcements to uphold the grand Parisian structures built above. But this is just one part of the story – that part which is largely ignored. The part which I found most interesting – That it is these structures below that keep the beautiful Parisian cathedrals, the Eiffel Tower and the lovely cafeterias above intact!
For the majority, the catacombs remain an artistic world of skulls and bones of parisians, including those several famous ones like the famous French renaissance writer François Rabelais who died in 1553. To me, the area that struck out most was the one that contained the bones of those who had sacrificed their life for the French Revolution. It was as though I was walking in the dark alleys of history, feeling in the most profound way – the ultimate sacrifice for a cause – a man’s life.
A bit about what the catacombs means to me. The catacombs signifies how the fundamentals – the base is what keeps anything on in life going.There were several things that struck out from my visit to the catacombs – it was the area from where the stone of the the Notre Dame cathedral came from, it had the remains of the people who had died in the French revolution and that it had a certain poetic rhythm to death. Yes, how art celebrated and brought beauty even so inherently dark – death. The last is what made me appreciate the encompassing nature of French art. Post the visit, a certain part of me felt that while Italian art celebrated life, French art especially post the 18th century, evolved even see emotion in what lies after life. It merged aspects of art, religion and death in an intriguing yet somnolent way.