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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Paris Underground

Tuesday 30 June.
This was our last full day in Paris. Since most of the museums are closed on Tuesdays we saved the catacombes for today. Apparently so did everyone else. When we got to the entry site the line was around the block. We decided to hop back on the RER a couple of stops and see Notre Dame.
Now, I know that Notre Dame (pronounced no-tra dahm, not no-ter daym) is probably the most famous church that we've visited in Paris, but it's really not impressive after seeing La Madeleine and St. Eustache. It was definitely more crowded and a lot more tourist driven.
The strangest thing for me though was that there was a mass going on while we were touring. There was an area that tourists were not supposed to walk through, and for the most part they didn't, but they weren't supposed to be talking or taking pictures with flash either, and they were doing that. I can't imagine that anyone who is a serious Catholic could get anything out of mass at a church like that.

We made our way back to the Denfert Rochereau stop to have another look at the line for Les Catacombes, which was still pretty long, but not as bad as it had been. Because of the size of the tunnels that are open to the public, there is a limit of 200 people in at any one time. On this day though they were only allowing about 150 in though. There's a counter where you buy the tickets to show how many people are down in the tunnels. We probably waited for about an hour, which wasn't bad while we were under the shaded areas but closer to the entrance there are no trees and the sun was high. We were in line behind a group of American dude bros that might have been college or high school age, it's hard for me to tell anymore. I was extremely happy when their tour guide held them up at the beginning of the tunnel and we were able to slink past.
The Catacombes have a very interesting history. Below the streets of Paris are many tunnels and passages, most of which were the result of mining beneath the city in the 1700s. Some are used for the metro and railroad, some for utilities, and some house the bones of thousands of transplanted dead. For the full story click on the link. Only a small portion of these tunnels are open to the public.
I've mentioned spiral staircases before, and this is where we ran across some of the most daunting stairs of them all. There are 130 stairs going down, which are not terrible. It is slightly dizzying but there are landings and you never feel closed in.
From beginning to end the catacombes are 1.7km which is just under a mile. the first third or so is the path to the actual grave sites. Here at the beginning the path begins to narrow and the ceiling dips low enough for taller people like myself to have to duck. The path is dark, lit only by small lamps along the way, and it twists and turns a bit. Eventually it opens up again and the ceiling becomes higher than expected. This is when you realize how far below ground you are. This area has brick arches and is actually very pretty. After this hall there are a couple more small hallways and then you enter the catacombes through a doorway with the following sign over it: Arrete! C'est ici L'Empire de la Mort which means: Stop! Here is the Empire of the Dead. Sounds creepy doesn't it? It's not. For one thing, this is where the tunnels open up and you no longer have to crouch (well for most of it at least). The bones are arranged as artfully as piles of fleshless human remains can be while still retaining the vestiges of respect. Each set is marked with the date and which cemetery they had been moved from.
The light is kept low, and flash photography is prohibited so it there are only a few opportunities for pictures. Apparently the dude bros, who caught up to and passed us toward the end, were all using their flashes. Not only disrespectful, but in a small dark space with slippery puddles of water everywhere, it's not safe to be blinding everyone within fifty feet of you either.
Right before the exit is a bell hole, which is a high ceilinged cave made by one of the quarry tunnels caving in. And here is where all shreds of respect for the dead disappear. Graffiti covers one entire wall. Why? I can only guess because people are not completely satisfied with simply experiencing something, or taking a picture to commemorate their adventures. No, humans, like puppies, have an urge to leave their mark where ever they go. Seriously, that is my scientific observation.

At the end there are 83 steps to return to street level. 83 does not seem like a lot of stairs but again we have a spiral staircase, the stairs are slightly higher than your average staircase and this is the narrowest and steepest climb I've ever made. Basically you take about 4 steps and you have rotated 360 degrees. I actually had to pause a few times in order to keep from getting dizzy. The stairs let out into what looks like a supply closet. There is a cupboard which has skulls sitting on it. These are likely confiscated from those who thought they would be clever and steal a souvenir. On the wall by the door is an emergency defibrillator which is really funny when you look at it, then really not funny when you realize that they probably have to use it more often than one might think.
Most of the pictures here are courtesy of my husband. His film camera was at an advantage here because he was able to manually set his shutter speed while I was playing around with various settings trying to take a decent non-blurred picture with a minimum of noise. That didn't much happen. I jokingly pick on him about his camera, but it's true that for those of us who don't have several thousand to spend, it really isn't possible to get the same results with digital. Though I should also note that I took more than twice the number of pictures that he did, and the processing fee alone for his pictures was more than my camera cost.
After this we went to a nearby cafe and had what may have been our most authentic French tourist meal which consisted of coffee, escargot in garlic sauce, 3 types of cheese and crusty bread, and a glass of wine. Apparently too there is a "cafe etiquette" that I dare say we did not follow very well. To be honest it is a little confusing as far as whether or not you are supposed to sit down, wait for a maitre de or just order at the bar.
With this the day was only half over but we had accomplished almost everything that we had come to Paris to do. I did miss out on the Rodin museum, but I was able to see some of his works around town.
We went back to the Louvre, which was closed, and took some pictures there. I bought a few pieces of chocolate at Maison Du Chocolat which were pretty good, though if I ever get back to San Francisco I'm going to have to find the place that had the truffle that was so good I almost cried.
We spent another evening at the bar and preparing ourselves for the flight to Rome. I also learned that my camera has a panoramic feature, but more on that in another blog, in another country...

Yes, this is the actual defibrillator, Jason took a picture of it.

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