Bonjour! Today I am writing aboard the French high-speed train, the TGV. This past weekend I joined a large group bound for Paris. The group traveled there for an EDM concert I was not interested in, but I decided it was fitting that I venture to the city of love right around Valentine’s day.
We picked a short list of the top sights we wanted to see and went about tackling them. The group went to their concert on Thursday night when we arrived. Consequently, we got off to a later start than I’d have liked on Friday. Around 10:30AM, the guys were trying to recover from the night before with lots of coffee at a local cafe. We hopped on the Metro and rode it downtown towards our first destination – the Catacombs of Paris. First however, people wanted to get a little food in them, so we dropped into a place near the entrance. I ordered a nicely toasted flatbread featuring ham, cheese, and egg. Naturally people tried the crepes, and several ordered even more coffee. One of the guys said he knew a little French, but consequently failed to be able to order much of anything when he said he’d keep the French menu. The waiter had a good laugh and we all poked fun, but we were mindful that none of us could do any better.
We left the restaurant and made for the catacombs, or rather, the line to enter the catacombs. They control how many visitors are allowed down at once, and the result is a long line to get in. It wasn’t so terribly long in winter but I could imagine a much more lengthy wait in the summer time. We stood in line for about 2 hours, laughing and joking about silly things. About 1.5 hours into our wait we learned there was an American right behind us who worked at Disney in Orlando and had just been to Disneyland Paris. Someone in our group got pretty chatty with her and her French friend, only to later learn they were 19 and 17. Ouch. We gave him a lot of crap for that one.
Eventually our cold wait came to an end and we were welcomed to step down below the streets of Paris into the catacombs. A long spiral descent brought us to a well-lit introductory series of rooms which had some plaques providing geological and historical context, but nothing interesting on display. These rooms led off into a dark tunnel. As soon as we stepped through that tunnel the atmosphere and mood seemed to change. We were led into dimly lit corridors made of carved stone, a dramatic contrast to the brightly lit whitewashed rooms we had exited. A few more plaques described the methods of construction and the tunnels’ original purpose. While the underground labyrinth was neat, the network of tunnels was not what brought us here. We snaked our way through them until we reached the first of the exciting rooms – one of the mass graves.
The catacombs were re-purposed as land around Paris became scarce. With an ever-increasing demand for burials, cemeteries around the city were filling up, and the space was badly needed for further development. Initially, graves were dug up and bones were just strewn carelessly underground in the network of tunnels. As the underground burial sites became increasingly popular for visitors, efforts were made to clean up the remains and create displays with them. We walked through hundreds of years’ of remains, dotted with the occasional sign commemorating events where people had died – battles, pandemics (epidemics?), or other disasters. Someone in the group mentioned that 6,000,000 were buried in the catacombs altogether, although only a portion of the tunnel network is open to visitors. Some people in our group did not react well to seeing all the remains up-close. One guy almost had to be escorted outside (and had someone there comforting him after he’d gotten upset), and a trainee’s girlfriend who had just flown over from the US was silent and wouldn’t say much of anything until she bought some sage to burn to “ward off evil spirits”. I did not get a bad vibe at all from the catacombs. Maybe it’s just because I am not very superstitious but I dd not feel disturbed or upset at seeing the remains at all. These people had died over the course of hundreds of years due to all sorts of different causes – death in these cases is unfortunate but I took it more as a sign of our inevitable mortality. I felt very differently than I had at Auschwitz just a week before.
We finished winding through the chambers and returned to street level. Some folks dipped into the gift shop and we planned a route to the next destination – Notre Dame cathedral. After another short subway ride, we emerged on a small island right in the heart of Paris, in the middle of the Seine. Notre Dame stands where an old Roman pagan temple once stood – and it is an instantly recongizable church. With twin towers, large stained glass windows, flying buttresses, gargoyles, and high pointed arches, Notre Dame may be the best example of Gothic architecture I have seen yet. We took a little time to admire the front fascade, then hopped in a short line to enter the cathedral.
Inside, we were greeted by a cavernous space – a huge nave bathed in colored lights from the windows high up on the sides of the church. The church was a masterwork of art and engineering – being one of the earliest Gothic churches that was this ambitious. The building took over 200 years to erect. We made our way around the perimeter of the cross-shaped building, taking in the sights and ambiance of the structure. After a long leisurely walk through the cathedral, we stepped outside and circled the structure to admire all of the details. Gargoyles doubling as rain-spouts look down on you as you walk by, and pointed spires stand sentinel over Paris. Notre Dame is an icon of the city, and one I was very glad to see.
Leaving the cathedral, we crossed over the Seine and headed for the Latin district, named for the preferred language of intellectuals hundreds of years ago. Here, new ideas were always being challenged and revolutions were born. We found a spot for dinner right along the river and headed inside. The restaurant was perhaps a little touristy but I was able to have some delicious duck breast and we enjoyed joking around with our server. We ate early by French standards and so had the restaurant pretty much to ourselves until the end of the meal, when tables around us started to fill up.
By the time we finished dinner most of our group was pretty tired. Everyone was worn out from the wait at the catacombs, and not everyone had had a full night’s sleep like I had. We made our way back to the hostel and had a (relatively) calm night, with people engaging in moderate drinking and only a few people staying up past 1AM. I didn’t drink at all and got to sleep just after midnight, I figured we had a big day tomorrow and wanted to be ready for tomorrow’s adventure – more on that later. Until then,
Best wishes and safe travels everyone,