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Saturday, 6 September 2014

My week in Paris: Day 2, the Day of the Dead!

Hello again! For our second day in Paris, Juliette and I explored the Père Lachaise Cemetery and the Catacombs of Paris! Calling it the day of the dead, it was a day full of exploration, solemn respect, and interesting visuals. So come along!

The Père Lachaise Cemetery is world famous, being the largest in Paris (110 acres), and features the tombstones of Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde among countless others.

It was the perfect season and weather to be visiting the cemetery. It was late summer, almost Autumn, and the weather was overcast with light rain. While I think it odd to state that someone enjoys their time while walking through a cemetery or catacomb, I do admit that the time was well spent and that I did find positive time for reflection in the experience.

There were so many different types of monuments and tombstones. Occasionally, there would be repetition, but more so in the influence of style rather than a blatant copy. I have not spent a lot of time in cemeteries, but I am more accustomed to the simple, standard North American type of tombstone, so seeing such variety was both novel and impressive, to me.

The above photo makes it seem as if the trees are the guardians of the dead. Are the trees protecting the dead, or us?

One of my favourite photos

You truly felt like you were in a necropolis, a city of the dead. The monuments were more like tiny houses and huts in a village, and the varying levels of landscaping gave the impression that this was a community. While the paths were easy to follow, it is easy to see how one could get lost among the tombs, reliving the memories of those long gone. The majority of residents had been there for 200 years, but there were some new tenants, as recent as 2013. Juliette and I did not get a chance to see Jim Morrison's or Oscar Wilde's tombstones, as we were just merely walking around, but we both found the cemetery to be a beautiful place, nevertheless.

For the second half of the day, we took a metro train across the city to the entrance to the Catacombs! I was very excited about this, having heard about them and looking forward to being part of the experience.

Word of advice concerning visiting the catacombs: arrive early. While the queue was moving quickly, it was still a 2 hour wait to get inside.

The entrance starts off as any museum would, with signs depicting the history of the site. The first few plaques describe the geological history which went into creating the gypsum rock which underlies much of Paris. There were too many people in this starting area for my liking, so I did not get a picture of these plaques, but for those curious, it was a simple, though long-working action involving the repeated deposit of minerals.

Descending down a spiral staircase, you arrive in what appears to be your grandmother's basement, or at least that's how I saw it, and smelled it. The early part had the same musty smell as any classic basement I've ever been in.

As you continued walking, you began to make the transition from basement to catacomb. The history of the catacombs is fascinating, but the short version is that burial grounds within the city limits suffered some issue with collapse and lack of room, so they were connected with other burial grounds, and eventually, with the mining tunnels of Paris. As such, the tour-able area was quite extensive, yet only covered 1/600th of the total area of the catacombs and mining tunnels of Paris.
A bath.

It was forbidden to use flash photography in the catacombs, so some of our pictures came out rather more macabre than intended, but that's likely a good thing.

Stop! Here lies the Empire of Death
The walls quickly changed from brick to bone, mortar to skull...
In memory of the ancestors, I believe

All along the way, there were signs posted to remember certain people, or to especially pay consideration to the many dead. It was a place demanding your respect.

When you consider that every skull is a person, not to mention the bones forming the walls, the number of deceased was truly overwhelming. I have not read many fictional stories concerning the dead of Paris rising, but the idea would be truly horrifying by sheer number alone. If anyone has any recommendations, by all means, let me know of some good stories to read!

Some of the miners carved these little monuments.

Nearing the end of the path, the walls began to drip, and the floor became wet and muddy. While the earlier part of the tour seemed long inactive, this part seemed active and ready to take on more. Kind of a foreboding thought, but it was the right place for it.

The tour ended with a long climb up a spiral staircase, out onto a small side-street next to a shop selling all kinds of touristy baubles. I was a little disappointed by this, but it was reflective of the times we live in and some of the things I saw on the tour. While flash photography was forbidding, people were doing it anyway. Some of the skulls had writing on them and I heard stories of how theft was a common problem; why a random bone from the catacombs would be enticing, I am not sure. The tourist shop had t-shirts, mugs, beads, candles, all with little skulls on them. Placed a little farther than the exit, I might have thought it cute, as it was, I raised an eyebrow and continued onward.

However, the catacombs was quite the experience. Again, difficult to justify saying I had a great time, but Juliette and I enjoyed the walk through history, the solemnity of the place, and the sights, sounds, and smells of the catacombs. It was quite a walk, but if you're up for it, and can mind the queue, I would suggest seeing it for yourself.

That concludes our tour of the Day of the Dead in Paris. Stay tuned next time for the Louvre! Thanks for stopping by!

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