Sunday, 14 July 2013

Paris' underground beauty

Given its reputation, you expect Paris to always be looking its best: beautiful boulevards lined with fancy facades alongside well-tended gardens and streets.

But it seems the city's decorative order is more than just skin deep.

Welcome to the Paris Catacombs
After stepping down 130 steps (20 metres) from a city street, my friend and I descend into the Paris Catacombs, one of the most ordered collections of skulls and bones you're ever likely to find (should you ever actually be looking for such a thing).

Walls of neatly stacked bones and skulls

This is the final resting place for the remains of about six million Parisians that were gradually transferred here from 1780s onwards as the graveyards above were being closed because of public health concerns.

During the French Revolution, which began just a few years after the Paris Catacombs became an ossuary, some Parisians were buried directly in the catacombs.

The disused quarry tunnels became an underground ossuary in the 1780s
Over the centuries many cities have struggled with what to do with their dead at some point or another.  For Paris, the kilometres of disused quarry tunnels under the city provided an ideal storage space.

With the remains of six million Parisians you are never really alone down here

The Paris Catacombs is a maze of long, dark and narrow passageways, with a two kilometre section open to the public.  Though this can feel slightly longer when strolling along in semi-darkness.

Walls of femurs with a decorative line of skulls
Illuminated in the low light are neatly stacked piles of femurs and skulls, forming decorative walls along the passageways.

Occasionally we pass a locked steel gate, behind which were further tunnels of bones stretching off into the darkness.

Decoratively macabre
Paris' "dead centres" (sorry, dad joke), like Pere Lachaise cemetery, are renown for their peaceful beauty.   It seems this philosophy has been extended underground too.

Paris is not alone in deploying bones for decoration, with Kutna Hora in the Czech Republic probably taking the gold medal in this category.

But the Paris Catacombs aren't too far behind.  Apparently it was a few decades after the first remains were brought here that someone decided to arrange the in bones in a more decorative fashion.   It's a striking, if not a little macabre, result.

More walls of skulls
Some arrangements are more "artistic" than others, with one wall featuring a heart shape formed from skulls.   I note this home decor trend has yet to catch on.  

Every bone has its place
At the end of the trek through the catacombs, we emerge back into daylight on an ordinary Paris street.

Strangely, it's not the street from which we first entered.  Much like when we were in the tunnels below, we have no idea where we are.

We leave the Paris Catacombs a little disturbed and a little lost, but also a little appreciative of Paris' underground beauty.

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