Paris- the dead centre of France
When I went to Paris last week I confidently expected that I might die there. The heat was due to be quite extreme and indeed it was; hotter than predicted, the day time temperatures reached 39 degrees C(that’s 102, F) and because Paris is not only a city but a city built largely of white/beige limestone, the heat reflected back on itself like a series of energy mirrors and made the streets unendurably hot.
However, there was one cool place to be and that was underneath the city. Unregarded by most, there are hundreds of miles of tunnels beneath the city formed by the quarrying of limestone. Leaving aside those used for sewers and water, there are also the catacombs. I read up before I went, but I don’t think anything really prepared me for the experience. It blew my mind and that of many of the kids I took with me.
The background is this. In 1786, it became clear that the city was running out of land and especially that of the cemeteries. As a fairly ancient city, the scale of the problem was immense and not knowing quite what else to do, the order was given to exhume the remains in the many cemeteries and re-inter them in the tunnels beneath the city. This was done with steady speed and over some years the bones were dug up and transferred to the tunnels, paying no regard to keeping skeletons intact. Piles of bones six feet high were set up in alcoves in the tunnels and then mortared in place to keep them there.
Many were placed in macabre patterns and carved plaques of quotes in Latin and French were added to some to make various moral and philosophical points. The lighting down here is low and flash photography is forbidden, hence the poor quality of my pictures. Our bags were searched as we left to ensure we had stolen no gruesome souvenir. While the remains of between 5 and 6 million individuals are stored here, it wouldn’t be long before the bones started to become less if people were allowed to take them away.
Stepping out into the heat again, I was struck by the contrast between the silent cool beneath and the seething, noisy infernal city above and it stayed with me all day. Our bones are what our bodies leave behind but what do our souls, our spirits leave when our bodies are no more?
Next- my impressions of The Impressionists