As I was cycling towards Paris, visiting it for the first time, I was thinking about all the things I have to see there. The Eiffel Tower, the Louvre Museum, the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs-Élysées, Notre Dame, it was a long list!
And then my host added another item to the list - the Catacombs of Paris. Unofficial ones! That sounded forbidden enough for me to agree to a full-day excursion to dark, dank, underground tunnels.
We quickly jumped into the tunnel through a manhole in the middle of a street and my host started telling me the history of the catacombs.
The catacombs used to be underground quarries in the 18th century. At the end of that century the problem of overcrowded cemeteries came up and the inappropriate placing of dead bodies in churchyards caused the spread of various infectious diseases. So the people decided to remove the bones discretely to the abandoned underground halls.
Today, only a small section of the catacombs is open to the public. The rest is strictly forbidden and the French police regularly patrols the halls in search of offenders who pay a fine if they get caught.
In spite of that, the unofficial section of the catacombs is very ‘’lively’’. Squeezing through the halls, in some parts so narrow that we had to crawl and in other covered with deep water, I saw a very active subculture that had developed 20 meters beneath Paris. People who go there are called cataphiles.
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Catacombs of Paris, Part two
Some halls lead to widenings which have been turned into small rooms, with stone benches and desks and candles placed all around.One of such rooms was converted into a cinema, with movie characters painted all over the walls. You can see Charlie Chaplin, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Dirty Harry and many others. Another one was converted into a library. You can find various books, take them to read and leave your own. However, it is a bit empty now, because humidity has destroyed many books.
One spacious section consisting of several rooms is made into ‘’The Beach’’ a place where parties are held every weekend. Although it is impressive, I liked this part the least because of the smell of urine, cigarettes and alcohol.
Cataphiles are also inclined to redecorating the catacombs by stone-carving or masonry so in one place they have built a regular little castle.
That castle was the end of my sightseeing tour and I have to admit, after a whole day spent underground, I couldn’t wait to get out into the sun.
And the bones? Yes, I’ve seen them too. Hundreds, thousands of bones lying in piles on the floor and several skulls arranged on a stone shelf. Allegedly there are bones of several French Revolution leading figures. Whether a leading figure or an ordinary man, seeing their bones cast away, all mixed, exposed for others to touch and destroy them, made me feel anxious and brought up that eternal question - what happens with us when we close our eyes for the last time?’’