Beneath the cobbled walkways of the picturesque Paris which we all seem to romanticise, lies the world’s biggest open grave. My knowledge of the Catacombs barely existed outside of the fact that I knew it was there, until a recent horror film, As Above, So Below, sparked a newfound interest in the melancholic museum of the dead. I figured that, whilst my exploration of Paris to-date had been a wonderful amalgamation of beautiful architecture, equally beautiful artwork, exquisite dining, and a vibrant street festival or two, I wanted to take this chance to see what gives this city so much more depth; a delve deeper, beneath the sheath of glitter and glamour.
The Catacombs also gave me a chance to wander around a part of the city I had yet to visit, a good couple of miles into the Left Bank of the Seine, in the 14th arrondissement. It seems I can now navigate my way around the districts here without the need of a map – an indispensable skill, and one which I still don’t seem to possess back in York.
The first thing that struck me when I arrived at the Catacombs was the size of the queue. Keep in mind, I’d queued for the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower before already, so being in an Alton Towers-esque line of people was no big deal by now. This queue devoured any other I’d been in in my life, not just in Paris. It also seemed to have devoured the building itself, as you could barely spot the entrance behind the small village of humans standing in front of it.
*THREE HOURS LATER*
At long last, a glimmer of hope grew within me as the queue moved around the final corner and I was within ten metres of the entrance.
The vivacity and vibrancy of the outside world was swiftly dimmed. As I stepped inside, colour was drained, noise became virtually non-existent, and the Paris of the overground was diluted and distilled, and I drifted into a pensive mood as I descended sixty-six feet into the dwellings of the dead.
Fixed upon a stone arch underpass was the eerie inscription;
‘Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la mort.’
(Stop! This is the empire of the dead.)
I stepped through, and into an image that is difficult to put into words. The remains of six million humans were stacked neatly, lining the walls of the tomb and looking almost too akin to a film set, or a pre-decorated cavern that existed as a Halloween venue. But the reality behind the desensitising volume of skulls and other bones, was that this was an actual tomb. Around me, despite the sick contrast of their groomed and manicured arrangement, lay six million dead people; a figure that’s all too familiar, as thoughts of the Holocaust begin to swirl around in your mind.
After the forty-minute walk through the maze of men, women and children, I ascended into the warmth and glow of Parisian daytime.
The experience was a unique one, and it was definitely worth the queuing time to be able to see the city from such a different perspective.