Tag Archives: Paris

The Catacombs of Paris, a City Built on Bones

catacombs
By PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Attracted by the title “The World’s 5 Creepiest Places,” we visited Amazing Facts and learned the identity of those five locations. They are:
♦ Mary King’s Close, sort of an underground dungeonesque city beneath the Royal Exchange. Looks like a good setting for a post-apocalyptic speculative fiction tale.
♦Chernobyl
♦The Manchac Swamp in Louisiana
♦Bran Castle, the supposed vampire’s home in Romania
♦the Catacombs of Paris, which pull in curious visitors all year round, not just at Halloween. Can you picture 185 miles of tubular underground boneyard? Says the seemingly nameless author:

Bones and skulls are stacked on either side of a narrow corridor like merchandise at a warehouse-a lot of merchandise. The air is close and cool, with just a hint of decomposition, and there’s rude graffiti dating from the French Revolution, mainly about the king and the feeble nobility.

National Geographic News offers a nifty little video of l’Ossuaire Municipal. These tunnels used to be quarries, and when the city’s many cemeteries became a serious health issue, somebody had the bright idea to fill up the one with the other. That must have been a public works project to rival the building of the pyramids! Full employment for all, but what a job, exhuming six million corpses and bundling up the bones for transport into the catacombs.

When exactly does a tunnel become a catacomb, anyway? Is it the presence of human remains that does the trick? And what was the methodology for cleaning the bones? It doesn’t seem biologically possible that they would have all been picked clean by nature. And how much grave robbing went on? Was it policed, or were the workers allowed to keep what they scavenged, as sort of an incentive package? Wondering about these matters, we consulted a few sources. The first being The Third Tower Up From the Road, where Kevin notes that the place “might suffice as a proxy for hell” and then goes on to say a whole lot more about it.

There’s also a lively account by a fellow named Jason, titled “Parisienne walkways. And big stacks-o-femurs,” that we found entertaining. And Lucky Larry passes along some solid advice for maximizing the experience, including the fact that touching the bones seems to be allowed, should you feel so inclined. He also confesses to not following orders:

After walking down 130 spiraling steps we lose the other 18 people in the group and ditch them, I think the catacombs should be viewed in some level of solitude so you can fully appreciate the experience – that means near silence and as few people as possible it also seems more respectful.

What we’d like to know is: Are the Paris catacombs the best in their class? Or would anyone recommend a superior ossuary?

photo courtesy of ricardo.martins, used under this Creative Commons license

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The Travel Writer Scavenger Hunt

statuesVienna
By PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

In the Contra Costa Times, Ann Tatko-Peterson, who writes for several publications in the San Francisco Bay area, set forth the rules for the Great Road Trip Scavenger Hunt, which incidentally it’s not too late to join. The concept is while you’re on a vacation trip, find each of 20 items on a list, and take a picture of it with at least one member of your scavenger hunt team included in the photo. The beauty part is that this search isn’t even limited to the continental United States. Here’s how the foreign travel exception works:

From past experience, we’ve learned that some items on our list are very difficult to find when traveling overseas. For all those venturing outside of the United States, you can substitute up to three items on the main list with items from the special list for overseas travelers.

So, if your trip is inside the USA, some of the mandatory items are a town square clock, a double-decker bus, a real old-time outhouse, an outdoor pay phone, an artwork made entirely of edible food, and a member of your team assisting a street performer, which we’ll talk about a little later in this post. If your travels take you outside the country, the possible substitutions include a castle tower and a building that started out as something else and was converted into a hotel.

While reading The Third Tower Up From the Road, we took notes and, working backwards, invented the imaginary Travel Writer Scavenger Hunt, a competition which Kevin Dolgin would have won handily if these items were on its list, because he’s seen them all and told us about them in his book:

a 27-hole golf course
a village with a population of one
the door to Hell
sacred deer
the world’s best tobacco
a fortune-telling rabbit
fried kites
a nargile
a smugglers’ cave
Buddha’s nostril
a frisbee decorated with a cannabis leaf
a 400-year-old spice market
an equine poop chute
a clove of garlic grown in the year 500 BC
salty licorice, chestnut beer, octopus balls, smoked tea, boiled duck embryos

and best of all…a human statue

statueFinlandActually, the world is well-supplied, some would say over-populated, with living statues. Kevin describes the area near the Pompidou Center in Paris as a hotbed of human statue non-activity, and discusses the ethics of wearing a mask. But it’s the Las Ramblas sector of Barcelona, which seems to be Human Statue World Headquarters, that really brings out his descriptive ardor. There he saw people dressed up like Julius Caesar, Satan, Mickey Mouse, and Che Guevara, and several attired as Egyptian mummies, all holding very still. His enthusiasm for a certain golden angel is extreme. His favorite, however, is

[…]a skinny guy with a little Leninesque beard and glasses, all painted gun-metal gray and sitting on the rail of a subway station. He’s very metallic. He also doesn’t move, whereas the less artistic human statues tend to ham it up for picture-snapping tourists.

Which is where the notion of interacting with one of these outdoor artists comes into play, as we promised a few paragraphs ago. To fulfill the requirements of the Great Road Trip Scavenger Hunt, it might not be necessary to let a mime make a fool of you, or to hold some street performer’s chain saw or flaming torch. It might be enough simply to entice a living statue to pretend to whisper in your ear.

Vienna statues photo courtesy of Allspice1 , used under this Creative Commons license; Finland statue photo courtesy of hans_s , used under this Creative Commons license