Paris. November 17,2019. Day 2.
In a very small four bunker bedroom at the hotel Vintage Gare Du Nord, my eyes opened to stare at the bed above mine. I had not had much sleep, even though I was dead tired from all the walking the day before. This was in part due to the uncomfortable room and the cold weather, and in part due to my excitement for what I had planned for that day.
I woke up, still very drowsy and dead tired. The other bed pair was occupied with strangers I was never going to meet again, ever. I had talked to one of them last night, a Spanish guy who knew very little English, using google translate and had discovered he has come all the way from a remote part of Spain to attend a music festival. The other occupant was a lady who came in after I was semi asleep, so I never got to have an introduction. The bed above mine was empty.
I took a look from the big windows. It looked very cold outside and daylight was nascent. The view was nice, and I wondered how many travellers before me had woken up to the same image. I was just another entry in a very long list of those who had looked from the same window at the street outside.
I got ready quick. Temperature was negative outside so no bathing business (not that the cold was the deciding factor, wink wink 😉). It has to be told here that the washroom was smaller than what one gets in an airplane. I had to be careful with all the getting ready, for the slightest sound would disturb the other two sleepers in the room.
I checked out and started walking randomly, looking at the street ahead, taking in the city they call Paris. The wind was as cold as the heart of a betrayer friend, and the temperature could have easily been somewhere in -5 degrees. I had four layers of clothing on, and I braved away the wind, looking for what they call the “French breakfast” in one of the eateries.
I ended up eating at Burger King. Why? I do not care enough to explain. There was this guy from Bangladesh who could speak Hindi, although I tried to talk to him using all the few Bengali words I know, and the guy had a good laugh. He removed pork form my burger and I promised I will visit Dhaka for that very inviting ilish curry he won’t stop telling me about.
Then, I went to this nearest metro station, and realised two of its lines were closed, and hence I did not have a direct train to Catacombs. The google app and the RATP local Paris transport app showed ambiguous routes by buses, so walked up to this big ass map of the city metro system and found my route to catacombs. I had to change just one stop and I reached in fifteen minutes.
The tours open at ten am. I was there at nine thirty, which was still sad cause I arrived early only to discover a long line in waiting. I sighed, again. There were Americans (quite easy to identify from their “oh so touristy” vibes), Brits (from their English) and lot other people. There were really pretty girls there and I thought oh this waiting is going to be worth its while.
And it was ^_^.
Preference was given to folks that had an online ticket so we lazy peasants who did not have one had to wait till eleven! But I am not complaining because the waiting line was beautiful.
Before I get into the details of trip inside the mines, allow me to give a brief introduction about the catacombs. It is a collection of mines under the beautiful city of Paris and runs all across the town. These were limestone quarries that were abandoned sometime in seventeenth century because parts had started to cave in and the city above was unsafe. Around the same time, another crisis was developing on the surface, albeit disturbing the dead. The centuries old graveyards had become overpopulated and oversized, with 30 generations of dead buried in them, so much so that walls caving in on the sides would throw up putrefying dead bodies on the street.
The authorities had two separate problems at hand.
Collapsing empty tunnels beneath the ground, hidden from public eye and needed filling.
And overflowing graveyards that had human remains which needed to be hidden from the public eye.
Quite easy to put two and two together, no?
Yup, they did “that”.
So, bones of about 6 million French people were exhumed from their graves and moved to these quarries and stacked up. The long tunnels filled with human remains run into miles and are called as catacombs.
Now anything macabre has my interest by default. And catacombs had been on my list from the very first time I knew I was going to Paris.
Anyway, the way in is somewhat congested. The tickets were 14 Euros (which I can argue is overpriced. They had no capital investment in the thing. Bones and tunnels were just there. Siiigh. But then… where else in the world could I see something so scary?).
One has to go down a really long flight of stairs in a downward spiral. It seems endless, and one starts getting giddy soon. The mines are about 20-30 m below the surface, and there are no automatic means to get there (no lift, sorry!).
The air stops being fresh as we go down. An unsettling smell rents the air as one breathes, and the damp and dark shadows makes it strangely eerie. At the bottom of the stairs, one kind of expects to see a lot of bones. I did. I was like, “Yeah I paid 14 Euros and climbed down all those giddy stairs and now I am ready to see those scary bones, yeah!”.
But not yet!
Once at the end of stairs, one has to walk into a long and claustrophobic tunnel with dimly lit lamps and long shadows. The smell starts to get to you. I walked about 200 meters or perhaps more, along the dingy, congested tunnel, with water seeping in places and just gravel on the floor in parts, till I came across a gathering of people being addressed by a guide.
A hasty gate later, and now I was terrified and awed at the same time.
Bones. Skulls. So many of them. Hundreds. Thousands. Lakhs. All together. Stacked one on the other. Remains of actual people, who had lived centuries ago, lay unnamed, unidentifiable and un-preserved.
Before I entered, I was told by the guard to put my bag on my belly, and now I knew why. There was no boundary line separating the stacks from the visitors, and a slight unmeasured slip could lead to an array of bones falling over.
The sheer multitude of it all the very entrance was too much for my mind to process. I had seen dead bodies before, but I had never seen a cadaver, leave alone human bones and skull. You see them in media and in books, and it still is something when you see it for the first time. In my morbid fascination with gloom of it all, I had not foreseen the possibility of fear.
And it was fearful.
There was another terrifying thought. These were real human bones. I could touch them, hold them if I wanted to. There was no one to stop or see. I could put one in my bag and no one would know. And it was horrifying.
The eye sockets, the missing jaws, the nasal holes and the round heads just lay there.
They had not moved for quite a while.
These were real people when they were alive. Centuries ago. The had names. Faces. Flesh! The jaws there once were smiles! They would have had lives and friends and families like us. Some rich, some poor. Some might have been lovers, or enemies even, and perhaps the father and the son and the rest of the line too.
And yet here they were. All anonymous, forgotten. To be seen at a ticket price.
What would one think if they got to know that their remains were put to public display at the price of a ticket?
Destiny had put them all together. There in that tunnel they had no identity. They had no names. Once in a few steps, a stone would turn up that mentioned the cemetery they had been moved from, sometimes the year or century. There were quotes in French I did not understand and did not have internet connection down there to translate.
There were skulls decorated in different ways, and femur bones stacked one on another, using the whole available space. A stack whose one side I was standing on, filled to its maximum capacity, could run into hundreds of meters behind it, full of bones all the same. The heads were sometimes made into geometric shapes, perhaps humour had found its way into death. Sometimes they were just lying, half broken, staring at nothingness.
The light played games with my mind as did the shadows. There were other people with me in there, but they were faster, and I often got lagged behind in the line. Catacombs are actually quite big and run into miles beneath the surface. Only a very small portion of it is open to the public, but it still is about 1 kms of it.
One time I was unable to focus my phone camera as the lights were quite dim, and the line moved ahead. Then I tried for a selfie by one of the brighter lamps, and to my horror, my phone camera started identifying faces in the skulls behind me.
Pissing my pants is quite the lighter expression to use here. I started walking briskly, and my breath echoed from the bone walls (or was it theirs? The listeners?). But I kept walking till I got close to the next living human. And pretended that I was not scared at all.
Then I kept up with the rest. Walked around, trying not to disturb those who had been asleep for decades. I took pictures, yes, but I did not feel like sharing them to friends as it would not be appropriate.
It was a relief when I came across the ventilation fan, that was pumping air into the tunnels from above. I knew I had come to the end of the journey, and soon the bones stopped appearing and emerged a staircase that, in spite of its spiral stupidity, took me to the surface, and into the world of living again.
I took a big lung full of fresh air, and looked at my phone for network, thinking in background, that I was not among the dead.
Well, at least not yet.