The Independent Traveler's Newsletter                PAGE THREE
PARIS:  Twenty Meters Below Ground ~ How About A 'Body-To-Body' Visit?
                                                                                                                                          by Arthur Gillette

 Can you guess what we're referring to? 
(Hint:  A quarter of a million people visit the place every year.)
The Métro? Nope, although there's plenty of 'contact sport' on the Paris subway during rush hour.
 The theme of this somewhat gruesome – but fascinating - stroll is in fact the Paris Catacombs, 
whose entry is situated just next to the Place Denfert Rochereau in the city's 14th district.
  Arthur Gillette recently visited them for us and filed the following report. 

For several centuries, the subterranean cavity under today's Denfert Rochereau neighborhood was a quarry, pretty much exhausted towards the end of the 1700s.  At the same time, the authorities began to become quite concerned about the negative effects of rotting corpses in local graveyards next to Paris churches, and particularly the huge fifth century A.D. burial ground of the Saints Innocents, next to Les Halles – the vast central city market that has only recently been decentralized to suburban Rungis so the Centre Pompidou could be built on its site.

People in the Saints Innocents neighborhood noticed, for example, that once opened, wine turned to vinegar within a few days; foodstuffs rotted with unusual speed; and wells (no running water in those days) were increasingly infected with putrid matter.  In their cellars, foul fumes from the adjacent graveyard pierced the walls and were even known to extinguish candles!

As early as 1554, Paris University doctors had warned against the epidemic risks emanating from the Innocents cemetery. And later, true to form, Voltaire criticized the religious authorities who continued to condone burials dangerous to the general well being.  Finally, in 1785, the State Council decided to abolish the Saints Innocents cemetery, dig up the remains therein and re-bury them in the 'retired' quarry under today's Denfert Rochereau.

Paris' Catacombs.  Photo by Jeff Berner © 2011.  All rights reserved.During the transfers a somewhat pompous religious rite was observed.  Black-covered funeral carts transported the remains, accompanied by priests singing funereal rites. Then the remains were dumped into a kind of well, at the bottom of which they were loaded onto wheelbarrows to be piled, in rather helter-skelter (that probably should be 'helter-skeleton') fashion, along the quarry's underground corridors.  Thus came the name Catacombs, recalling ancient Rome's underground burial chambers and possibly stemming from the Latin cata (among) tumbas (the tombs).

Parisians were immediately curious about their Catacombs, but the first public visits only took place in 1806. In that year Emperor Napoleon visited them, and the same year air-borne (!) photography pioneer Felix Nadar 'took the plunge'. Here he is underground. 

Archival photo of Felix Nadar in the Catacombs.  Courtesy
Beginning at midnight on April 2nd, 1897 (just a day late?) some 45 top musicians from the Paris Opera orchestra performed in the Catacombs a weird concert attended by about a hundred carefully selected guests from Parisian high society. The program?  Well, fairly predictably it included Chopin's Funeral March, Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre  and the funeral march from Beethoven's Heroic Symphony

And today?  Yes, for a modest fee you can visit the Paris Catacombs which are now managed by the city's Museums organization. Opening times: every day (except Mondays and holidays) from 10 AM to 5 PM. – last entry at 4 PM.  The visit begins with a rather dizzying descent of a narrow spiral stairway's 130 steps. You then embark on about two kilometers of bone- and skull-lined galleries accompanied by the remains of some six million Parisians.

Paris' Catacombs.  Photo by Jeff Berner © 2011.  All rights reserved.

Until as recently as 1972, and with a concern for conservation of the bones and skulls, the only light in the catacombs was by candle.  Since then electricity has been installed, but the dimness of the lamps only adds to the eerie feeling of your stroll through a veritable underground burial maze which twists and turns this way and that.

All is not, however, what has been termed 'a romantic/macabre setting'. The pre-Catacombs quarrymen left some vestiges. There is, for instance, a foot bath they used. Then, too, they seem to have taken some time off to produce such bas reliefs as this one. It represents the fortress on Minorca Island (in the Balearics) and was sculpted by a quarryman who had fought in Louis XV's army and was held prisoner there by the English. 

In the Catacombs of Paris. Photo by Jeff Berner © 2011.  All rights reserved.Take your time, and get a little rest along the way, because to emerge into daylight at the end of your visit you've got another stairway (only 83 steps) to clamber up. And, above all, don't you dare even think about swiping a bone or skull - all bags are searched at the site exit. 

My one regret about the visit (despite the presence of many somewhat ill-lit information signboards) none that I saw recalls a contemporary function of the Catacombs. It was here that, during the Liberation of Paris in August 1944, Resistance leader Henri Rol Tanguy holed up.  How, you may wonder, did he keep tabs on and help direct the uprising from twenty meters below ground?  Well, inexplicably, the German occupation forces and their French collaborators (including Petain's police) seem never to have bothered to control Paris’ telephone network. So Rol Tanguy could freely communicate from his subterranean den!

During my recent visit I tried not to inhale too deeply. Perhaps an unnecessary precaution; when Rol Tanguy died, in 2002, he was 94 years old!

More information – in English – at:
 Read about Paris' underground quarries in the
 February 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Contact Arthur Gillette at for details about his 
Paris Through the Ages Strolls, trips to Senlis and Vaux le Vicomte
and for more delightful bits of the history of Paris!

[Mouse over photos for descriptions and photo credits.]

A Cultural Exchange  Two Australian Students in Lyon

Alice at the Musée Gadagne. Photo © Alice Crockett 2010.  All rights reserved.

                                                                                                                                    by Alice Crockett

We were happy to play a small part in this student exchange by putting Alice in touch with Jeni Matthews
 of Red Balloon Travel & Consulting in the Rhône region. Jeni was instrumental in the search for a suitable apartment
for the students during their stay in Lyon.  Consequently, we are fortunate that Alice was willing to submit
the following article for our newsletter. We know you will enjoy it and the beautiful accompanying photos.

rue St Jean, Lyon.  Photo © Alice Crockett 2010.  All rights reserved.It was the midst of balmy August, day three of our Lyon semester abroad. The sun shone brightly, the streets were quietly buzzing with tourists and the few locals that hadn't fled to the country's coastlines. But we, my fellow Australian exchange friend Amelia and I, still in a jet lag induced haze were shackled to our apartment. Why? It was all about the plumbing in our fifteenth century digs, with pipes equally ancient, in charming Vieux Lyon. After failed attempts to unblock the kitchen sink ourselves, we spent our day learning the French words for 'blocked', 'sink' and 'urgent' and waiting for two plombiers to come to our rescue. Alas, the crisis was averted in a mere four minutes with a plunger, hilarious language barriers and an obscenely large bill. We had survived unscathed our sole experience with famed French handymen and it's a testimony indeed to the city of Lyon and the French themselves, that this was the 'worst' (and I use the term loosely) incident to occur over the entire six months. 

Our apartment, on the second level of a famed traboule on rue St Jean, was as enchanting as the Vieux Lyon quarter itself and just a short walk up the cobblestoned streets to the St Jean Cathedral and the métro station. When we arrived at our new home for the first time, having lugged our baggage up the spiral staircase, we couldn't believe that it could be a place for two students. It was spacious, quirky and in a prime location. We soon learned that it was perhaps too spacious for the two of us, so we set out to find a French house mate to complete our transition into Gallic life. The main priority for us was to learn the language, and there was no better way to do this than by having a native speaker around all the time. Also, seamlessly trying to integrate yourself into French life would be near impossible without a real French person to imitate. We were lucky that our house mate, a very French Breton named Edouard, was patient enough with our constant questions and misunderstandings, which eventually led to us all speaking a curious breed of Franglais. He taught us, too, the art of cheese, bread and wine, much to the dismay of our clothing which became increasingly snug. Similarly, the hilarious moments of cultural or language barriers seemed to occur multiple times daily as we all managed to navigate the tasks of daily chores - or rather the procrastination of conducting daily chores - and deciding what to have for dinner. Our transition from three ‘house mates’, to simply ‘mates’, culminated in us spending New Years together with a group of other Frenchies in Brittany and then a week in Paris. 

Amelia and Edouard. Photo © Alice Crockett 2010.  All rights reserved.Alice and Amelia. Photo © Alice Crockett 2010.  All rights reserved.

These aforementioned French friends were a lovely, diverse mix of university students from across the entire country. They politely called our accents charming rather than horrible though still laughed at us when we butchered their beautiful language. Even though they thought us Aussies drank a bit too much, talked non-stop and were less reserved than our French female counterparts, they seemed to endearingly respond to our various missteps. We played host to numerous soirées and ensured that our house was always welcoming to people. Such is the nature of overseas exchange that a veritable mélange of nationalities convene together all vying to make new friends and have new experiences.

Alice and friends at Château de Varennes. Photo © Alice Crockett 2010.  All rights reserved.Luckily, we managed to form a lovely group of expats and locals, with whom we had many memorable moments. In particular, it was with a roommate of another university friend that we had the chance to spend the weekend at his family-owned Château de Varennes and vineyard in the Beaujolais wine region just 45 minutes from Lyon. It was revealed to us that the family had bought the chateau after its previous owners had been sent to the guillotine during the French Revolution. It was fascinating to be in a place and country where so many buildings and regions reveal such a long and interesting history. 

 [Mouse over photos on this page for credits and further descriptions.]
                                                                                                                                     continued on page four

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