Paris: Under the Bones of the City

The Catacombs.


In all my previous trips to Paris, I’ve never been to the catacombs. They run all over the city, though there is only one tourist sanctioned section – home to the bones of old graveyards. The bones did not start here – they were moved because all the city graveyards were overflowing and unsanitary.

When I was younger, the tunnels held no interest for me. Why go look at a bunch of skulls in a wall? Now that I’m older and wiser, I decided that it might be interesting to see what the collected dead look like.

The outside entrance is nondescript, accessed off the ligne 4 at Denfert/Rochereau, and the line is short but very slow. They only allow two hundred people maximum in the tunnels at any given point, and they control how many people can go down at a time. The result is a fitful wait – mine was almost an hour, and I got there not long after they opened. Tickets are 10 euro, and another 2 if you want to get the souvenir coin. I did – it made me think of the gold coin Greeks would give to Charon, the ferryman on the way to Hades.


Entrance fee, map, and *spooky music* the "other" entrance fee...

Entrance fee, map, and *spooky music* the “other” entrance fee…

There is no elevator, nor handicapped accessible way to descend. It’s a steep spiral staircase, and packed earth slopes.

I found I really liked how quiet everything was, once I broke away from the gaggle of talkative teenagers in front of me. Echoes get muffled, water drops sound amplified, and there is the stillness of undisturbed earth. It’s not an accurate term, I guess – undisturbed earth. They built the tunnels, after all. These are not naturally occurring caverns like in a mountain. These are labyrinths built by man. And the first third of the walk is not all skulls and crossbones. Rather, it’s an explanation of the geology of Paris, the great ancient sea and the limestone it left behind.

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After some more dimly lit corridors, passing by miniature cities carved into the walls, the quarrier’s footpath (a natural well where workers could rinse off the dust), you hit a wonderfully creepy sign above an archway. It reads:


Ici c’est l’empire de la mort

“Stop. Here is the kingdom of the dead.”

So foreboding – I thought it was great.

And sure enough, upon passing through the archway, the walls are lined with bones. Primarily femurs and skulls, which confused me after awhile. I asked one of the caretakers I found where all the finger bones were. In response, he shined his flashlight to the back of the catacomb walls, explaining that ribs, fingers, and all the pesky bones which didn’t stack well got thrown to the back. Poor bodies – their ribs and wrists akimbo forever.


After awhile, I could see why, at the entrance, there is a sign saying that children or those who suffer from claustrophobia might have problems. The lines of bones go on for far longer than I thought they would – each stack marked with a notice of the original graveyard. Most of the Parisian graveyards got emptied here, and it shows.

I went through several different emotions walking the tunnels. I was curious, then sad, then reflective, then superstitious. I got most superstitious whenever I saw that some idiot had graffitied on a skull. That is going to be a problem after they die – I can see the original owner of the skull showing up and beating the newcomer for his disrespect. It can’t be good luck, to deface the bones of the dead. That’s ancient law, isn’t it?

And I felt bad for all these bodies, just stacked economically along the corridors. Thousands of bodies, thousands of souls, now a tourist attraction. I took a selfie or two, but it felt weird to have the bones around me. I suppose if you don’t put stock in the power of the dead, or believe in an afterlife, then the whole thing would probably be no more than a notable historical decision. The graveyards – the Court of the Innocents most notably – were unsafe and dirty. Better to store all the bones and then bury people outside the city.


That got me to thinking about how many bones have settled “on top” of the Catacombs. These bones are a couple of hundred of years old (roughly), and they go on for a good long distance. What about our bones – how many more millions of people have lived, died, and been buried? How many bones have turned to dust under ours, before our fancy caskets made disintegration a slower process?

See? It’s a morbid, but important, conversation to have with oneself in the dim light of the dead eye sockets. They probably didn’t wonder about such things. Most of them were probably poor, wrapped in a sheet and buried en masse. Death was far more prevalent and immediate back in the 17th and 18th centuries.

This is reflected in the poetry on the wall.  There are couplets about the uselessness of fighting death, but they’re upbeat. There’s a real sense of “Carpe diem!” down in the Catacombs, probably because no one down there is carpe-ing anything.  The very real end of life is calling out in stone for the living to go out and treasure what they have, since once interred that is the physical end. There is also a real sense of peace – that a life of hard work has met some sort of justified end. I find it comforting, frightening, and helpful all at the same time.


Above, it’s drizzling. The line still stretches out.

That’s all for now – I’ll write about the evening in my next post. I think the dead deserve their own little post in the world of the “living”- if being online can be considered thus.

As we are, so all things must be.

As we are, so all things must be.

Paris: Impressions and Digestions


My sleep pattern is normalizing. The room is hot enough that I have to open a window to sleep, a disappointing development given the cost of the room. But the breakfast is free and delicious – I eat a croissant every morning, and have some ham and soft cheese on a baguette with my coffee. Hannah, the server, and I strike up a conversation. Hannah remembers me from my previous stay, which is nice. She’s willing to let me practice my French with her without judgment. It’s her birthday – must remember to get her a card.

Today is another museum – Le Musee d’Orsay. The sun makes an appearance, and so we get off at Ligne 1 Tuleries and walk across the park. The Orsay Museum is just across and down from the Louvre, but the way the roads work it is easier to cross closer to the Louvre than Place de la Concorde. And even in winter the Tulieries Garden is pretty, full of crows and joggers.

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NOTE: The Musee d’Orsay is closed on Mondays. I guess, like the artists it holds, it likes to make its own rules.

Unlike the Louvre, which houses centuries of Art, the Musee d’Orsay is primarily concerned with the later half of the 19th century and the early 20th century. Here is where you’ll find the Impressionists – Monet, Manet, Renoir, Degas, etc. You can see the peasants of Millet, some of the sculptures of Rodin (though Rodin has his own excellent museum nearby), and the furniture of the Art Nouveau movement.


If you were to visit them in historical order – Louvre, Orsay, Pompidou – you would see the change in artistic style as far as painting goes. The Renaissance pieces with their pre-approved religious and mythological themes giving way to the darker palettes and symmetry of Ingre and David, moving further to explorations of shadow and color by Delacroix and Gericault, and then the fracturing into many smaller movements – Impressionists, Barbizan, Orientalism, Pointillism, etc. The palette lightens, the dimensions flatten. Symbolism gives way to realism, only to reassert itself. Pompidou is the Modernists and Post-Modernists – Chagall, Kandinsky, and the contemporary artists whose names I have yet to learn.


The interior of an Art Nouveau room – you can see how it might have inspired the architecture in Lord of the Rings, given the swoops and circles.

And then there is the subject of the human body. The “pure” voluptuous forms of the 19th century give way to the warped bodies of Toulouse-Lautrec, the harsh whites of Manet. And then there’s Courbet’s “L’origine du Monde,” which is just a painting of a vagina au naturel– right out there on the wall, getting a lot of laughs from teenagers. It got a lot of laughs from my high school class when we visited – I imagine that crotch will elicit titters for as long as it hangs on that wall. Or as long as the world makes teenagers. It still manages to make me slightly offended somehow. Seeing it forces me to admit that I actually prefer the hip-heavy, sexless women of the earlier years to the “real” women depicted by later artists. Perhaps because though it’s more accurate, more real, it’s also so very unceremonious. Women might have been objectified into classic forms of beauty, but at least we were photo-shopped along the way. Courbet makes a really great point (that life stems from women) even as he seems to minimize its impact (look how boringly physical your point of origin is).

I like the Orsay – it makes me think about what I like more than the Louvre. Perhaps it is because of the general fracturing of ideas, with clear delineations and methods. I love Caillebotte, but am not a fan of Manet. I find Orientalism fascinating and a natural offshoot of Romanticism, but I am not drawn to Rousseau’s naturalism (though I do like the philosopher Rousseau). I will say I have a greater appreciation for Van Gogh now than I did when studying him in humanities. His work vibrates.

Another day of walking and art.

Dinner: Christmas Market! Dotting the city in the holiday season, the Christmas markets are great places to get a cheap sandwich and some hot mulled wine. I enjoy a sandwich jambon (ham), and a gaufre nutella (waffle with nutella on top). These markets are good places to scout out souvenirs, especially dried meats, cheeses, and candies. Skip the ornaments and other dust collectors, in my opinion.

Also popular are roasted chestnuts – if you want to know why they’re in the Christmas Song, this is your opportunity to taste and see!


Meat! Glorious meat grills!


“Vin chaud” = “hot wine” A vos santé!


Un gaufre nutella – also known as a walking cavity dish. Just turn the damn thing over and shake off some of the excess hazelnut spread. Unless you don’t mind feeling the sugary spread coat you teeth.

Paris: Never a Dull Louvre

We have a late start from the hotel – sleep is not forthcoming, despite my best efforts and not taking naps on day 1. So we don’t get out the door until close to 10am. This is not so bad, as I have given one whole day to visiting the most famous of museums, the Louvre.

(This is not my photo of the Louvre. I entered from underground. Thank you, internet!)

The scope of the Louvre cannot be understated. It’s easy to get turned around in its many halls. I’ve been there several times, and I still have to check my map often. There are three wings, each with three floors, and one with a fourth. There are special auditorium halls, a mall, two cafes, and the exterior plazas and courtyards. The maps are crucial, helpful, and come in a dozen languages.

 Note: The Louvre is closed on Tuesdays, as are more national museums in France.

Note 2: The Louvre entrance is conveniently located at the ligne 1 stop Palais Royale/Musee du Louvre. If you get off at the Louvre/Rivoli stop, you’ll be outside the Louvre and have to walk in. The Musee du Louvre stop links to the carousel (the underground shopping mall and entrance to the museum). You’ll miss the glass pyramid, but you can go outside when you’re done. If you really want to see the glass Pyramid and the beautiful exterior of the building first, then take one of the other three sorties at Palais Royal or ride to Louvre/Rivoli.

There are many very famous pieces in the Louvre – the Winged Victory of Samothrace, the large paintings of Delacroix, the Venus de Milo, etc. And, of course, the Mona Lisa (La Jaconde as she is called in France). To see these highlights will take some walking, but it is entirely doable to see them all in a single visit. Use the map (and crowds) to guide you. Nike of Samothraki has her own staircase, at the juncture of the Denon and Sully halls.

For the art historian, it helps to know what you want to see. You’ll go numb in the brain just walking the Louvre, covering thousands of years of art from all over the globe. There are Italian masters and Egyptian carvings. You can go from Ancient Greece to 19th century Netherlands, and that’s just what’s on the walls! So narrow it down – do you want to see French painters? Ancient Greek marbles? Look at the map and find a genre. You can go wandering around later, but don’t start out lost.


“The Arrival of the Harvesters” by Robert Louis-Leopold. It’s difficult to see here, but the women are gloriously skeptical of the harvester, who is trying to use his hips to get attention. If he truly wanted to impress them, he should show them how much wheat he harvested. Nothing impresses the ladies like yield.


“The Veiled Lady” by Antonio Corradini


“The Death of Sardanopoulos” by Eugene Delacroix. Perhaps one of my favorite pieces in the Louvre, because of the flow of form and tension. I feel like this large picture really captures the sensation of pulling/bracing against something, especially in the highlighted figures in the bottom right quarter of the canvas.

I like to go up to the top floor of Sully, where the 19th century French painters are (there are other centuries too). Some of Delacrox and Gericault’s works are up here in miniature, as are their later paintings. In fact, my favorite painting in the Louvre is up there, hidden away the corner of Salle 69. It’s an odalisque by Delacroix. If the world were ending, I would rob the Louvre of this one tiny painting. I go up and sit in this quiet, relatively unvisited section of the museum and reflect on the larger themes of life which the 9 to 5 clock keeps at bay.


“Odalisque” By Eugene Delacroix. In my fantasy, when the world is ending, I will somehow magically get to Paris, get into the Louvre, and in the chaos of an art museum gone mad I surreptitiously take this painting from the wall and smuggle it back home, where I enjoy its company for the rest of my life (which, if it’s the end of the world, might not be that long).

Even if art is not really your thing, I defy you to not be impressed by the sheer scope of the place and the intricacies of the architecture. I must have walked by this courtyard every time I’ve been to the Louvre, and yet this last time was the first time I really looked at it and saw how beautiful it was:


And these are everywhere!

You’ll get tired walking around, and there are times when the crowds can be a little oppressive. Though they are a little marked up in price, don’t be afraid to take a rest at the food court or the Paul bakery (Paul is a little like a French version of Panera) in the center of the museum. Your ticket will get you back in as many times as you want that day, so there’s no reason to worry.

If you must worry, worry about your goods. It must be said, unfortunately, but watch out for pickpockets. Keep your zippers in front of you, your pockets empty, and check your coat. I once watched a thief filch a few watches from the gift kiosk, as smooth as a revolving door. French pickpockets are masters of their craft, such as it is, but they’ll go for marks who make dumb decisions, like walking around with an open purse, or a wallet in a loose coat pocket. Also, don’t buy tickets from “good Samaritans.” They hang out in the Metro usually, and just happen to have a couple of tickets they don’t intend on using. They’ll either overcharge you, or the tickets won’t work. Common sense – if something sounds too good to be true, it’s probably false.

When you have had your fill of beautiful art work, you can shop, should you wish it. The mall is full of higher end goods, and a McDonalds (if you want to fulfill your lifelong Tarantino dream of ordering a “Royale with Cheese”). Outside the Louvre, on the Rue du Rivoli, there are some nice shops going up and for a while, and if you head toward Concorde on foot you will eventually hit the Champs Elysees (and the Christmas market, should you go in the winter!).

The afternoon is given over to recuperating at the hotel for a couple of hours. This is a great opportunity to run to the Monoprix and buy French groceries – madeleines and pate and cheap wine. Or to the nearby kiosk to grab some inexpensive postcards to send home. Or a chance to write down what you’re doing in a blog, including the backlog for the days you haven’t been writing…ahem.



T provides the recommendation of her son – Comptoir de la Gastronomie (34 Rue Montmatre). It turns out to be a sundry store and restaurant. Reservations are highly recommended, as dinner service begins at 7 and everyone seems to arrive at once. There is a set menu and a seasonal menu, with rich and rarer fare. I order the doe, but get game fowl since the waitress has not yet mastered the English menu (Luckily, my French is friendly enough to point out that I can tell the difference between fowl and venison). Dad orders veal and escargot.

The wine list is local and delicious. I highly recommend this restaurant if you have the time. It is just off of Saint Eustace Church (Elglise Saint Eustache), and near Les Halles metro. If you opt to take a taxi, make sure you specify 34 RUE Montmatre, not Boulevard Montmatre (the Boulevard intersects the Rue at some point).

Having had a fine night out, and a decent day of walking, I can only hope I don’t wake up again at 3am full of all the worst thoughts in the world. Fingers crossed!

Paris: Gothic Gods

So, you want to have an easy first day in Paris? You woke up at 2am and didn’t fall back asleep until 5am, and while you know you need to push your body to stay awake, you don’t want to kill yourself on the first day?

Saint Paul (?) be all like "Whatevs, yo, I'm tired and on the other side of the planet right now..."

Saint Paul (?) be all like “Whatevs, yo, I’m tired and on the other side of the planet right now…”

Easy – start with Cathedrale Notre Dame de Paris. My advice is to take Ligne 1 (yellow) to the Hotel de Ville stop. You will need to cross the river, but it’s so easy to navigate from this particular metro stop, almost more so than the actual Cite stop which is on the dang island! It also has the benefit of being at l’Hotel de Ville (a beautiful building), and just down the street from the Centre Pompidou, if you like modern art. On the Rue du Rivoli, it’s also a pretty walk down to the Louvre – though that will be about a twenty minute walk.


Notre Dame is a Gothic cathedral, perhaps the most famous Cathedral on the Mainland. (I guess the Vatican is more famous, but it’s also it’s own principality and the Seat of the Catholic Church, so it has more claim to fame.) It has its own block, surrounded by overpriced tourist stores and brasseries. You’ll find many things in Paris to be overpriced, but it’s really obvious at the larger tourist attractions.

Entry to Notre Dame is free, but if you want to climb up to the top and see the gargoyles that costs extra. It’s a nice view, and a heck of a climb, but my advice is to save your money and just go into the Cathedral. If you are not particularly faithful, then go for the architecture. It is impressive – you can feel the desire to fill the hall with souls, the desire to build up to Heaven itself. I love it. When inside, it’s like I can sense all 840 years passing by under those arches. The stained glass is famous throughout the world, and there are statues to Joan of Arc, tombs, and other interesting relics worth seeing.

Just allow yourself to be awed already. Leave all cynicism at the door.

Just allow yourself to be awed already. Leave all cynicism at the door.

If you are faithful, then there are masses throughout the days, especially on Sunday. It’s pleasant even if you don’t speak French, because it’s a good opportunity to experience the importance of the ceremony. The ceremony is universal, so any language can participate. It’s also a fun test to see if you can remember how the Mass goes – when was the last time you actually participated within the Mass, and didn’t just mumble along when cued?

I usually go to confession at Notre Dame, and I try to do so in French. I find that if I have to think about my sins in another language, I have to really focus on what I want to say. It makes my confession feel more concrete and less nebulous. I also get to address my conflicts of faith with really patient priests. These guys hear it all and then some, in myriad languages. They’re adept at identifying problems and providing vague but pretty advice and guidance. So I go and tell them I’ve lost my faith, that I’m angry with the Lord, that I no longer feel joy in the house of God. They, in turn, encourage me to pray and reflect, pointing out that wishing to fix a relationship with God is a step in the right direction. Round and round the rosary goes…

Also on Ile de la Cite, and worth your morning visit:

– Saint Chapelle – if you like stained glass, you must go to Saint Chapelle. It’s 9 euros to enter, and they are just finishing up the restoration of the glass. The exterior looks bulky in stone, but inside it looks like the walls are made of glass. It’s an impressive feat, and if you’re lucky and go when the sun is out, the upper chamber practically glows. Gorgeous.

A hall of stained glass.

A hall of stained glass.

It should be lunch around now, or getting close. Grab a café or a dejuner at one of those overpriced brasseries. They’re not all bad, and it’s a great opportunity to do some people watching.

For our day 1 afternoon, I walk everyone over to the Cluny Museum. Because the goal is to stay awake, I suggest you walk. It’s actually a very simple walk. If you start at Saint Chapelle, you’ll see St. Michael’s Square across the Seine in the opposite direction from Hotel de Ville (it’s the four story alcove fountain featuring the Archangel Michael beating on Lucifer). Walk towards it, then keep walking past it on the left. Walk up that street for about three blocks, and you’ll see the old fortifications on your left.

Yes, though Paris has many side streets and coupe-gorges boulevards, if you start at Saint Chapelle on Boulevard du Palais, and continue walking in a straight line towards the fountain, you will will get to the Cluny Museum.

There is also a metro stop near the museum – Cluny / La Sorbonne.

Anyway, the Cluny Museum deals with the Middle Ages, and is home to a modest collection of medieval artifacts and sculptures. Think lots of church relics, which is appropriate for a time when the Church was singular and full of power. The most famous object at the Cluny is the Lady and the Unicorn tapestry collection. Six large tapestries get their own room, as well as detailed information guides. They are impressive, and while the guides speak to mystery and hidden messages, I think they’re just very nice to look at.

What, exactly, is her only desire? Which sense, if any?

What, exactly, is her only desire? Which sense, if any?

Technically, you are close to/in the Latin Quarter, so there are going to be plenty of fun things to see in the area. Second-hand music stores, cafes, shopping – if you have the energy explore some of those side streets and see what you find! Just remember the main roads and where they lead – if you can get back to the Seine, you’ll be near several metro stops.

Depending where your hotel is, you might have some nearby tourist stops you can walk to in the evening. For example, if you are near the Champs Elysees, you can walk that street up and down, see the Arc du Triomphe and all the richest stores. There are gardens, churches, and the like dotted all over the city, and that is what you’ll want to do for the last couple of hours before/after dinner – walk. You’ll be tired, but you’ll need it for the night’s sleep you must get.

Got it? Well then, allons-y!

Dinner: We went to one of Dad’s favorite restaurants – l’Alsace on the Champs-Elysees. As you might expect, being on such a famous street the prices are a little high, but not beyond belief. The Alsace region of France borders Germany, and this restaurant specializes in that region’s cuisine. The house platter is a collection of pork bits – blood sausage, hocks, weiBwurst, served with sauerkraut and potatoes. I recommend the strudel for dessert. If you don’t have much of an appetite – or the prospect of ham hocks or rock lobster doesn’t interest you – they also do a very fine quiche.


Je suis arrive a Paris!

It’s 8pm. My flight landed at 8am, and I’ve not slept. I’ve been super strong – like Captain America strong, holding back jet lag with my mighty shield of walking and drinking an occasional espresso.

It’s 8pm and I’ve hit my wall.

Easy going during my first day. I had to wait for Dad and T to get to the airport till noon. I coasted through 2 and 3 by walking up towards l’Arc de Triomphe, then down towards George V (A famous, fancy hotel perhaps best known as a setting for the Meg Ryan flick French Kiss). There are tiny things to do, little walks to make, and then it’s 5:30. Time for an early dinner.

It's not tilted - I think I'm tilted. Surely I can hold a camera straight. I can't be that tired that snapping a hip photo while crossing the street would prove difficult...

It’s not tilted – I think I’m tilted. Surely I can hold a camera straight. I can’t be that tired that snapping a hip photo while crossing the street would prove difficult…

From the interior of the George V. The Concierges are nothing like the snooty French stereotype in French Kiss. There isn't even a vindictive bell to ring!

From the interior of the George V. The Concierges are nothing like the snooty French stereotype in French Kiss. There isn’t even a vindictive bell to ring!

Sleep settles into your skeletal system, heavy and enticing. You could fall asleep now and life would be perfection. Instead you eat your club sandwich and fail to make conversation. At one point you ask for a bottle of milk instead milk instead of water, though luckily the waitress is occupied and cannot hear you.

That’s me – I was just that tired. And so it was I fell asleep at 8pm, and woke up at 12am. I passed out, then woke up at 2:30am and stayed awake for roughly three of the longest hours of my life.

I’ve been using this wonderfully distracting app on my phone called “Sleep Cycle.” I bought it as part of a pack that also lets me take my pulse. Sleep Cycle monitors your sleep and gives you a rough idea of how well you are sleeping, based on your movement. I guess the goal is to have a cyclical night’s rest, going into and out of REM sleep in nice, curvy waves.

This is what jet lag sleep looks like:


Notice that there really aren’t any cycles – I was either wide awake, or dead to the world. I did not dream. Time was an illusion as I slept, and more so when I was awake. I went through all my worldly problems in half an hour.  And then I did it again, because there was nothing else to do and I was clearly not falling asleep.

The worst is knowing that when faced with such a jet lag moment, I can’t get up. I can’t, or my sleep cycle will never even out. I’ll pass out at 3pm and wake up at 11pm or something awful like that. So I lay there, playing out all my worst fears over and over. I imagine I will not be pleasant in the morning…if I lived that long, I thought.

So though the app says I was in bed for twelve (!) hours, I most certainly did not sleep for all of them. My heart rate was good, though – silver lining!