Monday, February 1, 2016

Paris Travel Blog: The Catacombs

There are few things I will stand in line for an hour and a half in the pouring rain for. Apparently, getting into the Catacombs of Paris makes the list.  This museum has been open to the public since 1874, and time has only increased its gothic appeal.  About 6 million Parisians are buried within the catacombs, moved here in the late 1700s in an attempt to reduce the public health risks of overcrowded cemeteries.  What's the draw?  That's a hard question to answer.  For me, catacombs have been a peculiar obsession since watching Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade as a child. There's as much mystery in death as there is fear, and the combination of those two makes for a heady experience.  No, I didn't unearth the answers to any ancient mysteries down there surrounded by artfully piled remains, but I did leave feeling disturbingly human -- an experience that is hard to replicate except when face to face with death.  My bones were no different, my life no more or less than those people stacked on either side of me.  I held my husband's hand tightly and felt scared and happy and sad and alive.

What you need to know:
Cost: 12 Euro
Times: Tuesday through Sunday 10 AM to 8 PM
Tickets can be purchased at the door or online here.  There is no shorter line for people that have already purchased tickets.

The line is legit -- one of the longest lines you'll encounter at any Paris museum.  People love the catacombs; especially Americans.  I think almost everyone we were in line with in our general area was an American tourist.  Bring an umbrella if it is even calling for a chance of rain because the line is uncovered, wrapping around a small park.  Bring snacks and maybe even a book to pass the time.

What you can and can't bring:

Like most museums, large bags are discouraged.  They don't want you sneaking someone's bones out (which is incredible disrespectful but some people have no trouble disassociating bones from the humans they once belonged to it seems).  Also, no dogs.  Let me recount a fellow American's unsuccessful plea to get past this:

Line attendant: "Sorry ma'am, no dogs allowed inside."  (yes, he even said this in English).
Lady holding a chihuahua in a bright orange vest: "But he's a service animal.  See, he has his vest on."
"Sorry, he still can't come in."
"I want to talk with your supervisor!  He's not a pet, this animal is part of my medical care."
Supervisor comes over.  "Sorry ma'am no animals inside.  Not even service animals.  There is no place for an animal to use the bathroom down here and this is a memorial site for the dead."
"Ridiculous!" Storm off commences.

Ever since  this moment, I've wondered why this person felt like she should bring a dog into the catacombs. Seriously, what was going through her head?  Let's just assume that this dog really was a service animal and not just dressed in a vest off Amazon.  She's carrying a chihuahua, so we can safely rule out seeing eye dog here.  So this must be an anti-anxiety or anti-depression dog? And if you had anxiety or depression should you be going into a pitch black tunnel with no easy escape route filled with 6 million dead bodies?  Seems like your doctor would not advise it, with or without your chihuahua in tow.

The unflattering look that is being both excited and scared at the same time descending down into the catacombs.  The tunnels are small and dark, not ideal for anyone with claustrophobia.

You're now entering the kingdom of the dead. 
Photography is allowed, but no touching the bones (which, again, why would you do that?  That's really, really weird to be touching someone else's body).   I have to admit, photography down here is odd -- you're not going to stand in front of a bunch of skeletons and smile right?  What kind of selfie is possible down here that's not entirely inappropriate?  The catacombs are at their heart an artistic tribute to the dead as much as a sanitary solution to a world that was just beginning to understand the risks posed by bacteria.  The bones are lovingly arrayed in shapes and patterns, and shrines to the dead are present at every turn.  It's a solemn place; as much about honoring life as it is about honoring death.

Visiting the Catacombs Illegally
Of course you can read about secret underground trips through the Paris sewers to areas of the catacombs otherwise off limits, but can you imagine anything scarier than getting stuck in a labyrinth largely unmapped in the pitch dark without cell phone service?  And despite the cheesy ending, As Above So Below is a truly terrifying B-rate horror film.  No thanks; I'm good.

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