Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Notre Dame, Catacombs and a DATE!

mini_DSC00948No trip to Paris would be complete without a visit to Notre Dame.  We got a mini_P1020157DVD of it to show the kids before we came to Paris and read them the Disney version of the Hunchback of Notre Dame.  They were excited to go to Quasimodo’s house.  We got to the cathedral about 10 minutes before the doors open, but still had to wait on line for almost an hour.  Got in a nice conversation with some other American tourists while waiting. It’s funny how much I miss random conversation.  I think it is a combination of language barrier and cultural differences that make this more difficult here in France.  I felt like a French expert.  It was actually much more fun to be in Paris this time than last.  I felt so much more comfortable, understanding much of the language, and also, I had done so much research, I knew what was going on.  I was able to advise the people on what was going to be open the next day (which is a national holiday in France so almost everything was closed).

mini_P1020159Climbing to the top of Notre Dame was the usual challenge.  Griffin, for whatever mini_DSC00955reason, has been rebelling against our typical agenda and, although he has gamely climbed 422 (or more) steps at least a dozen times in the past, he was really being stubborn this time and Andre’ had to carry him part of the way.  Once we got to the top, though, it was all worth it.  We got to see Quasimodo (left) and lots of his chimera friends.  I particularly liked the one pictured right – the victim was biting the demon’s arm as he was being devoured.  That’s the spirit – it ain’t over until it is over.  I really enjoyed how diverse the statuary was on this cathedral. There were all kinds of fantastical creatures hidden around every corner. I think it is pretty amazing how creative the sculptors mini_P1020172mini_P1020173were.  We humans have such an incredible capacity for innovation and beauty. The weather was great – we even had our hats on to protect us from the sun.  I was glad since we had been having pretty annoying weather earlier in the week (raining, not raining, raining, not raining).  Of course, the views were amazing.  Paris is such an immense city.  In many ways, Paris reminds me of New York City. Large diverse groups of people all over the place, tons of tourists, tons of locals irritated by the tourists, great public transportation, good food, expensive for everything and, of course, there is way, way, way too much to see and experience – even if you had a month to spend on vacation!

 mini_DSC00960    mini_P1020174     mini_P1020176

Then we split up again. The grandparents wanted to see St. Chappelle and the Pantheon and we were headed for the Catacombs.  First we stopped in at the crypts below Notre Dame.  I always thought the word ‘crypt’ meant dead bodies (perhaps influenced by the HBO series I used to watch, Tales from the Crypt), but, apparently, this is untrue.  According to, a crypt is eithermini_DSC00966

1.a subterranean chamber or vault, esp. one beneath the main floor of a church, used as a burial place, a location for secret meetings, etc.    OR

2.Anatomy. a slender pit or recess; a small glandular cavity.

Well, the Notre Dame crypt was neither a burial place OR a location for secret meetings (or a small glandular cavity, but you probably figured that).  Instead, it was an archeological site, showing the ancient layout of buildings they had discovered below the foundation.  It really made us wish we could see it the way it was a thousand years ago. It reminded me a bit of Pompeii….

Then it was on to the catacombs.  This was the thing I wanted to see in Paris – I had never heard of it until I started my exhaustive research and I can say, it is like nothing else I’ve seen before or since (I know, it’s only been a week, but still!)  I usually only put links to more information – but in this case I am making an exception.  This is the story behind the catacombs, cobbled together from wikipedia and other sources. 

“The Catacombs of Paris are the home to over 6 million bones.  Most of Paris' larger churches once had their own cemeteries, but city growth and generations of dead began to overwhelm them. From the late seventeenth century, Paris' largest Les Innocents cemetery (near the Les Halles district in the middle of the city) was saturated to a point where its neighbors were suffering from disease, due to contamination caused by improper burials, open mass graves, and earth charged with decomposing organic matter. After almost a century of ineffective decrees condemning the cemetery, it was finally decided to create three new large-scale suburban cemeteries and to condemn all those existing within the city limits. The remains of all condemned cemeteries were then moved discreetly to a renovated section of Paris' abandoned quarries. The removal of the bones from Les Innocents began after the blessing of the place on April 7, 1786 and was continued until 1788, always at night and conducted with careful ceremony including a procession of priests who sang the burial service along the way.  They used tipcarts to gather the bones and covered them with a black veil. They then deposited them below ground eventually emptying the entire cemetery and using the land for other purposes. Thereafter, the catacombs continued to be used until 1814, to collect the bones of all the cemeteries of Paris. The priests got pretty creative with the arrangement of the bones and churches were even built inside.  As early as the late 1700’s people began to tour, even royalty came down to visit  - and now, so can you!”

DSC00969This was definitely not a ‘normal’ tourist attraction, but who could resist????  We mentioned to the few Parisians we know we were going and they had never been.  Also, Debbie and Dave had no interest…. What is wrong with these people? It’s not located in the heart of the touristy section of town and we had to make a special trip to get out there.  When we arrived, Z and C had to go potty (no toilets in the ossuary).  So, I waited patiently with Griffin while Andre’ went looking for a kind cafe owner.  Looking around, I  discovered the sign pictured left.  It says “Warning The ossuary tour could make a strong impression on children and people of a nervous disposition” (in French ‘nervous disposition’ is ‘les personnes sensibles’ Hmm…. sensible people – well, no one ever accused us of that, for certain!)

So, bladders empty, we head down the stairs into the catacombs.  It seems that catacombs refer to the entire network of tunnels honeycombing this section of the city – they had been mining this area for limemini_DSC00973stone etc…. mini_DSC00972to build with from at least 100 BC until 1814 when they outlawed mining within the city limits.  The ossuary is just the small section of the catacombs that holds the bones and we had to walk over 500 meters through tunnels to even get there.  We saw how, during the revolution there were battles down in these tunnels.  I can’t believe Hollywood hasn’t set some sort of horror movie around this place.  It was crazy cool and scary.  The kids loved it – they were literally running down these long dark tunnels ahead of us. The walls had carvings in them here and there with dates or depth mini_DSC00975under the earth.   There was another section where a miner had spent his lunch break carving elaborate castles into the stone.  He was killed in a cave in before finishing his work.  Also we saw where they had carved steps downward to reach water – they called it ‘foot washing’ water – I’m not sure why.  Does this mean they didn’t drink it?  Does it mean they washed in it?  If they did wash in it, I can’t see why that would make any sense, wouldn’t your feet just get dirty again right away? I had forgotten the good camera on this day so all these pictures were taken on my phone.  There were tons and tons of side tunnels that were blocked off going in every direction – there was a black line burnt on the ceiling above our heads – this had been placed there hundreds of years before to aid local thrill seekers who wanted to find their way to the ossuary.

Finally, we arrived.  This was the kind of place nightmares are made of.  All along the walls, floor to ceiling, mini_DSC00977were bones, bones, bones.  It seems that, when they mini_DSC00983were collecting the bones, they kept the femurs, tibias and skulls back.  (Can you just imagine this??? Pawing through the dirt, pulling out the skeletons, picking out the bones you want for your design?  I know there are some people who think modern art can be shocking – like Piss Christ or something – but this is pretty shocking as well – I find it hard to imagine how they got away with it – weren’t the families of these people outraged? – And what about the ones who hadn’t had time to fully decompose yet? What did they do with them? Hack them to bits or something??)mini_DSC00984

So anyway, they took the rejects and threw them in a little wall grotto and then artistically lined the outside with the skulls and femurs and tibias to make a nice pattern.  You can see that, with time, the bones were settling, some of the skulls were cracked and the stacks didn’t reach the roof as I imagine they did originally.  Some people even drew graffiti on the skulls at one part – but mostly it was undisturbed.  There was even a church they built down there to celebrate the lives of the people who were interred here.  I was not able to get very good shots in this dark area without flash or my good camera (it’s really too bad – wouldn’t this have been a great family Christmas card?). Please check out these links to see some better shots (and a creepy story at the first link, if you like that type of thing).


It was amazing – there were just all these bones lying around – one could have easily pickmini_DSC00985ed a souvenir – although there was a big sign at the entrance saying “If you take any bones, the police will get you.”    We were walking and walking and walking past these bones for over half an hour.  We walked at least a mile under the earth.  Griffin was unfazed, he just started to get tired and I had to carry him. Callie said it was too creepy after awhile and walked, holding Daddie’s hand, with her eyes closed so she wouldn’t see the bones.  Zander, who claimed he was going to kiss the bones before he got down there – started out good but got increasingly freaked out.  Every time we walked around a corner to be confronted with another pile of bones he would jump a bit.  At one point he said “I wish I was dmini_DSC00986ead and in these bone piles, then I wouldn’t have to be scared of them!” I guess, once you are dead, you are no longer scared. Here and there they had guards sitting around.  Can you imagine this as your job?  It’s one thing to walk through – but to spend day after day after day surrounded by 6 million bones – I don’t think I could handle it.  I started to feel sick to my stomach after a while – it was just too much!  Finally we made it out to an area where they were showing how they supported and kept these tunnels safe.  Seeing the arched and vaulted ceiling  soaring over our heads like a cathedral made me realize how deep underground we really were.  Even today you have to get special permits to build above these tunnels.  These bones, left, were piled up on a table at the exit – guess some folks wanted an extra unique souvenir…..

mini_DSC00987We came out in a totally different section of town, with no instructions on how to get out of there.  Luckily, Andre’ is an intrepid navigator anmini_P1020211d we made our way to another little visited destination for the average Parisian or tourist, E. Dellerhin.  This is a world famous cooking store that has been there since 1820.  It was wonderful.  I was able to get a solid copper bowl, new cast iron pancake griddle, whisk, Madeline pan and a gift for my Dad’s birthday all for about 150 Euros. I really wanted another cheese knife, but they were out of stock.  It was a huge warehouse kind of place, no Williams Sonoma, but a must see for any foodie. (Dad, you would think you died and went to heaven)  Then it was time for us to go off on our date. Grandma and P1020213Grandpa met us at E. Dellerhin and walked the kids home over a footbridge. I was shocked they made it the whole way considering they hadn’t had a rest and were exhausted (especially Zander).  Guess it’s the power of the Grandparent!  They had a great time with them and I think Zander probably took tmini_DSC00988he shot of Grandma and Grandpa – he is really getting good!  Meanwhile, Andre’ and I were off for our big date night.  We had planned to go to Saint Chapelle for a concert and then out to dinner but we were so tired we ended up just hanging out in the apartment resting for about an hour and then hitting Rue Cler for dinner.  It was fun to go down Rue Cler.  It’s an old street that is closed to traffic and has lots of markets, butchers etc…. including some really unusual stores like the one that sold all kinds of honey – you could fill your own container if you brought it with you from a giant vat they had set up!   I saw lots of tourists, but plenty of locals too. Have I P1020218mentioned yet that Parisians like little dogs? mini_DSC00990They do.  I saw more yappy little ‘lap’ dogs on leashes or in purses in this town than I have ever seen anywhere before.  Dogs were allowed on the trains here, and I even saw a few in restaurants.  We ended up not going to the recommended restaurant because they didn’t have their specials OR foie gras and went with Italian instead. I almost never walk out of restaurants, but, come on – no foie gras? The italian was delicious, but my quest continues for that ‘ultimate’ meal – I wonder if I would get it if I was willing to spend 50 or 100 Euros a plate instead of 30????  We were in bed by about 11pm – I know, lame, but Disney awaits….


zarathustra said...

Thanks for the link and it was interesting to read about your experiences in the catacombs - glad your children got on well in there!

Parisian's do like their small dogs, and I always found it strange they were allowed in restaurants. I think the lack of gardens and space accounts for the lack of larger dogs.

There are a few good 'cheaper' restaurants (I'm just back from Madeira so anything over 10 euros seems expensive now!), but people usually only know about them by word of mouth. Sadly Paris ain't cheap. :(

Rebecca said...

Thanks for the comment - we are wondering why you have chosen this as your tag name. Are you a Zorastrian? Love to know more.


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