A love affair with Paris usually begins with the twinkling lights of the Eiffel Tower, the picturesque streets of Marmontre or the hurried sidewalks of the Champs Elysees. Beauty is the business of Paris. And never to be outdone in his trade, a true Parisian can find beauty in even the darkest of places.
I emerged from the Denfert Rochereau metro station and crossed the street to join the jostling crowds twisting along the Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy. Despite being an unusually warm morning in September, we are bundled-up; mindful of how unkind conditions can be twenty meters below the city of light. By this time, I had been in Paris for the better part of a week and had decided to take a break from the buttery aromas casing the tree-lined streets along the Seine, to experience a different Paris; A Paris buried so far beneath the cafés, bistros and boutiques I was skeptical it could deliver anything close to the opulence I had already been supplied.
Not your typical exhibition of Parisian splendor, the catacombs were created in 1785 as a solution to the scarcity of cemeteries throughout the growing metropolis. Prior to this, the catacombs had once housed limestone mines, an abundance of which was used to construct many of Paris’ most striking buildings.
Descending the winding steps into the ossuary, I approached passageways reminiscent of out-stretched arms, beckoning me into a dimly-lit maze that extended further than vision permits. I rambled forward and the walls disappeared, replaced with meticulously stacked skulls and femurs arranged in an exhaustive fashion; each design more distinctive than the last. The bones guided us through a labyrinth of the afterlife, where we were treated to stories of macabre dinner parties held amongst the eternally preserved. It’s an easy spectacle to picture really; the dimness emulating candlelight, cast upon an audience of long-departed Parisians. Encased in stillness, you can almost hear their laughter as you try to make sense of how a seemingly unpleasant display can evoke such magnificence.
There aren’t many cities in the world that can get away with transforming the remains of those ravaged by death and disease into an expression of beauty, but then again, I’ve never met a Parisian who would consider his city to be like any other. As I forged ahead, I couldn’t help but think about the lives these bones once kept; who they were, what they did and how they lived.
Perhaps the catacombs are the most remarkable expression of beauty the city has to offer its visitors; homage to the people who helped shape Paris into a place of richness and extravagance many of us still aspire to emulate today.