Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Explore the Catacombs Beneath the City of Paris



In April of 2010, I took my school kids on a field trip that no sane teacher in her right mind would take kids on - but since I'm not exactly the most sane person, this was a field trip perfect for me!

For a year and a half, since early 2009, I had been planning an international field trip for my students with a company called Explorica, hoping to be one of the first junior high groups in our school district to be allowed to travel under school sanction to another country. Many high schools had done this before, but not a group with the age range of my students. I wrote an eleven-page proposal, sent many (annoying) emails, and finally got my way! Our school's first "Travel Club" was headed to London, Paris, Italy, and Rome on a 10-day whirlwind trip! I will expand more on some of the adventures we had during this learning vacation, but I want to focus now on one of my favorite moments in the trip, a moment where I was very happy to check something off my bucket list: the Catacombs of Paris.

Bones, bones, bones - that's what's hiding under the streets of Paris.

For about eight months prior to the trip, I had been gearing students up about the catacombs. It wasn't a planned sight-seeing stop on our itinerary, but I REALLY wanted to see them. They are a bit morbid, considering they are a network consisting of miles and miles of tunnels under the city of Paris, and some of those tunnels were used to transfer and store dead bodies from overflowing cemeteries during certain periods in Parisian history. The Catacombs at Denefert-Rochereau are the only legally accessible parts of the catacomb tunnels, and have artfully arranged remains lining the tunnel walls: crosses made of skulls, altars of bones, and other such 'pieces'. I showed videos and pictures to my students, did some creative scenarios in which we were lost in the catacombs, and finally, after eight months, I had about 90% of my group convinced that exploring the tunnels was going to be the greatest part of our trip.

The Catacombs of Paris feature morbid designs such as this, complete with bullet-riddled skulls.

When we arrived in Paris, we naturally did a full day of sight-seeing immediately. Our adventures there must be reserved for another post, as I managed to check off several items from my Travel Bucket List. However, on our second day in Paris, our tour guide allowed us some free time in the evening to see sights that weren't included on our original itinerary. Naturally, myself and over half of my group chose to visit the Catacombs.

Markers such as this tell us where the Paris Catacombs bones were disinterred from.

Our group of about 17 navigated the Paris subway system independently, and were quite proud when we made it successfully to the 14th arrondissement, the neighborhood of the Catacombs entrance. However, after exiting the subway station, we had no idea where to go. Luckily for us, people in Paris are more than willing to help 17 lost-looking tourists!

We were directed to 1 Place Denfert-Rochereau, which was on a street corner: a small, dark-green building with a single door and a tiny plaque overhead that stated simply: Les Catacombs. I negotiated an entrance deal with the gentleman at the door and got us in as a group. (Not phoning ahead when you're with a group of seventeen people is not technically a courteous or smart thing to do while traveling! Be sure to phone ahead while traveling in large groups.)

The entrance to the Paris Catacombs

We entered the Catacombs and traveled about three stories down a flight of narrow and sickeningly twisting steps. At the bottom, we followed a long, narrow, darkened corridor - occasionally finding wall plaques that told us which street we were on, or how long ago the tunnel had been constructed. Many passages wove out from the sides, but were blocked by barred doors to prevent wayward tourists from becoming lost in the unending maze below the surface.

Walking in an underground tunnel towards the "Empire of the Dead"

Finally, we entered a chamber with pictures on the walls (of dead people) and a sign above a darkened doorway announcing poetically in French that we were about to enter the World of the Dead. The kids became excited and nervous just at the sight of the sign. Inside, we marveled at the grotesque but beautiful arrangements of Parisian bones - over 6 million skeletons, in fact! The walls were made of neatly arranged layers of brittle, ancient bones, the doorways lined with femurs and ulnas, and even the artwork all consisted of bones. Hearts, portals, crosses; every pattern you could imagine was designed using these discarded bones. It was obvious that this was not some morbid tourist trap, but rather, a way to memorialize all the people who had been laid to rest haphazardly in the Catacombs.

Walls of bones guide your way through the underground passages.

We had a fantastic security guard who undoubtedly loved his job and loved kids: as soon as he saw I was leading a school group, he leapt from his chair and turned on his flashlight. He excitedly showed my students skulls with bullet holes, child skulls, and other such items that we would have missed without the use of his knowledge and flashlight. Thank you, French Catacombs guard!

On our way out of the Catacombs.

Upon emergence from the Catacombs, we spotted two skulls sitting on a shelf. I inquired in my rudimentary French what they were for. I was informed that they had been confiscated THAT DAY from a tourist's backpack! My students, bless them, were appalled that someone would desecrate the Catacombs in that manner. What great students I have! Then it was back onto the streets of Paris to wind our way back to our hotel, leaving the world of the dead behind us.

People actually tried to steal these skulls - such disrespect!

4 comments:

  1. I'm not sure I could go down there. Gives me the creeps!

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  2. It looks creepier than what it was: it was like walking through some odd museum, and everyone was hushed and respectful. I'm sure you could build up the nerve to do it! ;)

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  3. Replies
    1. It was pretty amazing, and sobering to think of all the millions of people down there. If you get the chance, please go! :)

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