Paris… The City of Love
Described as one of the most romantic and beautiful cities in the world with its sparkling city lights, the Eiffel tower lit up like a Christmas tree in the background, its rich history and culture and delicious cuisine, Paris is an exceptional city to visit for the first time, or in my case the fifth and definitely not the last.
I’ve spent countless hours visiting all the impressive museums and galleries, churches, discovering magical places such as the Tuileries Gardens, walks along the Seine River and the many charming market places dotted along the cobblestone streets that make up this remarkable city.
It was here in Paris that I saw my first Picasso, Monet, Rembrandt, da Vinci, Van Gough, Michelangelo and many other world-renowned masterpieces, but on this most recent visit my aim was to discover a more diverse and offbeat cultural side of the city.
I discovered that the number one unconventional Paris attraction is a visit to the prominent underground alternative city of the dead.
The Catacombs of Paris are ossuaries that hold the remains of more than six million people in a small part of a tunnel network built to consolidate Paris’ ancient stone mines. This catacomb was created as part of the effort to remove the city’s overflowing cemeteries. Preparation work began not long after 1774 due to a series of macabre Saint Innocents-cemetery-quarter basement wall collapses.
The day I chose to visit The Catacombs, the city put on a damp and drizzly morning to greet us. It was the perfect bleak Parisian day to coincide with my ghoulish underground visit.
I was surprised at the number of people waiting to get in. There were literally hundreds of people lined up early in the morning with the queue snaking up and around a couple of blocks.
I had pre-booked my early morning tour and thus avoided lining up for a ticket as this is a huge tourist attraction in the ‘City of Life’.
I was met by Leo, our guide, who reminded me of one of Charles Dicken’s street urchin characters in Oliver Twist.
The wealth of knowledge and passion this delightful girl imparted on us was quite astonishing. She described how she spent many years scurrying around the underground tunnels discovering this world until finally becoming a fully-fledged licensed catacomb guide.
We began the tour with a walk down a narrow underground spiral staircase (131 steps) that seemed to go on forever and almost immediately the first wall of skulls and bones confronted us
The temperature set at 14 degree Celsius, is the perfect temperature for preservation and morbid viewing. The tour covers approximately two kilometres and takes about one to one and a half hours to complete.
We snaked around the endless tunnels whilst our guide explained the history of how it all began and talked about the many historical memorial skull and bone walls that are prevalent throughout.
I imagined The Catacombs to have a very eerie feel, yet I was amazed at how comfortable it felt walking around amongst the departed. Our guide with her insight, passion and knowledge was a huge part of this remarkably unusual and fascinating tour.
The next day we continued our offbeat cultural tour and went to see a visual art exhibition featuring the works of one of the brilliant artists of a hundred years ago, Gustavo Klimt.
We entered a huge warehouse space, the Atelier des Lumieres or otherwise known as the Studio of Lights and immediately were immersed in a visual digital gallery extravaganza.
The exhibition, devoted to the main artists of the Viennese art scene of which the genius Gustav Klimt was a key figure was to mark the 100th anniversary of the artist’s death and that of Egon Schiele.
Their works of art were projected back to life on the warehouse’s enormous surfaces to the ambient sound of hypnotic music that delighted the senses.
After this surreal experience we hit the pavement and walked the streets of Paris until we got to the Pere Lachaise Cemetery where one of my favourite rock and roll vocalists is laid to rest, The Doors lead singer Jim Morrison.
Morrison’s grave is one of the most visited in the world and fortunately we were the only people admiring his grave site and reading his epitaph at that particular time, which made it a slightly more personal experience. Unfortunately a bust of the singer’s head that usually sits on his gravestone is absent due to vandalism and theft that has occurred on more than one occasion.
Other extremely famous individuals who are buried in this cemetery include playwright Oscar Wilde, pianist/composer Chopin and French iconic cabaret singer Edith Piaf.
With its many trees and intricate cobblestone paths, its rich history and array of mausoleums, this is a very intriguing and serene place to visit.
Paris never ceases to amaze me and the more I go back to visit, the more I realize how much I’ve yet to discover.
How to book your Catacombs tour:
+61 1300 113 254
How to get there:
Vicky Gilden at Rose Bay Travel
(02) 9371 8166