Descending into the Dead, Paris

{Written upon safely returning to the Living}

Gargoyles snarl menacingly on the rooftops of Notre Dame, warding away demons whilst inside the Grim Reaper looms over Christ’s coffin, his hooded cloak rippling against an unfelt wind, his eyes dark even against the lights of a thousand candles. But the gothic arches, flying buttresses, and Latin hymns were too far to reach us, as the skies shrouded in grey and thunder rumbled warnings across Paris as Cassidy, Sara, and I emerged out of the metro station formerly known as Rue d’Enfer, or Street of Hell. Wind howled against our faces and umbrellas threatened to give in, but we joined the curved queue of those waiting to descend into The Catacombs of Paris.

“We close the gates before the sun sets,” called the guard, above the sound of the downpour. Staring at the sea of multicolored umbrellas bobbing ahead of us, I shielded my iPhone as best as I could and began searching for other – and frankly, less creepy – places to see around the City of Lights.

Pushing away the Darkness
Pushing away the Darkness

I had only just begun to move out of line when Sara hissed and pulled me back, “See that? People are leaving the line! We just might make it to the front. There are still 15 minutes left before the guard closes the doorway to the Catacombs.”

Catching on, Cassidy and I loudly and extravagantly complained – in both English and French so as to cater to all surrounding tourists – how horrid it was to stand in torrential rain when no one this far behind in line would ever even make it to the front before 7pm. Sensing that another few couples in front of us were on the brink of a decision we loudly proclaimed that Siri said the weather was only going to get worse.

More umbrellas drifted out of the queue and away into the evening’s misty streets. Why would anyone want to come on a date to the Catacombs anyways? We hid our triumphant expressions in our scarfs and inched closer to the black doors.

“Vous, vous avec le chapeau, yes you…and you. And zat izit! No one else can go today. Je suis désolé, come back tomorrow. Now go away,” ordered the gatekeeper.

Edvard Munch's
Edvard Munch’s “Scream” might be about me

Thrilled that we had made it past the guard in the very last group for the evening, we hurried through the menacing black studded door and grill, down the narrowest spiral stairwell I’ve ever seen. (And thanks to Oxford, I’ve experienced some narrow stairs. Read: View from my Castle Window)

One hundred and thirty steps: that’s all that separates those living in La Belle Paris from the six million human skeletons inhabiting the intricate tunnels of Empire of the Dead extending beneath. A shiver went down my spine as water droplets dripped down the smooth rock walls, and we descended further and further below Paris, round and around the stairs till we were dizzy, deeper into the eerily chilly tunnels. We were suddenly extremely grateful that there were four other living, breathing humans behind us. Jaundiced lamps did nothing to rid us of the mounting fear, excitement, or cold and my heart raced as we began to navigate the hand-dug tunnels.

Inside the tunnels of l'Empire du Mort
Inside the tunnels of l’Empire du Mort

Surreal is only word I can think of to describe the strange feeling of crossing the threshold placard, “Arrête! Ici C’est l’Empire de la Mort,” where the tunnel temperature dropped further and we walked along poetic etchings to be amongst six million real, artistically arranged human skulls and bones. The Catacombs of Paris could just as easily have been Davy Jones’ Locker or an undead army ready to attack Indiana Jones (What is it about the surname Jones?) or really any film set, but that is exactly was makes it spooky: these bones are real. Those skulls staring unseeing at you once had thoughts and lives. And those tunnels extend across several arrondissements of Paris, maybe even beneath the earth of my apartment building where I’m writing right now.

We made it through the Catacombs alive, only misreading a rotting French wooden signboard once, leading to a horrifying dead end – yes, this was possibly the most terrifying place ever to get momentarily lost in – and I screamed only once when a frail guard, hidden amongst the shadows and skeletons, raised his head and grinned toothlessly at us like the Grim Reaper himself.

The grey skies and mist had miraculously disappeared when the three of us crawled out of the other side of the Catacombs. Disoriented, we squinted against the sunlight uncertain whether we were dead, alive, or somewhere in between. It troubled me that there was no board that said, “Hey wanderer, ici you have indeed left the Empire of the Dead.”

Signage above ground finally aided us in realizing that we had crossed far along the cityscape through the eerie tunnels. We treated ourselves to some street-side crêpes, waiting silently for the autumn sun to revive and comfort us as we strolled the streets of Paris each wrapped in their own thoughts.

Author: Nikita Taimni

A Dubai-based blogger, I write about travel, theatre and lifestyle in the cities I explore around the world. Follow me on Instagram @nikitalyfe and follow via email if you enjoy reading my posts!

One thought

  1. Your blog on the Catacombs made me realize how naiive I had been in imagining that everything connected with Paris was romantic and lovely and lively. Now that you have shown me the other Darker side, I will most certainly research this a little more as it sounds really intriguing. Loved the trickery adopted to get in!!

    Like

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