Sunday, September 28, 2014

Catacombs, Graves, Taxidermy...You Know, the Usual (France, Part Three)

Hello again!

Well, I've finally got another moment to sit down and catch my breath this week, so I figured the natural thing to do would be to gather together some of the spooky portions of our trip to France into one, suitable-for-almost-Halloween post. Guys! I saw some seriously spine-tingling (and spectacular!) things  when I wasn't stuffing my face with French food or trying to take the wrong metro. I'd earmarked three ghoulish spots as must-sees, and that's what we're talking about here at The Bird. Warning: skulls ahead.

To ease you into it, here are our non-skullified heads waiting outside the Catacombs.
One of those things that pop up a lot on reddit's /creepy feed or other similar click candy sites I unabashedly spend too much time on is les catacombes de Paris, an underground "city of the dead" that was Paris's solution to the overcrowding of city cemeteries in the early 19th century. The horror appeal of the place is such that they're making a movie just called Catacombs, posters of which we saw several times in the subway. I was super excited to see the mile of legbones, neckbones, hipbones, all unconnected to each other and stacked up in neat piles-- so excited, that I was unconcerned with the serious line that was already queued literally around the block as we exited the Denfert-Rochereau metro stop. "How long could it take? I think it'll be fine," I optimistically opined. Turns out, it takes three hours. THREE HOURS. Which would have been bad on its own, but was considerably worse for the fact that the most New Yorker cartoonish bourgeois father and son from the states were in front of us. I wish I had written down some of the exchanges they had, but just know that it bordered on self-parody, and you couldn't drown them out for love or money. FOR THREE HOURS. Oh, and a busker with a guitar, amp and a cd of lite rock 70's and 80's classics he may or may not have ever heard before, judging from his performance, was also playing the entire time we were in line. YES, FOR THREE HOURS. Somehow, I didn't die of pique (I think it was mainly in view of how completely chill Matthew was to wait in line for three hours for something I wanted to see), and we arrived at the front of the line around 1 PM. The front of the line looks like this, btw:  

And this looks like sweet, sweet victory. And Matthew.
When you come in, you pay your twelve euros (I think it was an extra euro or two for the audio tour, which was decent), and begin a loooooong descent down a series of spiral concrete stairs. Down, down, down, down...until you reach a little alcove that tells you the history of the catacombs, which, thanks to the website, is essentially this:
The Catacombs, which form a veritable labyrinth beneath the very heart of Paris, were created in the galleries of the former quarries whose stone was used to build the capital.
Situated twenty metres below ground, the ossuary contains the remains of approximately six million Parisians, transferred there gradually between the late eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries as graveyards were being closed because of the risk they posed to public health. The first of these was the cimetière des Innocents graveyard in 1786 in what is now the district of Les Halle.
Obviously, I took a photo of this 1860 engraving reproduced on a placard on the wall, because, well, look at it:

"No, I know, this place is seriously metal, right?" says well dressed 1860's Frenchman 1 to well dressed 1860's Frenchman 2. How much more terrifying would this visit have been conducted ONLY by torch light? Conservatively, about 1,000,000 x.
 You then walk through a lot of non-bones, quarry wall, subterranean passages like this. If there is one thing I have learned about Paris, it is that you are always walking and never stopping:

This is a model of a French fortress called Port-Mahon that was carved out of quarry rocks by a former quarry inspector who (wait for it) died in the quarry trying to get more materials for a followup masterpiece. Or...something like that. The audio tour was definitely geared towards scaring you more than you already would be naturally 20 meters underground surrounded by skeletons, soooo....thanks, audio tour.

Finally, you get to series of passages that lead to the ossuary, starting out after you cross this threshold, which helpfully warns you in French, "Stop! This is the city of the dead." Did we stop? We did, but just to take a picture. Then we went the frank on into that mess.

And saw this. LOTS, and LOTS of this:

As much as I understood that there would be miles and miles of bones down there, it's not until you SEE a stack of bones and skulls like this, in real life, that the enormity of it hits you. We're talking SOLID walls of bones that used to be all connected to one another in their individual units, and walked around the above ground France of the 1600's.  I started to feel weird about taking pictures, but as everyone and their mom was getting a selfie, I figured, when in Rome...

This is me having a "I do believe in spooks, I do believe in spooks, I do I do I do believe in spooks," moment from The Wizard of Oz. Do you see skulls with holes in them? Also, think about the fact that these remains have been around for aaaabooout four hundred years, and have yet to from-dust-to-dust themselves. Isn't that amazing?

Matthew makes the best reaction faces, and continues to impress here:

"Skullford?! Is that you?!"

We have a ton more pictures of different alcoves and sober pronouncements carved into the walls (very "one day you too shall be as we!", as if you needed to be more igged out than you already were in a world of bones). But we have more creeptacular places to survey!

Up next, Père Lachaise cemetery:

One of the most famous cemeteries in the world and the largest in the city of Paris, Père Lachaise has its own metro stop directly across the street from the grounds themselves, and talk about a lot to see. We popped in a restaurant next to the metro stop, ate a croque monsieur apiece, then started our journey through the cobblestoned walkways between monuments. And OH, the monuments we saw. 

Lots of luminaries, French and not, are buried in Père Lachaise, but even the graves of the myriad of anonymous-to-us inhabitants were memorialized with SUCH style. Museum-grade statuaries seemed to be around every corner.

It was overcast the morning we visited the cemetery, with a wind rustling some prematurely felled leaves along the cobblestones. Oh, and did I mention ravens just live there, in the cemetery? A French person I was telling about this later joked "Oh, yes, we have those flown in for ambiance", but seriously, atmospheric as ALL GET OUT, as these ravens walk along the crypts. Here are two  I caught as they alighted onto a memorial, sure, business as usual:

"What're you lookin' at, Bub? Nothin' to see here...." PS the inscription does in fact read "rest in peace" in French.

You could buy a map of the layout of the cemetery outside for two euros, but I saved the scratch by instead photographing the map at the entrance and referring to it instead. That's a mini bottle of Chardonnay we can have instead! :) As usual, I took about five wrong turns on the way to some famous graves, but along the way, saw some gorgeous memorials:

One of my big things about going on vacation is TAKING PICTURES WITH US IN THEM, as I always get home with 1,000 pictures of things and places, and none of us, which is what I'll want to show our kids some day! So here's another of me among the tombs, right before I advised a French family on where Edith Piaf's grave could be found (in French no less! I don't know if I've ever been so proud):

And Matthew looking particularly pensive and handsome (he's probably thinking about food):

Several of the crypts had these interesting little "come inside"...grave parlors? I don't know how to describe them. You would possibly go inside and sit in them, and think about your loved one? The spooky part was definitely that some of the crypts hadn't been maintained in recent years. You think about how many times at estate sales you see stacks of old sepia tone photographs for sale because "no one knows who they are or how they're related to us" anymore, and apply that to a grave, and I guess this is what you get. One was complete with an upholstered Victorian chair that was broken down from rot and exposure, just....sitting in the tomb. This one, however, has withstood the weather and ravages of time pretty well, and isn't it gorgeous:

Of course, we did have to hit some of the highlights. Here's Oscar Wilde's grave, covered in lipstick kisses in spite of a sign, in French and English, that says "Please do not deface this tomb, the family is responsible for the upkeep and cleaning of it." All I did was stand in front of it, so I'm in the clear. How Art Deco is this, by the way? Seemingly years before its time, too (I think it dates to 1909. when Wilde was re-interred here from another cemetery?).

I have gone to the mattresses I don't know how many times on people who talk trash about the Doors-- about 100% of them have never listened to a Doors record beginning to end, or else they would have a healthier opinion of one of the most exciting bands of the sixties'. Mythos aside, I am hugely into Jim Morrison, so of course I had to swerve to pay respects to the Lizard King (bleh, I hate that title! But I typed it anyway!). I did think about, though, on the way, how many business men and city officials and otherwise important and good people who spent a lifetime building up a family, a career, what have you, only to have a memorial that is pretty much tripped over or whizzed by so that someone can stick a piece of gum on an American rock singers grave, a couple crypts down, must feel- wouldn't that tick you off if you were a spirit in the material world? I guess that's kind of the point that it doesn't matter any more, but still. I pressed through a throng of fellow tourists to snap a few pictures from where the cordoned off area would allow you to snap pictures.

La môme herself, Edith Piaf, was buried in this nondescript place along with I think two other family members. I took special care to tell the French family, "Not the row next to the road, but two rows off the road," because I really would have missed it if two Japanese tourists weren't snapping photos on top of it as I walked by. That cemetery map is seriously confusing! Still, it was nice to see it so well kept. Do you notice the little round placard there at the foot of the grave? There were those everywhere in the cemetery-- they seem more popular than wreathes for decorating a loved one's final resting place.

And of course, Sarah Bernhardt, France's most famous theatrical export around the turn of the century. At this point, we ran into what I guess you would call a "grave hustler"? A gregarious Frenchman rushed up to a group of Australian tourists and began giving them the bum's rush off the main drag and towards Bernhardt's grave (which, again, was in a somewhat hard-to-find spot). "Ici, you zee, de grave of the PLUS FAMEUSE artiste of de stage, Sah-rah Beuuurnhart! She is de most known actress of the Père Lachaise!" "What about Simone Signore?" asked one of the Australians. Listening to these accents coming one up against the other was pretty amazing. "You want to see Simone Signoret, voilá, Madame Signoret. Et ici, Yves Montand!" he said, gesturing at Matthew and me. "Je prendrai le compliment!" I said, and beat a path for the road as I heard one of the Australian women whisper harshly to the other "He's not expecting us to pay him, is he?" as their non-consensual tour guide exhorted them to follow him to the next celebrity grave.

Last but not least, on the same day as the cemetery we hit the world renowned house of taxidermy, Deyrolles. I've wanted to go to this place ever since I read Still Life by Melissa Milgrom, which I think devoted a chapter to the almost 200 year old business. Outside of the Smithsonian Natural Museum of History, this is the most impressive taxidermy you will see in your life. All my pictures are kind of foggy as I was afraid someone would tell me you couldn't take pictures and I snapped them all as surrepitiously as possible...but I hope they'll give you an idea of how cool the place was. Oh, and EVERYTHING you see is for sale. Remind me to come back here some day with like Elton John's bankroll, I could really use, um, all of these things in my home.

I was too worried I wouldn't be able to bring them back through customs into America, but I really would have loved to at least grab a mayfly or some huge, gorgeous moth to take back home. The work on these specimens were so exquisite you waited for something to breathe on you or flutter off.

Look at how realistic this bull is. And then look at the butterfly viewpanel. Juxtaposition much? It was so gorgeous and strange to be in this old building, with such a small space crammed with every species you could think of. I felt a little bit like I was in a Roald Dahl story-- a cross between his children's work and his creepy crime thrillers.

All right! I think I've probably eeked you out enough for one day, but I still have some more sights and sounds of Paris to share with you as time permits. Two more posts and then I promise not to talk so much about going to France AT LEAST until the next time I get over there. :)

Are you into creepy sights when you go sightseeing on vacation? What kinds of places to do mark as must-sees? What kind of tourist attraction has little appeal to you (right answer in my case: NO TOURIST ATTRACTION IS TOO UNAPPEALING). What do you think of the spots we saw in this post? Let's talk!

I gotta get on with my Sunday, but I will see you again! Have a great week, and we'll talk soon. Til then!


  1. You are more than welcome to arrange my Paris itinerary when the time comes. I love all of this!

  2. I recall the catacombs being MUCH cheaper and much less popular back when I did them... but that was circa 2002? They were such a fascinating experience, I'm so glad they are getting the attention they deserve now! :)

  3. amazing! all of it! the catacombs are unbelievable! and that taxidermy store! gosh, you guys would be great travel buddies for us, we like to go the same kind of places!

  4. I have wanted to visit the catacombs since I first learned about them in French class, thank you for the awesome pictures! And Edith Piaf is one of my favorite chanteuse francaise. Don't know about the taxidermy stuff though, I kind of prefer my animals of the live variety.... Yvonne (

  5. That´s some amazing taxidermy, I can´t believe it´s not a museum but a store! I have to remember it when I go to Paris one day.



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