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Visiting Paris’s off-limits catacombs: Part 6 Nazis

This is Part 6 of my adventures exploring the off-limit catacombs under Paris. Here are Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5.

When I first moved to France, in 1991, I read the book “Is Paris Burning?” and ever since have been obsessed with the idea of Occupied Paris. It’s hard to imagine that such atrocities happened in this beautiful, seemingly peaceful city. I can’t walk down the cobblestoned street of rue des Rosiers without thinking of the Nazi torture chambers that were located beneath. And I don’t even like to go near rue Nélaton, where the Velodrome d’Hiver once stood.

I sometimes look at my neighbors, wondering which one would have betrayed the people they shared a courtyard with…took the trash out with…traded pleasantries with while checking the communal mailboxes. Maybe my faith in the general goodness of humanity is misdirected and naive. But, to me, that kind of evil…here, right here!…just doesn’t seem possible.

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Reinforced metal door

 

Evidence of the occupation is also visible beneath the streets of Paris. Gilles told me that soon after WWI, the French realized Germany wanted vengeance. Only a few years after the armistice was signed—as early as 1923—thousands of shelters began to be prepared throughout Paris to protect the population against bomb and gas attacks.

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Graffiti letters spelling “BUNKER” were my only clue that we were entering the Luftwaffe headquarters.

Three of those shelters still exist in the catacombs, one of which is the bomb-proof bunker beneath the Montaigne high school, requisitioned in WWII by the German Luftwaffe as their command post. The Nazis marked the whole area of the catacombs near their bunker with three colors of arrows painted atop white backgrounds, the key being…

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Directions next to the Nazi bunker. “Hinterhof” means “back yard”, in this case the back yard of the Montaigne high school directly above-ground, Blvd St. Michel, and Notre Dame-Bonaparte.

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The arrows have been meticulously placed, and traces of gates or doors can be found blocking alternate corridors so that no one could go wandering off—either purposefully or by accident. (Like the two Nazis who wandered off, clearly out of the bunker area, in Part 2.)

The electrical and communication boxes of the underground Luftwaffe bunker.

The electrical and communication boxes of the underground Luftwaffe bunker.

 

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Amid the floor-to-ceiling graffiti that dates from the last few decades, a few clues remain as to what this part of the catacombs was like during the German occupation.

 

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Signs saying “Smoking Forbidden” and “Quiet” are stenciled in German on all of the walls.

 

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The chemical toilet still stands in the bunker area, a reminder that the catacombs lie several levels beneath Paris’s sewer system.

 

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Reinforced metal doors with locking wheels (I’m sure there’s a term for this) are propped around the area.

 

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This door, which has been dumped unceremoniously upside down, still has the German word for “Emergency Exit” painted on one side.

Although I expected to see some original graffiti from the time of the Nazi occupation, Gilles told me that very few German inscriptions remain. Apparently the Nazi commanders ordered their underlings not to write on the walls. And, as history tells us, the Nazi soldiers were known to obey orders.

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Although I’ve given you the highlights, I haven’t come near to showing you everything I experienced in the catacombs.

From the wells that are found throughout—some dried up, and others full of crystalline  water…

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to the wax-looking deposits on a few of the walls, producing cave-like stalactites…

 

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to the absolute silence while you sit, waiting beneath a manhole cover…until someone steps on it 70 feet above and the sound reverberates through the tunnel…

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Looking up at the speck of light from the hole in the center of a manhole cover.

 

to the fossils and even a few extant shells made visible when the limestone blocks in the ceiling crumble away, there is so much more to tell. So much more to show.

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After fulfilling my longstanding wish to visit the off-limit catacombs of Paris, I finally understand some of the mystery and even fear that surrounds them. The miasma of discomfort that their image brings to most people. While there was no talk of ghosts or spirits while we roamed the subterranean tunnels, something definitely exists down there in the darkness.

Because when you leave, you do not leave whole. For three hundred years, the catacombs have claimed something from each and every visitor. Like they did with those before you, they take a piece of your mind. Of your heart. Of your spirit, if you believe in such things. And that piece will never be yours again.

It is waiting for you—with all of the others—calling you back to return deep below the streets of Paris.

 

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Visiting Paris’s off-limits catacombs: Part 5 Bones

This is Part 5 of my adventures exploring the off-limit catacombs under Paris. Here are Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

I visited Paris’s Ossuary for the first time in the 1990s. It’s the open-to-the-public part of the underground network that everyone thinks of when you say “Catacombs.” I was so enchanted by it that I have returned several times over the years. Its well-ordered bones, beautifully arranged and laid out for the purpose of visits (which have been extremely popular since it opened in the early 19th century) are fascinating partly for the creep factor and partly for the beauty of art made out of, well…us.

Paris's ossuary, during my last visit in December 2016.

Paris’s ossuary, during my last visit in December 2016.

But the main reason I was drawn to it was the knowledge that every one of those millions of bones…the remains of more than six million people…had a story behind it. There are perfectly round holes in some skulls that suggest a bullet wound. There are the men who, for two years (1786 to 1788) carried the bones by dark of night in black cloth-covered wagons before dumping them down manholes. (More were added afterward).

Ossuary, during my last visit in December 2016.

Paris’s ossuary, during my last visit in December 2016.

And there is my curiosity as to just why Louis-Étienne François Héricart-Ferrand (director of the IGC after Charles-Axel Guillaumot (read Part 4), decided to arrange all of the bones in the geometric—even heart-shaped—designs that visitors see today. Had he seen the Capuchin Crypt in Rome, with the monk bones arranged into ghoulish maquettes complete with flying skeletons? (Which predates Paris’s by almost 200 years.)

Crypts of the Capuchin monks at Santa Maria della Concezione, Rome. (photo: Atlas Obscura)

Crypts of the Capuchin monks at Santa Maria della Concezione, Rome. (photo: Atlas Obscura)

So it was to my great surprise (and not a little bit of delight) that Gilles, the artist and I turned a corner in the non-ossuary part of the catacombs to see a couple of bones lying on the floor. “Are those…human bones?” I asked. Gilles didn’t answer. He just watched me carefully, unsure if I was going to freak out.

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I’m not sure if it was a relief or a shock to him when I crowed, “Bones!!! There are bones!!!” and ran around delightedly taking photos.

I have a special relationship with Death. (Okay…let’s just put it right out there and call it odd.) Death features prominently in all of my books. I used to hang out in cemeteries as a teenager and in my early twenties (and even more so now that Père Lachaise is within walking distance). I travel with my mom’s ashes, so she is now floating in the Thames, the Seine, the Arno, the Danube, and the little pond in Central Park. And my collection of taxidermy and (animal) bones was a source of amusement to my friends and family until my Labrador puppy ate them all last year.

When my four-year-old daughter dug up a beaver skull in our backyard in the Loire Valley, and carried it into the house like a trophy, insisting that I display it on our mantle, I knew she was flesh of my flesh, and unquestionably bone of my bones.

Back to the catacombs…we followed the trail, which grew larger as we proceeded down the tunnel.

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Gilles explained that after an extention was built onto the Ossuary in 1859-1860, Paris planners realized they needed more space to store even more bones. After 1870, they decided to put them in the quarries under Montparnasse Cemetery (where we were standing) as well as Montrouge cemetery and others. And since these were not going to be viewed by a ticket-paying public, they were unceremoniously dropped through manhole covers and left to assemble themselves. Or not.
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Finally we came to this corridor:

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and I thought my joy was complete. Until we went just a little further and found this:

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An actual THRONE OF BONES. I’m not sure who came up with this idea, but if you’re reading this right now…I’m single.

Just because you worship something doesn’t mean you can’t touch it. Or sit in it. But not before whispering to the bones, “I respect you, but just give me a second to take a photo, and I promise I’ll leave you in peace. And oh, can I hold this tibia as a scepter?” I’m not saying I did it. But I’m not saying I didn’t.

And as soon as we left the Montparnasse Cemetery area, the bones disappeared.

They hadn’t been framed by all of the beautiful carvings and signs that the official Ossuary boasts. But near the beginning of our tour, I took a photo of a carving that Gilles said was relatively recent. It’s the perfect accompaniment to the Montparnasse Cemetery bone dump, and a bit of a shame that it isn’t closer.

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A musical riff on tempus fugit, reminding us that time flies.

And if that’s not enough of a reminder, an amazingly talented cataphile artist known as “Lone” left another nod to our mortality on one of the few large walls in a “fontis” (bell-shaped cave formed by a tunnel collapse). It took him the entire year of 2010, and is a rendering of the Swiss Symbolist artist Arnold Böcklin’s painting “Isle of the Dead” (the version painted in 1883, incidentally bought at auction in 1933 by Adolph Hitler and now part of the collection of the Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin).

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The mural is so large and the space around it so small, that I could only capture it in several separate shots.

 

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It depicts a shrouded corpse standing in a boat behind a white coffin, being rowed to the eponymous isle.

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At the base of the mural, the artist has given us a palindrome (reads the same in both directions) sometimes attributed to Virgil meaning “We spin around the night consumed by the fire.” (It’s also the title of a French film, and was used by Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose.)

It’s a beautiful, if not a teeny bit morbid, metaphor for the catacombs: the humans that flit through its passages like moths, quickly devoured by the flame of time while the tunnels remain as an underground time capsule, preserving our traces for future generations to discover.

And on that cheery note, I’ll end for today. The sixth and last installment tomorrow, featuring NAZIS IN THE CATACOMBS (and anything else I’ve forgotten to tell you).

 

 

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Visiting Paris’s off-limits catacombs: Part 4 Revolution

This is the 4th installment of my adventures in the off-limit Paris catacombs. Here are Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

Wandering 60+ feet below the surface of Paris, three specific periods of time seemed to jump out at me. I talked a little bit yesterday about the 1980s, and the crews of cataphiles who adopted the catacombs as their sacred place for art, partying, exploring, and taking refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city above. I mentioned the creation of the catacombs around the time of the French Revolution and the untimely death of Philibert Aspairt soon after their creation. And then there are the traces of the Nazis during the German occupation of Paris in World War II. I’ll talk about that more later. But for now, let’s go back to the beginning.

Gilles Thomas teaching me the history of the catacombs, inscription by inscription.

Gilles Thomas giving me the history of the catacombs, inscription by inscription.

Like I mentioned in Part 2, the story of the catacombs began with the collapse of a limestone mine in 1774, which swallowed a whole street of houses (and people) along what is now avenue Denfert-Rochereau.

This prompted King Louis XVI to pass a royal decree in 1777 that a special commission would inspect the mines. (Um, yeah…a whole 3 years after the disaster. Bureaucracy seems to have been just as bad, if not worse, back then.) The Inspection générale des carrières (IGC) was founded and Charles-Axel Guillaumot (the king’s architect) was named chief inspector.

He took on the task whole-heartedly, working with a team of eighteen men. Like I mentioned before, Guillaumot and all of the inspectors after him each left their mark. And if you know the code, you know who was in charge when each pillar was reinforced. (Finding a “G” for Guillaumot is a special thrill!)

inspectors1inspectors2(table copied from Wikipedia.fr: Inspection Générale des Carrières)

As you can see, Guillaumot was inspector twice: for 14 years, then a five year gap, then again from 1796-1807. Can anyone guess why? Yep…it was because of this little thing called The French Revolution.

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Pillar #2 by Guillaumot, reinforced in 1782—before he was thrown in jail. (The drawing underneath would have to date after the wall was built, of course.)

Since Guillaumot had been appointed by the king, the revolutionaries didn’t look kindly on him and threw him in jail. But he was given his job back in 1795 (Napoleon recognized his importance to the project) and his “G” once again appears on inscriptions using the Revolutionary calendar, like the one below. He kept working on his prize project until he died in 1807.

Pillar I by Guillamot in the 9th year of the Revolution, or 1800.

Pillar I by Guillaumot in the 9th year of the Revolution, or 1800, 5 years after Napoleon let him out of jail and gave him his job back.

 

Near the end of Guillaumot’s first stint, Louis XVI was guillotined (on 21 January 1793). Starting that year, all signs of royalty were ordered destroyed. Therefore, all of the fleur-de-lys that were carved into the catacomb’s signs were scratched out.

Scratched-out fleur-de-lys and number 30.

Scratched-out fleur-de-lys and number 30.

But that wasn’t the only thing that changed. Before Napoleon, the streets were numbered 1, 2, 3, 4, 5… up one side of the street, and then coming back down 10, 11, 12, 13… In 1805 Napoleon instated the system that is still used today: even numbers on one side of the street and odd on the other. (The numbers start at the Seine with 1 and go higher as you get further away from the river, or for east-west streets start with sunrise, at the east, and get higher in the direction of sunset, at the west of the city.)

So when you see a number scratched out, and the new address carved in its place—topped with a star—you know that dates from 1805 or later. (My photo of the starred address looks like I shot it while running for my life. I will spare you.)

HOWEVER…the people tasked with scratching out the fleur-de-lys missed a few. Ten, to be exact. And Gilles led the artist and me to each and every one, letting us find them ourselves on a mini-scavenger hunt. They weren’t easy to find—which is the reason they were missed in the first place! One had been in a pool of water. The other behind another sign:

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And others had lost their color or were in unexpected locations:

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Also, thanks to the Revolution, all signs of religion were destroyed, so streets with saint names were changed, thus rue St. Jacques becoming plain old rue Jacques. During the restoration, some of these were once again altered, but if there was no space a tiny “St” was carved in between words.

But my favorite remnants of the Revolution aren’t the official ones. They are the graffiti left by the cataphiles of the day.

As I learned while studying Napoleon with my eleven-year-old son a couple of weeks ago, the general-turned-emperor became reviled for (well, for a lot of things, but especially for…) as one poet said, “taking all of our sons”. Napoleon’s battles were bloody, and a great number of France’s young men were killed during his short reign. One of the unfortunate boys to be enlisted went down into the catacombs to express his grief over choosing the lottery number that ensured his army inscription. (I can only imagine it would be treason to express it anywhere above-ground!)

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I can’t read the whole thing, but it gives his name, says he was born in 1789…. “drew in 1809 the number 197″… and the rest basically says “in drawing that number, the people of France chose my fate.” In just one of the battles of 1809, Napoleon lost 23,000 men to the Austrian army. We can only hope that this boy was one of the few to survive.

This one shows a Napoleonic soldier. The date 1813 is written above it, which happens to be the year of the Battle of Leipzig, which cost more than 90,000 men their lives.

P1030576Close up of the soldier:

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Not far away, in the same corridor, Gilles pointed out a drawing and asked, “What do you think this is?”

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After a moment’s thought, I said, “A guillotine, with a ladder going up to its platform.” Gilles looked at me so strangely that I thought I had gotten it wrong, but apparently I’m the first person who answered his question correctly. (!) The theme is repeated in a more detailed drawing on the facing wall.

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Print showing the 1794 execution of Robespierre, copied from richardnilsen.com. (No date or artist listed).

Which is quite similar to the one used to execute Robespierre, complete with side-railings.

However, in the catacombs version, the artist has gone all-out and included ladder-railings and a basket to catch the severed head beneath the guillotine.

And on that note, we will close today’s history-lesson-slash-treasure-hunt, because tomorrow I’ve got something I know you’re all going to love: BONES. Lots of them.

A demain!

 

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