Sunday 26 May 2013
On Sunday morning we rose somewhat earlier than the day before, and tried to Skype Clare without success. We then ventured out to the Catacombes. The metro stop nearby was inaccessible from the metro line we are on, so we had to do some fancy footwork. The fact that this was so easy for a couple of gormless foreigners is testament to how well-planned the metro system really is. And so we travelled to Châtelet and changed to the M4 line. It was easy to find the entrance to the Catacombes: on exiting the metro, we soon encountered a queue that snaked around the block. It took no less than two hours of standing around in the freezing cold before we reached the front of the queue. Susie disappeared at one point to buy some hot French fries from a street stall. These doubled as breakfast and a sorely-needed hand-warmer.
When we descended into the Catacombes, all was forgiven. Is there a better way to gain a measure of the duration of human settlement in a place than by seeing the bones of its former inhabitants neatly stacked along a labyrinth of cool, quiet, subterranean passages? There is something fitting about the substitution effected by the Catabombes of Paris. First, the inhabitants find beneath their feet a building material of great versatility—that is, limestone, which is of course composed of the skeletons of creatures that lived in seas which covered the land many hundreds of millions of years ago. As the limestone is mined by recent human inhabitants, a network of tunnels is created which comes to pose a danger as their ceilings collapse and entire houses are swallowed into bell-shaped caverns that open up beneath them. Remedial work commences to stave off the problem of subsidence. Fortuitously, this offers a solution to another problem. Paris’s cemetaries are literally overflowing: piles of human remains have been known to tumble into the cellars of unsuspecting villagers. Many bones have been exhumed and relocated to charnel houses to make space for the dead, but the charnel houses also become overcrowded and are increasingly seen to pose a threat to the health of the public. And so a plan is hatched to collect the human bones and transport them to the spaces beneath the city that have been vacated by the compressed skeletons of molluscs who so kindly provided the materials that housed the very same human bones when they still had flesh on them. Thus the shells house the molluscs and then form the rock that houses human bones which are finally substituted for the compressed shells. The circle is complete. Perhaps in time the human bones will combine to form a material that giant molluscs of the future will use to keep them safe from the elements, or perhaps even to house their civic institutions.
We returned to our apartment in Menilmontant via the Metro at Châtelet, then change at Belleville. We had lunch at the café-restaurant Estaminet. Susan ordered escargots as an entrée, which we washed down with our first Spanish red, Riojo-Navajas 2011. This brew was to play a happy role later in our journey.