February 2004 and February 2005 I wrote twenty six freelance articles for
francophile internet magazine Bonjour Paris + one article with Karen Fawcett
(President) and Sarah Gilbert Fox (Directeur Général), which was published in
the guide-book, "Paris For Dummies." Here is one of the original twenty six,
with the original self-penned lead...
Death In The
Afternoon: The Catacombs.
takes you on a Tour of Cemetery Montparnasse, which holds some of the most
colourful and controversial of the deceased artists, philosophers, writers,
performers, anarchists and Feminists who lived the history of Paris, before
descending into the dark and murky labyrinth of the ancient and awesome
Catacombs. READ MORE:
of the Paris Catacombs several times, but something about this dark, winding
labyrinth, buzzing with small electric lights, throwing shadows against cold,
grinning skulls, leading to huge open spaces filled with still hundreds more
vacant, gaping eyes, unknowing and unseeing, piled together, cramped and
condemned, raising only questions and never revealing answers, reminded me too
much of French bureaucracy, so I had always avoided it.
eventually hardened to French bureaucracy and softened to the idea of a trip to
the Catacombs. Deciding on a visit to nearby Cemetery Montparnasse, as a sort of
warm-up (if you'll pardon the expression), I took the best of the metro stop
choices: Edgar-Quinet, Line 6, coming out onto Blvd. Edgar-Quinet. A few steps
South along the Blvd and I was standing awkwardly at the main entrance.
and turning right, I was confronted by the first of many small temples, filled
with Crucifix’s and Holy figures, pretty picture-windows and flowers. I was
almost moved to tears by the fact that the space inside was almost the same as
that of my studio apt. But I felt a little strange standing in front of
someone's tomb and mourning myself, so I moved on.
this is the modest resting place of philosopher Jean-Paul Satre and writer
Simone Beauvoir. Satre apparently lived the last few decades of his life on
nearby Blvd. Raspail, making the immortal thinker a home-body in all senses of
A genuinely touching aspect of the grave of Satre and Beauvoir
is a dedication (larger than that to either Satre or Beauvoir), to the memory of
a 17 year old girl called Sohane, a French girl of
origin, who was burned alive in 1984 for refusing to follow some kind of
religious or cultural law (a dress-code, according to one helpful mourner).
Beauvoir is described in the plaque as a writer who wrote for the freedom of
women, and Shoane as a martyr who died for it. It is very touching and strange
to consider that a philosopher, a writer, and an activist, are still working
together from the grave towards a common goal in Paris.
nothing of philosophy, I had always had a soft spot for Satre because of his
classic one-liner: ‘Hell is other people,’ a statement as exquisitely simple as
it is painfully true.
Just ask a cool British guy called Sebastian, who I
hooked up with and talked at for a period of hours on my first visit to the
I will never forget some of the looks we received as we stood
in front of Charles Baudelaire’s grave discussing ‘Buffy The Vampire
But apart from Satre, Montparnasse holds yet another of the
one-liner kings, Proudhon, the anarchist thinker who came up with the immortal:
“Property Is Theft!”
honest, I never really understood that one. What if you rent? What does that
make you? A liberal? As for Proudhon’s final property, ironically enough, I
couldn’t find it. The map I was viewing (a signpost at the top end of
Avenue de l’Ouest), was clear enough, and the sections were clearly signposted,
too, but I didn’t get there. In truth, I was only interested in seeing if
anybody had sprayed an Anarchy sign on his tomb, or in the hope that some
fan-club nuts might have paid to have one painstakingly carved into a
All the thoughts of Anarchy somehow lead me straight to the
grave of Serge Gainsbourg (Division One, along Avenue Transversale). Serge’s
grave was bedecked with photographs of the great man, along with metro-tickets,
cigarette’s, and even flowers. I don’t know much about Serge either, only that
he seems to have been loved for being unlovable, which is a pretty good
Apart from Serge, Satre, Proudhon, Baudelaire, you will also find
here the Facist Pierre Laval, executed for treason; car-maker André Citroen;
César Frank; and a famous victim of French anti-Semitism at the end of the
nineteenth century, Captain Dreyfuss. Some of the graves and temples are
amazing; some of the sculptures astounding, like the huge hand over the grave of
one Robert Thibier, who was probably the sculptor. Unfortunately, the name
prepares to be late for his own funeral.
having spent some time wandering around, staring at the head-stones and into the
temples, I was left with a feeling that the Montparnasse philosophy dictates
that just because you’ve been dead for a few hundred years, doesn’t mean you
shouldn’t look good. And with that, I was ready for...
From Cemetery Montparnasse, you only need turn right at the
main entrance and hook back onto Blvd. Raspail, then follow it down to Pl.
Denfort Rochereau, face a giant statue of a lion, and look to the building in
front and to the left of it’s left nostril! It’s that simple. Or get off the
metro at Denfort-Rochereau, Line 4, and use sortie ‘rue Denfert-Rochereau’,
which will leave you standing directly opposite. The Catacombs are open Tue-Sun
to rest, I mean laid - no - Oh yes, sorry, laid to rest.
amazed by the que. I had expected to see a few people milling around, of course;
a grumble of tourists smelling a photo-opportunity with death, but I was greeted
by a que stretching a long way back. It looked more like the crowd for the
Louvre; the Mona Lisa lovers. ‘Damn,’ I thought, ‘Maybe they buried her here?
Maybe they’ve got her skull on display and I’ve missed all the snappy adverts:
‘Meet Mona In The Catacombs! Wonder At The Mystery Of That Toothy Grin! Fitted
With Realistic Hair! Photo’s 10 E’s.’
Yes, it was the tourist crowd.
Somebody somewhere was making a fortune from selling bright orange shirts and
trousers that were neither long nor short, just stupid. All those little
family groups. The women and children suffering meekly under the enforced
enthusiasm and cross-eyed leadership of the dominant males. The crappy
I heard one
guy telling his partner: “I don’t care what the guide-book says! I spoke to an
actual French man!” I realised then that life is so much sadder than death. I
put my shades on, to protect my eyes from the blaze of orange, and looked down
the que. ‘Maybe they’re here to be buried?’ I thought hopefully. But they
weren’t, and I knew it, so I joined them.
One woman was freaking out
because a spider had found it’s way onto her. Odd, considering that she was
about to descend into one vast, dimly-lit, grinning pit of death. So we
waited. Then we went in, paid our five euros, and began descending the steep,
narrow, winding stairway to the Paris Catacombs.
After a long, dull
start, in which minding your step on the rough ground and minding your head on
the low ceiling, takes up most of your thoughts along some ancient, extremely
narrow passageways, you come to a large, circular opening, then the skulls
of bones, interlaced with grinning skulls, some lit, some half-lit, some with
shadows creeping over them, searching out the deep eye-sockets. Dates on
plaques. The ancient dead. More skulls. Some chest-high bone walls showing how
far back these Catacombs go. Thousands of dead; a sea of bones, the odd skull
sitting atop; some tilted in the half-light, looking for all the world like the
fleshy, bald heads of living men. They did live once. All of them. You know
that. They walked around above, dreamed, laughed, played it out, schemed and
struggled until their turn was over. Now they were here.
I preferred them
to the tourists, somehow. In fact, I stopped and waited until the low orange
grumble had faded to dark, silence, and I found myself alone, just me and the
dead. I soaked it up. It felt good. Peaceful. Here
real dead of Paris. Old bones even before they were so rudely dug up, probably
already forgotten, and dumped here back in 1785.
These were the guys and
girls who knew what being dead and gone was really all about. Here death
actually was the great leveller, not like in Montparnasse Cemetery with all its
poseurs, its unsophisticated and fashion-conscious nouveau-dead like Citroen and
Laval, demanding attention and maudlin sentiment. Here was a real community of
corpses. Their own skulls were their tombstones; their bones piled beneath them,
testifying to the fact that they once stood and walked in the sun.
labyrinth wasn’t really a labyrinth. It was low and claustrophobic in places,
dripping water and wet underfoot here and there, but there was no way to get
For me, there was still a way out. And the tourists were long gone.
They had collected all the drama they needed for all the phone-calls they were
going to make, for letters they were going to write, and I had collected all the
information I needed for the article.
I said goodbye to the dead and
started making my way back up towards the light, towards a nice guy who would
bag to make sure I hadn’t stolen a skull (to stick a candle on the next time I
sacrifice a goat?).
He would then smile and point me out towards a street
I had never seen before in my life, where I would be blinded by the sun and the
blaze of slow moving orange grumble.
Oh well, C’est la vie !
Catacombs, Place Denfort-Rochereau, 75014, Paris. Telephone : 01.43.22.47.63.
Entrance : 5.00 euros. Call for discount information.
Place Denfort-Rochereau. Exit: Rue Remey Dumoncel. Turn right and continue along
to Avenue Du General Leclerc. Turn right again to head back towards Place