Sunday, June 20, 2010

On the road (Europe 2010): Paris (Catacombs, Clignancourt, St. Denis, Eiffel Tower)

On Sunday the 20th , we started the day with a visit to the catacombs, the underground cemetery of Paris. In the late 1700s, one of Paris’s biggest cemeteries, the Cimetiere des Innocents was closed down at the request of the people that lived around it because it was contaminating water and causing disease. The authorities eventually decided the best thing to do was to dig up the entire thing and move the bodies. Paris has miles and miles of underground tunnels resulting from the quarrying of limestone for buildings and gypsum for plaster. Disused quarries under the city were chosen as the place to start moving the disinterred bones from the cemetery (and, later, from cemeteries all over the city as Haussmann’s plans to widen the boulevards and make other changes necessitated the clearing of many areas). The first bones were deposited in the early 1780s, although the earliest markers I found in the catacombs were from 1786. At first the bones were unceremoniously dumped, but soon afterwards the workers began to deposit the bones in a more orderly fashion, using the long bones from the legs and skulls (which both stack well) to form walls behind which the other bones were piled up. Some 6 million people are said to be buried (if that’s the right word) in the catacombs, including a few famous people, such as Rameau, although no one knows where the luminaries are at this point. It wasn’t very creepy, despite the many skulls. The neatly stacked bones leave a fairly abstract impression. 

We next went to Clignancourt, to one of Paris’s major Sunday flea markets. There are many vendors set up in the streets selling mostly jeans, T-shirts, and sunglasses, and other tourist items, but there is also an indoor area with many, many stalls offering better items, mostly antiques and memorabilia. There were stores selling everything from theater fixtures to furniture to African art to Hollywood movie posters. Spent a pleasant few hours there.

Later we went to St. Denis, a northern suburb of Paris, not far from Clignancourt. We visited the Basilica of St. Denis and the royal tombs there. Nearly all of France’s kings and queens (not to mention many princes, princesses, and other nobles) were buried here, going back to people like Clovis, who reigned in the 600s. Apparently the bodies are mostly gone--having been dug up and dumped in mass graves during the Revolution--but the stone sarcophagi (nearly all with a recumbent figure of the occupant--Henry II in the photo here) are there in their original positions. The church itself is pretty--much more delicate and open than I was expecting, with fully developed flying buttresses. This is usually said to be the first Gothic-style cathedral. Nearly all of the original stained glass has been removed for restoration. It’s been replaced for the time being with photographic reproductions of the glass, which sounds horrible, but it’s actually very difficult to tell--which is remarkable in itself. Nowhere can you get close enough to examine the surfaces, but I doubt you’d  know if you didn’t already know.

After dinner, went to the highest level of the Eiffel Tower for the first time. When I’ve been there in the past, the upper deck has always been closed. The view from the lower deck is fairly impressive, but the top allows you to see virtually all of Paris. There were crowds even at midnight. The area around the tower is swarming with vendors, mostly Africans, all selling identical souvenirs. I wonder why no one tries anything original? In the photo here, the beam of the tower spotlights is passing by.

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