March 19, 2002
If we had had enough time, we would have hopped, skipped and jumped to nearby Mont Blanc. As it was, we had to return to Paris early in the morning or else lose an entire day in the city and perhaps our hotel room. In a mere two hours, we were back in rainy Paris. The hotel management rather curtly informed us that we were going to be assigned a different room, this time without a balcony or a view of the street. Hmph!
We went to a nice brasserie near the Cardinal Lemoine metro and supped on crisp salads and hot goat cheese sandwiches (note: all French sandwiches must be lavishly buttered, even if the only filling between the slabs of bread is cheese). I love the fresh baguettes, but the crunchy, golden crust with its jagged edges does quite a number on the tender roof of my mouth at times. Hmmm. Maybe it is because I was cramming the delicious sammich into my mouth so quickly though. Luckily, I had some creamy cafe viennois (heavy cream with a dash of chocolate, poured over a two-shot espresso, topped with fresh whipped cream - just a fancy name for a mocha + dollop of whipped cream, I guess) to soothe my ragged flesh. As we sat digesting our meal and people-watching, we made this observation: Parisians own about 200,000 dogs and of those breeds (the majority of which could be tucked under one's fashionably-sleeved arm), there is a disproportionate amount of West Highland White Terriers prancing and mincing about. We started to point out all of the Westies that passed by, but the sheer number overwhelmed us and tuckered us out.
In deference to the gloomy, wet weather, most of the city's inhabitants decided to stay indoors. We, however, decided to go underground. The dark skies and stinging rain had put us in a dreary state of mind and so, to match our macabre mood, we decided to check out the Catacombes. Faced with the rather gruesome problem of overflowing cemeteries in the late 1700s, Parisians decided to preserve and relocate the bones of about six million folks to the tunnels of the unused quarries beneath the city. The Catacombes also came in handy during WWII when the French Resistance shared the space with the dearly departed and used the tunnels as their headquarters.
With no line in which to wait, we were immediately welcomed into the Catacombes. We descended a great many stone steps to arrive at a labyrinth of skull and bones. There were some interesting decorating techniques employed. Stacks upon stacks of bones that lined the walls were interrupted by varying patterns of skulls usually organized in a horizontal stripe, but occasionally arranged in the shape of a heart, a cross or, most intriguingly, a house (found out later it was an obelisk). Ghoulish as the job may be to assemble human remains in an efficient but aesthetically pleasing manner, someone seemed to have had fun doing it.
We continued to traverse the 1.6 km length of the dimly-lit passages of the underground graveyard. At one point, Lil Baji and I were the only people in an offshoot of the tunnel and when we held still, we could hear nothing but our own breathing. Our own heavy, increasingly rapid, freaking-us-out breathing. We quickly took our flesh-covered bones out of the dank tunnels and emerged into the fresh, damp air.
(wow, this entry is getting really long and we did a lot that day. i'll cut y'all some slack and end it here, to be continued tomorrow)