Writer/Photographer/Serial Trespasser Jonny Grave went to Europe for two weeks, exploring Berlin, Geneva, Grenoble, and Paris. When is not writing/shooting/breaking the law for BYT, he is likely playing a show. On Saturday, October 31, he will host the Halloween Circus at D.C.’s Black Cat.
I left the mountains of Grenoble just after noon, on Sunday, October 4. The streets at the foot of the mountains turn into an open-air, free-for-all flea market every week. The residents simply find a piece of curb space, prop up their folding tables, and sell everything from secondhand clothes to golf clubs to hang-gliding gear. Some of the cafés will start cooking outdoors, too. By noon, the air was thick with smoke, paella, people, dogs, old stone, and fall sun. I was on the move, though. Méli guided me through the streets and alleyways, dropping me off at Gare Grenoble, waving me off from the platform. The train pulled away from the mountains, into the tunnels, and into the dark. I woke when the engine dropped speed, the bell rang, and the train pulled slow into Gare Saint-Lazare, in between the 8ème and 9ème arrondissements, in the very heart of Paris.
Have you ever wondered why, in the City of Lights, there are so few tall buildings? A skyscraper, by definition, is any building over 150 meters high (roughly 500 feet). In Paris, there are fewer than twenty, none of which are in the center of the city (by comparison, there are over one hundred buildings that meet this criteria in Manhattan alone). To build a tall building, you need a deep foundation to secure the structure. The taller the building, the deeper the foundation must be. However, it is remarkably difficult to have a massive foundation if the ground you’re digging into is completely hollow.
And the ground beneath Paris is completely hollow. Or, at least it’s almost hollow– there’s also the bones of roughly six million Parisians carefully arranged along the walls of the abandoned limestone mines cut almost a thousand years ago.
Back in the 5th Century, when Roman-ruled Gaul fell to the Franks, the inhabitants of the meager embryo of the city we know today as Paris settled North of the Seine in what’s known now as the Right Bank (Rive Droite, if you’re French). Settlers this side of the Seine filled in the marshy wetlands, and began urban expansion. To prevent fluctuating river currents from flooding cemeteries, and carrying corpses away, the churches built cemeteries toward the middle of the city. The largest, and most notable of these was Cèmetiere des Innocents, or “Holy Innocents’ Cemetery.”
This cemetery became a mass grave site from the end of the 9th Century up until the French Revolution. Large cemeteries like this often have a problem with overcrowding fairly quickly. Sparing you Brightest Young Things the gory details, it takes a while for a human body to decompose, particularly if it’s surrounded by nothing but other human bodies. Of course, the Church, who profited from burial rites, couldn’t very well just stop performing burials…
So, rather than completely shut the cemetery, and begin a new burial ground somewhere farther away, the Church exhumed the bodies, and put them into the roofs of the galleries over the cemetery. Yes, you’ve read that correctly. Ceilings lined with skulls and bones. This went on for years. And as if this weren’t completely horrifying enough, someone’s basement wall next door gave way to the weight of the bodies on the other side. Finally, Louis XVI put his foot down in 1780, and decreed the cemetery be closed (actually, it was an edict, which is different, but no matter– the head that conceived the edict was removed from the King’s body about ten years later).
Only a couple years earlier, underground, on the other side of the Seine, quarrymen were dealing with a slightly alarming problem. And by “slightly alarming,” I mean to say that there were a series of building collapses, and entire neighborhoods were toppled. The Left Bank was built directly over a series of uncharted, and undocumented limestone mines– stones quarried centuries ago to build much of Paris. Remember what I mentioned earlier about hollow ground and building foundations? The buildings started falling, and Louis XVI put his foot down again, founding l’Inspection Générale des Carrières, or the General Quarry Inspection Service in 1777.
The first Carrières were brave souls, crawling through the underbelly of a city, often risking life and limb in the midst of mine collapses and cave-ins. They charted much of the network of tunnels, caves, underground pools, and abandoned mines that we can see today. The Instagrammers who call themselves “urban explorers” have nothing on these guys.
With a newly renovated and mapped network of dark, cool subterranean tunnels, and an open-air gigantic mass grave overflowing with decomposing Parisians, it didn’t take a genius to put two and two together. In 1785, the city began the process of moving the remains from Cèmetiere des Innocents, and surrounding cemeteries into the tunnels. This took two years.
For the first fifteen years, the ossuary beneath Paris was nothing more than caverns with piles of bones. In 1810, Carrière Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury had the bright idea to turn the mass grave into someplace people could visit, and pay respects to their ancestors. He discovered that femur bones would stack neatly to form walls, and the skulls could provide a stable anchor points between joint sections. With this slightly macabre idea, and a little masonry, the bones became the walls of the catacombs.
The catacombs quickly became a gallery, emblazoned with the words over their entrance“Arrête! C’est ici l’Empire de la Mort,” (Stop! Here is the Empire of the Dead). There are memorials and epithets, carvings left in the stone walls by the first Carrières, and the first lamp used by the excavators, which burned day and night. During the Reign of Terror, the remains of those executed were also moved to the catacombs, including the remains of Robespierre, the gentleman responsible for the guillotine’s popularity. Admittedly, there’s no way of knowing this for sure, as it is difficult to tell his bones apart from the others.
This mausoleum is open to the public, but much of the catacombs are not. The Carrières will tell you there is much more to the catacombs than the mausoleum. The Nazis found their way down to the tunnels in the Vichy days and built a bunker. The French Resistance found their way down there, too, and somehow got an American tank into the tunnel. There are parties, underground raves, even a movie theater. The real trick, as any Cataphile would tell you is finding your way in the dark.
I emerged from the catacombs, blinded by the sun, and completely starving. Luckily, my two hosts, David and Anne, told me where I should meet them for dinner. They just gave me a name, not an address: Chez Denise, in Les Halles. After a rush-hour trip on the Paris metro, and a disorienting walk through the Île de la Cité, and asking several strangers for directions, I arrived at a place one of my Parisian friends described as “trés, trés ancienne.” Here, we devoured heaping platters of lamb, daube of beef, Atlantic cod, and brandy-filled desserts. Here was where I first had escargot, as part of my last meal in Paris.
I was suddenly struck with a realization, upon devouring the butter-soaked gastropods: this place is real. All of the things I saw, heard, touched, and ate in Europe over the past ten days were all very, very real. The art scene of Berlin, the Alps, the Louvre, the catacombs, the Eiffel tower, Chartreuse from its own hometown, the Berliner Dom… all of these are things I read about in books, or saw on travel shows through my youth. They seemed dreamlike from afar, almost apocryphal. After ten days abroad, I can thoroughly assure all of you, you Brightest Young Things, that the stories are all true. These places are real, and ought to be seen.