Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Vie et mort à Paris

Gothic arch at the entrance to Notre Dame Cathedral
I arrived in Paris late Sunday night. The train pulled into Gare de Lyon train station at about 915pm. To reach my hotel, I had two quick hops on the Metro and a 250 meter walk up the narrow Rue du Picpus. Easy, thank God. It was late and I was tired.

Paris. The City of Light. The city that captures the imaginations of people the world over. This would be my third visit and I knew enough to brace myself. Paris is an adult dose, as they say. It comes at you full on.

I was both eager and apprehensive at the prospect. I got checked in to my little room, unpacked, and crashed.

The next morning I set out, hoping to see the famous Catacombs of Paris. But, after a half-hour Metro commute I arrived at the entrance only to learn that the Catacombs are closed on Mondays. Ah, well.

I made a snap decision to instead make a visit to the Louvre museum.

Michael whipping up on Satan. Why can't we all just get along?
I had a vague notion of the direction to take and decided to walk rather than take the Metro. It worked out alright. I found the Louvre easy enough and queued up outside the famous glass pyramid that marks the entrance.

But the line was long, long, long and moved at a snail's pace. The interminable short step shuffle was made all the more unpleasant by a group of boorish Germans behind me who jostled everyone around them, yelled and guffawed, and just generally set my teeth on edge. I spent 2 full hours on queue before, footsore and grumpy, I finally got inside. 

Hoard of ravenous art consumers
But, of course, once inside it was all worth it. Art lovers know that one of art's main functions is to affirm life. And the Louvre is one of the greatest art museums in the world.

First, I saw some sculpture.

Cleopatra in the Louvre
Narcissus couldn't get enough of himself
The most crowded wings of the museum were those containing the works of the great Italian renaissance painters: Leonardo, Botticelli, Raphael. The works defy description. But the insufferable crowds detract from the experience.

Well, what can you do? These masterpieces belong to everyone. No one has the right to deny them to anyone else.

Passion of the Christ
Death of Cleopatra
Another renaissance masterpiece
Can't remember the name of this one, but everybody sure was making a fuss over it
Eventually, I made my way down to the wing that displayed Oriental and Islamic art. It was much less crowded and the rewards were just as great.

Islamic tile art
Islamic tile art
Oriental tile art
All told, I spent about 2 and a half hours viewing art in the Louvre. Between this visit and my two previous visits, I calculate that I've spent roughly 10 hours inside this collection of humanity's greatest works of art. And guess what? There are entire wings that I haven't even visited!

If, dear reader, you ever find yourself in Paris, I urge you to allot some time to visit the Louvre. You won't be disappointed. And don't let my story about the long line discourage you. There are ways you can bypass the line by purchasing tickets in advance or through an agency. I've done it that way before.

Entrance to the ossuary
The next day, today, I finally made it to the Paris Catacombs. The Catacombs are tunnels that were originally created by limestone miners who mined in the area around Paris from ancient times. Problems arose in the late 1700s when the long-abandoned and forgotten mines collapsed and swallowed Parisian streets and structures. At about the same time, another problem arose when a mass grave from the cemetery, Les Innocents, collapsed a basement wall of an adjoining property, making apparent a need for a solution to Paris's problem of massive ancient cemeteries becoming overcrowded.

The French government, came up with an ingenious "kill two birds with one stone" solution. A project to reinforce the tunnels to prevent collapse coincided with a decision to evacuate the human remains in Paris's many cemeteries and to inter them in the tunnels. The idea was adopted as law in 1785.
Walls of bones
Cataloging the remains
Skulls and femurs
Today, you can visit the Catacombs and walk through the reinforced tunnels with their walls of bones. Skulls and femurs --yes, actual human remains --line the walls and are often arranged in macabre designs.

Poetry in the Catacombs: "Think in the morning that you may not live until the evening and in the evening that you may not live until the morning."
Estimates are that the Catacombs contain the remains of between 6 and 7 million Parisians, some of them famous. (Robespierre, for example, is down there somewhere.) At several points, as I crept through the tunnels, stooping for the low ceilings, I espied a particular skull and wondered, "Who were you? Were you a man or a woman? What was the story of your life?" The answers to these questions are lost to the ages, of course. But at one time, each skull was a living, breathing human being. Odd to think about that.

Join you soon enough, I warrant.
Afterward, I walked under the Eiffel Tower. But, you know, the whole thing --that tower of human achievement --seemed --I don't know --pretentious and impermanent. A little candle flickering before the Void.
Tour Eiffel
Paris will do it to you every time.

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