Friday, October 11, 2013

Passport to Paris: Off the Beaten Path

Warning: This post features some images of the Catacombs that could be a little disturbing ... and some pictures of Parisian boulangeries that will most certainly make you drool.

Friday, 11 octobre.

Paris is full of so many amazing sights that it would truly take a lifetime to see them all! So it's completely understandable that most trips to Paris consist of only the basics -- the most famous of monuments, churches, and shops. But there's something so much more magical about discovering sites just a little bit off the beaten path! Of course, "off the beaten path" in Paris doesn't necessarily mean we were meandering through side streets, discovering unknown cafes and never-before-seen art exhibits. It just means that we tried to visit sites that aren't always on the top of every tourist's list!

Our first slightly quirky stop was La Cimetière du Montparnasse, where we ate our breakfast on Saturday morning. Like the famous Cimetière du Père-Lachaise (where the likes of Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, and even Jim Morrison are buried), the cemetary was built in the 19th century to replace the ancient overcrowded cemetaries. The Montparnasse Cemetary isn't quite as famous, but it is "home" to some pretty recognizable names, including John-Paul Sartre, Charles Baudelaire, and Eugene Ionesco. It's also incredibly peaceful and beautiful ... although I, for one, could not get over the views of the Montparnasse Tower (Paris' only skyscraper) in the background -- talk about contrast!

We were amazed that Baudelaire, despite being one of the most famous poets in French history, didn't even have his own tomb. But, like many artists whose works we saw last weekend, Baudelaire's genius wasn't immediately recognized: he lived in poverty and spent the last years of his life partially paralyzed after a life of drugs and alcohol abuse. His mother, who is also buried here, lived a few years longer -- long enough to see her son's poetry begin its rise to fame. The tombstone, which was being tidied up (by an employee or a volunteer, I have no idea) when we arrived, is covered with Metro tickets, excerpts of poems, and flowers left by eager readers.

The statue says "SOUVENIR" which means "REMEMBER."
As if life wasn't seeming bleak enough after a cloudy chilly morning in a cemetary, Molly's and my next stop was even more morose. Remember how I said that the Montparnasse Cemetary and its 19th century contemporaries replaced the old, overcrowded Parisian cemetaries? Well, those cemetaries -- most famously, la Cimetière des Saints-Innocents -- aren't around anymore. They were closed in the late 18th century to avoid the health risks posed by overcrowding. (The more you think about it, the grosser it gets.) I know what you're thinking. What happened to the bodies? Well, that's where our next stop comes into play! Welcome to les Catacombes de Paris

Whenever I heard people talking about the Catacombs, all I could think of were the photos I had seen of the bones, neatly-stacked in eerily organized piles. But actually, the Catacombs are much more than just the ossuary: in fact, they are former limestone quarries that run under much of Paris. You can read all about the history and the different parts of the Catacombs here, but here's the gist of it: in order to get to the ossuary (where the bones are), you have to walk for a almost a kilometer of abandoned quarries. The quarries are narrow, relatively short, and very dark.

Of course, it's all safe -- it's an official museum ... and the only one we paid admission to the entire trip! And honestly, it wasn't as scary as you might expect. But at times, I was struck by exactly how far I was underneath Paris. (At this part in the Catacombes, we had descended over 100 steps and were far below both the sewers and the metro.) Even though there were other tourists around us, it was cold and eerily quiet.

Some lighter moments (literally ... there was light...) occured in the Port-Mahon corridor, where, several hundred years ago, a quarryman sculpted a model of the British fortress, Port Mahon, where he had been imprisonned while fighting in the French army. According to the plaque, he was later killed by a cave-in in the quarries. (Sorry. In the Catacombs, even the lighter moments are pretty morbid.)

See that black stripe on the ceiling? It's located throughout all the major tunnels and was first painted to ensure that the Catacombs' first tourists (in the 19th and early 20th centuries) didn't get lost! (Don't think about it; it gets scarier.)

After what seemed like half an hour of walking, we finally reached the ossuary -- the final resting place of millions of French citizens. (Including Robespierre!) In 1785, the French government ordered the transfer of all bones from the condemned Cimetière des Saints-Innocents to the abandoned quarries. Over the next 75 years, more bones were added from over a hundred graveyards around the city. During this time, somebody came up with the bright idea to organize what had become basically hallways full of skeletons. The bones were organized in the early 19th century and the ossuary came to exist as it does today.

At the entrance to the ossuary is a sign that reads: Arrete. C'est ici l'empire de la mort. (Stop. This is the empire of the dead.) And then it's just bones, bones, and more bones. Or, to be more specific, skulls and femurs. I don't know what happened to the rest of them and I'm not about to try to find out.

So that was fun, no?

I've been dying to visit the Catacombs (pun intended) ever since I read a National Geographic article about them a few years ago. You can find the article here and I've got to say, it's a must-read. (There's even a super cool interactive map of the Catacombs!) Although it talks a little about the Catacombs themselves, most of the article is focused on the underground tunnels' other ...  inhabitants: Nazis building bunkers, members of the French Resistance, and -- most interestingly -- Cataphiles, the adventurers who (very much illegally) explore the abanadoned underground tunnels. So this was definitely a must-do trip for me! But honestly, it's the sort of thing that's equally thrilling to read about and see pictures of. The only thing truly amazing about seeing the Catacombs in person is, I think, the opportunity to see the staggering amount. It's not the bones or the fact that they're arranged in neat little rows -- it's the fact that there are literally MILLIONS of them. It's just ... wow.

After the Catacombs, we started meandering and ran into -- as you do in France -- a cathedral. L'Eglise de Saint-Sulpice is the second-largest church in Paris, just smaller than Notre-Dame, but was practically empty when we visited on a Saturday morning.


You might remember the church from The DaVinci Code, in which it plays a minor role because of its presumed (and almost certainly fictional) ties to the story of the Priory of Sion. Much cooler than made up religious mysteries is the physical church itself! It's ginormous and absolutely beautiful. One of my favorite fun facts? Check out the statue of the Virgin Mary in the center of the photo on the right. See how it's all lit up? That's natural light coming from cleverly-designed hidden windows! Cool, right?

Do you know what else counts as "off the beaten path"? FOOD. Check out two of our favorite stops -- a small boulangerie where we stopped for quiche and a little food stand selling one of the yummiest gauffres I've had in France yet! (Okay, so I've only had two, but still...)


Sunday morning was a perfect example of how getting slightly lost in Paris and ending up in a four-hour wait to the Louvre can actually be a GOOD thing! (That's right, four hours.) Because it was the first of the month, museum access was free ... and boy oh boy, did people know it! Molly and I waited in line for about ten minutes before deciding we could a lot more with our day that wait to go to a museum we'd both already visited. Instead, we headed into the streets surrounding Ile-de-France (the little island in the Seine where Notre-Dame is located) and discovered some adorable sites!

First up: l'Institut de France, where we stopped to take pictures and eat a breakfast pastry. Pretty sure that whoever does whatever is done in this gorgeous building would probably have preferred for us to not take up their front porch, but on a slow Sunday morning, it didn't seem to matter to anyone. We had fun eating and watching people walk by the Seine in front of us.

Our next stop was Shakespeare and Company, the most famous English language bookstore in Paris. It's located just across from the cathedral and is literally a stone's throw from the Seine. Although this isn't the store's original location, it was named "Shakespeare and Company" in the 1960s in homage to the original bookstore -- another English language bookstore in the sixth arrondissement where the likes of Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein used to spend time -- that was closed down during World War II.

Although it is a functioning bookstore, the shop also serves as a library and working space for writers -- there are typewriters, books, a piano for inspiration, and even beds for writers-block-induced naps! I sat down in a little alcove and found this hilarious poem left by a previous visitor: "Photobombing on the River Seine."

On Sunday, after failing epically to get into the Louvre, we also tried to visit some slightly underappreciated museums. On our list: le Musée de l'Orangerie (the tiny museum in the Jardin des Tuileries that houses Monet's Nymphéas), le Musée de Rodin (the artist's home and gardens have been transformed into a showcase of his work), and a tiny museum close to to Montmartre called le Musée de la Vie RomantiqueAll were relatively short stops, but they all definitely brought something exciting to the table!

Although the Orangerie was very tiny, seeing Monet's enormous paintings was absolutely breathtaking. They're not his most detailed or beautiful paintings, but the sheer size of them is just amazing. The museum does an incredible job of displaying them, too -- the two series of paintings line the walls of two adjacent rooms, both painted bright white and illuminated with natural light that filters down from the ceiling.

One of the rooms featuring Monet's Nymphéas. I did NOT take this picture!
If you've seen it as many times as I have, you might recognize the museum from one of my favorite movies, Midnight in Paris. Check out this clip to see the museum in person -- and then chuckle at the outrageous idea that they were in the room alone! (Add 30-40 Japanese tourists and you'd maybe have the right idea.) 

Le Musee de Rodin is also featured in one of the film's best scenes, in which Carla Bruni makes a guest appearance as a frustrated tour guide. Like us, the movie's characters knew that the most impressive part of the museum is the gardens, where you can see Rodin's works up close and personal! And look, there I am -- posing with Le Penseur! The gardens also feature an incredible view of l'Hotel des Invalides, the burial place of Napoleon and one of Paris' more gilded rooftops. 

Last up on the "Paris off the beaten track" tour? Montmartre, the former artistic center of the city. We visited some of the major sites -- which you can see here on my "highlight reel" post -- but also had a lot of fun just wandering and finding some of the quirkier sites!

Perdy perdy old house in Montmartre!
Le Cafe des Deux Moulins -- where Amelie was filmed!


  1. Ah Elisabeth, quelle belle aventure tu vis... Continue tes decouvertes et charme nous de tes recits.

    Hugs, Nanny

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    I love you,

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