Europe Trip 2010: Day 13 and 14, Paris Catacombs, Louvre cont., and goodbye!

Today was our last full day in Paris, and I think we certainly made it all count. We saw the famous catacombs, then had some “lighter” entertainment at the famous Impressionist museum, the Orsay, and, apparently not being tired of museums yet, we then headed to the Louvre to tour the last of the three main branches. Along the way, we also saw a Parisian carnival, and caught dinner at Montmartre, the artists’ hill above the city. It was quite a full, and enjoyable, last day! For all the pictures, see the galleries here and here, but you can read on for all the juicy details!

We started the day off early so we could beat the rush to one of the “attractions” in Paris that Andrew had been dying to share with me — the catacombs. The Paris catacombs are basically underground tunnels filled with the anonymous bones of some six million Parisians. They were started in 1786 when Paris citizens decided to get rid of all their cemeteries, since they were taking up much space and raising sanitation concerns, and move all of the bones into an ossuary. Conveniently, miles of underground tunnels for out of commission limestone quarries were just outside of the city — this is where all the bones were transported to. This undertaking took decades. Carts of bones were accompanied by priests, and, when all the bones from a church were laid to rest in the ossuary (forming piles of bones five feet high and often 80 feet back!), a plaque was left indicating which church/cemetery all the anonymous bones were originally from.

We arrived at the entrance to the catacombs about half an hour before they opened, but there was already a line! We waited, and the line grew much larger behind us before the catacombs finally opened. They only let so many people in at once so it’s not too crowded in the limited space (I wish places like Disneyland would learn from such practices).

When we finally were let in, we quickly descended a staircase leading down 60 feet, without breaks. Once down there, there were many limestone tunnels without bones for a long while. Some tunnels had carvings/sculptings of buildings by a man who was trapped in a cave-in, and who eventually died in the tunnels.

It was quite moist in the tunnels — there were occasional puddles of water, and water droplets often dripped down from the ceiling. There was a well the miners used which still clearly had much water in it.

And then we got to the ossuary… Famously, as you enter the actual ossuary, there is a placard that reads: “Halt! This is the empire of the dead” (in French). Of course everyone ignores it and continues on. And then there were bones… piles and piles of bones done countless passageways. They were mostly organized so that all of one bone type was facing the front (the piles were consequently very stable, even though they were often over two centuries old). Sometimes designs were made, often with skulls, such as crosses or just lines. But, behind this organized “facade” the piles of bones were not at all organized… they were just a pile. (Apparently, originally these bones were not “organized” at all, but during the mid-1800s priests/church officials came in to create these designs, and create some order out of the randomly-deposited piles of bones.)

There were placards all over that had sayings about death in French. Andrew interpreted a lot of them, but after a while there were just too many to keep translating… They were often interesting… and depressing! But more saddening were the piles of bones from different “cemeteries of the innocent,” which, we think, were where children were buried. We saw some skulls that were certainly from children — in some the plates had not yet fused together.

Some other observations: Being the biologist I am, I was really examining the bones we saw. Interestingly, I didn’t see any skulls with teeth, even when the skulls themselves were mostly intact. We also saw hardly any rib bones or torso bones in general — I’d imagine the rib bones might have broken to pieces easily, but I don’t know about the rest of the torso bones (such as spinal columns, hips, shoulder blades). In general, it was amazing the bones were in as good shape as they were, I think… Lastly, it was interesting to see how other people were reacting to it all — there was one mother with an older daughter (late-teen) and a younger son (about 12) — I have no idea why they brought the son, as he was often just making little jokes and clearly felt uncomfortable there. When we climbed a single staircase going up (with warnings to take it slow!), at the exit a couple of men were sitting there to make sure no one stole any bones! They simply asked us if we had any bones, and when we said “no,” they let us walk out… Guess we don’t look suspicious. There were some bones with them, so I guess it’s not that unusual for tourists to try and get away with.

After an hour walking in the limestone tunnels covered with bones, we were ready to get some late breakfast and hit museums! There were some amazing mini quiches we admired, and other pastries:

We then went the the Orsay museum, but were not allowed to take pictures! The Orsay has the greatest number of Impressionist paintings, and we enjoyed it a lot. It was not as large, and intimidating, as some of the art museums we’d been to, which was a nice change. Basically, it walks through Neoclassicism (of the mid-1800s), then to Impressionism of the late 1800s with works from Manet, Monet, Degas, Renoir, and many others. There were even post-impressionist paintings too. I’ve always really liked Monte, so it was quite enjoyable to see it all up-close, looking at the brush strokes and “true,” bright colors, and in such a wide array.

Heading out of the Orsay, we decided we wanted to visit the Louvre one last time, as we hadn’t made it to all three main branches! However, when we got to the Louvre, we got a bit distracted — we realized we were hungry, and then noticed there was a carnival right in the park out in front of the Louvre! Grabbing a crepe at a street stand, we headed into the carnival (and admittedly felt a bit guilty for being in Paris and going to a carnival!). It turned out that it was actually a pretty good-sized carnival, with churros (felt like we were back in California) and claw machines! The vacation was now complete for me, and I could check off in my checklist of countries I’ve played claw machines in (the U.S., Japan, Spain, and now France!). Yes, I admit I have a problem, but at least it includes possibly winning little stuffed animals that can crowd our bookshelves. There were also some cute rides that tempted Andrew, though I think he was above the height limit (and we didn’t bring bathing suits, so the King Kong/T-Rex water slide was out).

After enjoying the carnival, we decided to have some more “refined entertainment” back in the Louvre. We went to the Richeliu Wing, which we hadn’t seen yet — it contains some of the Louvre’s biggest and oldest artifacts, including about 2000 years of Iraq’s ancient history.

Entering the exhibit, some of the detail on, and completeness of, several thousand old objects was amazing. There were clay pots about 4.5 thousand years old, and rather modern-looking carved figures of the same age! There were several ancient obelisks covered in writings.

The artifact that floored Andrew was the Code of Hammurabi — we didn’t actually even know it was in the exhibit until we saw it. The Code of Hammurabi is from about 1790 B.C, Babylon — under the rule of the 6th Babylonian king, Hammurabi, 281 laws were written down and turned into the Code. It’s one of the earliest collections of laws, and was really quite complete for controlling normal code of conduct.

In an adjoining room there were huge statues from Sumeria, around 2200 to 2100 B.C. It was amazing to me how intact that truly ancient statues were! And hard to imagine what kind of journeys they went on to finally arrive in the Louvre today.

Exiting the ancient artifact section, we (rather oddly) found ourselves in a neoclassical statue courtyard/section. We saw a statue we’d seen at Versailles before: IMG_4773.JPGIMG_4774.JPGIMG_4775.JPGIMG_4776.JPG

Before saying goodbye to the Louvre, I had to visit my favorite statue one more time — the bust of the amused satyr! And Andrew said goodbye to the boy strangling the goose (what is with that, anyway?).

We decided the one other place we really wanted to see before leaving Paris was Montartre, the artists’ hill above the city. After walking around the central square and watching the artists hard at work (and hard at work trying to get work), we settled down at a cafe just off the central area, and did some good Parisian-style people watching. A violinist, who clearly knew the cafe owners, came by and played for a little while. Unfortunately, it started to rain soon thereafter, and he packed up (but really, he wasn’t that good).

Heading down the hill, we made our way to the familiar subway system, and caught our public transportation ride back home.

And that’s it for our last full day at Paris! The next day we caught our plane out of France. But before heading to the airport, in the early morning, we quickly went to the local food district, the Rue Cler, for breakfast. Unfortunately, our favorite place, the creperie Ulysse en Gaul, was not open, but we had some very satisfying pastries at a nearby pastry shop. Then we were off to the airport!

We’re very glad we arrived at the airport several hours before our flight because we needed all the time we could get — we went through about half a dozen security checkpoints and were worried we’d miss our flight! It was very disorganized and not stream-lined at all. But, on the bright side, they did have conveyor belt ramps! Settled into our seats on the plane, we enjoyed some airport Parisian pastries and our awesome iPad.

And that’s it for our Europe 2010 trip! It was perhaps a bit exhausting, but a whole lot of fun and we learned lots (as you can probably guess, if you’ve been reading the whole travelogue!). The only thing we’ve decided we want to change in the future is to insert more purely entertainment attractions — after going to the Parisian carnival on the last day, we realized this was something we’d been missing. Maybe you’ll get to hear all about that on our next international trip, wherever it may be to! Thanks for reading, and feel free to share your thoughts/comments!

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