The Catacombs of Paris: A Glimpse into the Underworld

Europe is old.  You’re going to get that impression pretty quickly if you choose to study at one of Aspire by API’s sites in France, Italy, Spain, or Ireland.  Reminders of the past are commonplace throughout all of these sites: you’ll see statues, plaques, and memorials on almost every street and town square.  You’ll probably even get to see a few castles during your time abroad.  However, one of the most abundant and impressive remnants of European history are the great  monuments to the Middle Ages—the various churches and cathedrals that seem to magically appear after you turn each and every corner.
During my time in France and Spain, I visited a great deal of these churches: the Cathedral of Notre Dame and the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, Mont St. Michel in Normandy, the Cathedral of Salamanca, just to name a few.  And of course, these were just the big ones.

Don’t get me wrong:  I marveled at these feats of architecture—many of which, I learned, were built at a time when the basic laws of physics weren’t even that well understood.  I saw the still-headless statues on the Notre Dame, which are a constant reminder to the world of the French Revolution and the ideals of the Enlightenment.  I gazed in wonder at golden altars in Spain, which spoke of the history of the conquistadores.  I learned a lot.

However, as is often the case when you’ve been in a new place for a while, the novelty of my surroundings wore off after a bit.  I started planning on going to different kinds of attractions during my excursions.  I will never forget many of the places I visited in Europe, but one place in particular gave me a different kind of chills:  the catacombs of Paris.

All of the cathedrals I had seen had been designed to make the visitor look up.  However, the catacombs took me down—way down.  Deep beneath the streets, a seemingly endless spiral staircase led me to the bones of Paris’ faithfully departed.  Improper burial practices caused an epidemic in the late 18th century.  Eventually, government officials decided to dig up the existing graveyards and move the contents to abandoned quarries.  And so, in the middle of the night, thousands of skeletons were re-laid to rest in these dark, maze-like passages underneath the City of Light.

There are literally stacks of femurs and skulls and I-don’t-know-what-else, and they stretch on for four or five blocks.  Poems and passages on the subject of death adorn the walls, and white stone altars are scattered throughout (they actually used to hold Masses down there!).  It is a place at once both creepy and tranquil, simultaneously thought-provoking and difficult to contemplate.  A very different kind of reminder of Parisian history, yet a monument to the past that is just as legitimate as any of the churches or castles throughout Europe.  It was certainly unlike anything I’ve seen at home in the United States.  If you’re in Paris, I’d highly suggest you check it out!

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