Encore! Encore!

Monday, September 7, 2009

I’ve had a good few days in Paris since we last spoke – seen some more of the highlights, and had a few distinctly subterranean experiences.

The Louvre was, as expected, entirely too big. I didn’t even try to see it all. In fact I swanned in around noon to get my entrance ticket and my ticket to the 2:30pm guided tour, and then went off to find lunch. After a lovely crêpe (well two crêpes actually, one savoury, one sweet, and a bowl of cider… it was a set menu, how could I refuse?) I wandered back for the tour. This one was similar to the one I did at the Musée D’Orsay in that each person in the group was given a headset and the guide wore a wireless microphone, which means that you were free to wander away from the guide’s immediate area and still hear the never-ending patter. It worked quite well until my guide, in an excess of passion, shouted at two miscreants fingering some priceless objet d’art saying “Ne touche pas les objets!” at top volume, which was then amplified and transferred to my ears at a dangerously ear-drum-damaging level.

Anyways, the tour was nice, and I saw all the big important stuff, like the Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory of Samothrace and this:

It’s small, and completely mobbed all of the time.

The crowd in front of the Mona Lisa. Wild.

I’ll only add that doing a tour of the Louvre in the mid-afternoon after a substantial lunch and a glass of cider leaves one feeling a bit dopey and more in the mood for a nap than a Da Vinci. Lesson learned. Objet d’art before lunch. Also: Ne touche pas!

On Friday morning I went to the market at Rue Cler – just a small street with a nice stretch of shops - and I bought the makings of a picnic to eat in a nearby park, before proceeding to the Catacombs (one of the aforementioned subterranean activities). Rue Cler was nice, and I got a chunk of cheese and a small baguette and a basket of really good strawberries and an enormous macaron and a café au lait. It was all really nice, so I took a picture.

Oo la la!

While I was eating my little picnic, in the metaphorical shadow if the Eiffel Tower (it was cloudy), I was treated to the overture of a well-known tourist scam, and am happy to report that I did not fall for it for one second. Here’s what Rick Steves says about how the scam is supposed to work:

The found ring: An innocent-looking person picks up a ring on the ground in front of you, and asks if you dropped it. When you say no, the person examines the ring more closely, then shows you a mark "proving" that it's pure gold. He offers to sell it to you for a good price — which is several times more than he paid for it before dropping it on the sidewalk.

And that’s exactly what happened, at least up to the “When you say no” part. The guy continued to talk and, having twigged to what was going on, I just held up my hand and shook my head and kept saying, “Non, non, non… allez!” Obviously the guy realized I was on to his little game and off he went to find someone more gullible (who would, no doubt, be wearing flip-flops). And so I finished my macaron, which was fantastic.*

After the picnic it was time for the Catacombs, a site that was on my “Must See” list. You’ve probably heard about this place, and seen pictures. It’s a series of underground tunnels – actually the remains of an old quarry under the city that’s now filled with bones exhumed from cemeteries all over Paris.

At the end of the 18th century, rampant disease in the les Halles neighbourhood caused by the adjacent Cemetery of the Innocents led to the mass grave being entirely exhumed. In 1785 it was decided that the bones were to be moved to the building stone quarry under the Mountsouris plain in the south of Paris. On April 7, 1786, after being properly converted and readied the quarries were consecrated and became the principal ossuary of Paris. Until 1788, cartloads covered with black cloths, escorted by priests chanting the office for the dead, crossed Paris by night to deposit their remains.

Not surprisingly, it’s pretty much off the charts on the Creepy Scale. Being underground in disused quarry tunnels, wandering for what seems like miles under the streets of Paris, feeling the chill in the air, slipping on the wet floor, and occasionally being dripped on would be interesting enough. Now add this:

And this:

And cheery messages carved into stone tablets, like this one:

Un monstre sans raison aussi bien sans yeux

Est la Diviniteé Qu’on adore en ces lieux;

On l’apele la Mort et son cruel empire

S’etend également sur tout cequi respire.

- Philip Hebert **

It just went on and on. At first chilling, and then sort of moving, and then finally kind of tiresome. (“Hmmm, I wonder what’s around this corner? Aha… more bones…”) At the end of the tour you emerge into a tiny, featureless office blocks away from where you started and a friendly attendant asks to see inside your bag to make sure you haven’t taken a souvenir. I’m not kidding, he looked into my bag and said, “No bones? Good.”

The other subterranean activity of the week was a visit to the Musée des Égouts de Paris – The Paris Sewers Museum. It was markedly less creepy and definitely more pungent than the Catacombs. I was hoping for something much more Jean Valjean, but it was all quite modern. Then again, next time you're in Paris with 45 minutes to kill and €4.20 burning a hole in your pocket, you could do worse. If you won't be here any time soon, the two most interesting tidbits from the tour are these:

  1. They really did discover a small crocodile in the Paris sewers, who was apparently flushed down a toilet in a pet shop or something. She was about 1 metre long at the time, and now resides at the zoo in an enclosure painted, ironically, to look like the Paris sewers.

  2. If you drop something down a sewer grate in Paris (like, say, your car keys, or your wedding ring, or your crocodile) you can phone up the sewer hotline and tell them where you were, and they will go try to find it for you. Apparently they have an 80% success rate, and there is no charge for the service. Maybe the pet store people above should have taken advantage of this (“Hello? Yes, I’ve lost something down the sewer at Place de la Concorde. Car keys? No, not exactly, but trust me you'll know it when you see it…”)
And of course I've hashed in Paris. Twice, in fact, on consecutive days. Both times involved taking a train out of town and crashing around in the woods for a while before settling in for some post-run beer. And since it's France there was also baguette, and cheese, and various other post-run treats. I'm not sure the French can do anything that's not accompanied by at least one baguette. Then again, you'll hear no complaints from me in this department.

*So good, in fact, I thought briefly that it might supplant sticky toffee pudding as my favourite dessert, but then I regained my senses. I did not, however, regain any self-control when it comes to macarons, because when I stopped to pick up a cheap grocery-store supper that evening I also dropped in to the local boulangerie/patisserie and decided to try one of each flavour of the small macarons, and there turned out to be eight (chocolate, lemon, raspberry, strawberry, pistachio, coffee, orange and something else unidentifiable). They were all fantastic, none more so than the chocolate, naturally.

** Here’s my ham-fisted, Google-assisted translation effort:

A monster without reason and also without eyes

Is the god adored in these places

We call it Death and it’s cruel empire

Extends equally to all that draw breath.


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