Across Europe Underground

Metro sign.jpgChapter 1:  The Empire of the Dead

 

 

Being a short description of curiosities encountered on a Grand Tour of the Continent by the Incontinent

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On the corner of the Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, in the Place Denfert Rocherau, in the district of Montaparnasse, close to the Sorbonne in the city of Paris, there stands a humble green cast iron booth opposite the entrance to the Metro station.  Like the station, it is clearly a product of the Belle Epoque.  It looks like a public toilet.  Curling away from it, round the corner, past the great statue of the Belfort Lion, back towards the SNCF station is a long queue of people from all the ends of the globe.  Even one or two Parisians are there. They are attempting to look bored.  The booth is not a public toilet.

 

Paris is built on limestone.  Or rather, Paris is built of limestone on ground that used to have limestone in it.  Nowadays, as the official guide says, it is built on Swiss Cheese.  Underneath Paris is a series of interlinked underground quarries, a network of passages over 300 km long, from which the city above has been constructed.  From Limestone on the Left Bank, to gypsum under the hills of Montmartre (hence Plaster of Paris), all of the glittering city rests on stacks of deads and unstable old columns no more than 30m below the surface.  Have you ever wondered why there are no skyscrapers or high rise blocks in the centre of the city?  Since the mid-eighteenth century, this has lead to a rather predictable problem.  Every so often, a building would suddenly become its own basement.  Even the famously hands off French monarchy felt that this was rather unacceptable, and, after swiftly relocating from the Palace of the Louvre to Versailles, which is rather comfortingly located on good solid sandstone, set up an office, the Inspector of Quarries, to prevent similar events.  These people patrolled and mapped the tunnels and workings, the abandoned and the working, to ensure the safety of the walls and the world above.  To keep track of the tunnels on the city map, they named the passages and junctions after the names of the streets above, giving the place the feel of an underworld in a Neil Gaiman novel.  Now, two other events shortly occurred in the Overworld, which changed the slow and quiet pace of the quarries.  Firstly, the French decided to reduce the height of the existing political elite by about 200 millimeters each, and in a truly unconnected phenomenon, began to run out of spaces in the graveyards. 

It must be admitted however, that Napoleon Bonaparte was also about to begin another protracted exercise in job creation for the grave diggers of Europe.

So, in the spirit of Revolutionary Enlightenment, the savants of Paris considered how to clear the insanitary and disease ridden graveyards of the Ancien Regime, and replace them with clean, hygienic and progressive housing for the Sons (and Daughters, of course) of the Revolution.

 

Which eventually brings us back to the queue in the Place Donfert-Rocherau. Fiona and I stood patiently in line, working our way towards the green booth that looks like a public toilet.  Slowly the booth consumed people , none of whom emerged again, and we moved forwards.  Behind us the queue grew, now stretching out of sight, maybe working its way past Austerlitz, and on past Jena, all the way back to Stalingrad.  Eventually we entered the small open air courtyard in the cast iron booth, and spoke to a little old man in a grey warehouse coat.  He took our Euros, and we started down the Spiral Stairs. 

Yes, Spiral Stairs.  Stop snickering at the back, I know who you are, and can hear you.  Yes Grey and Martin, I am talking to you.  Yes there is a continuous black line painted on the roof to prevent people getting lost in the passages.  Yes there are signs at every junction.  Why is that funny?

 

Rather appropriately, the passages from the entrance are shaped like a traditional coffin level.  Every hundred metres, you come across a stone engraved with a name and a date.  You could call this the first sign of memento mori, because it is the name of a dead man.  It is the name of a long dead Inspector of Quarries, and the date on which he inspected that stretch of passage.  Suddenly, after passing a series of junctions and bends, you come on a gateway, clearly inspired by Napoleons recent efforts to spread Revolutionary Enlightenment to Egypt.

 

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The inscription reads:- “Stop, here is the Empire of the Dead” – note the black line to guide the tourists.  This has been here since the early 19th century and not installed especially for the Authors visit

 

Rolling back the years again, to the Overworld, the decision was taken to empty the graveyards of the cities churches, to clear away the source of disease and corruption and to remove all the remains of the previous occupants.  A section of the Underworld was to receive new permanent, if somewhat quiet, residents.  The refugees huddled waiting in their quiet earthen encampments for admission to the Kingdom of Heaven, were forcibly relocated to new holding areas, unfortunately somewhat closer to the Kingdom of Hell than they were hoping.  From the very first day, they were to be housed in scientific, and artistic, anonymity. 


The Comte and the Cobbler would forever rub temples together in silence.  No singular resting place awaited them, but an arresting composition of femurs and skulls, scapulas and pelvises, carefully curated designs for the edification of the new bourgeois gentry.   This practice of maintenance and rearrangement continues right to the present day.

 

Of course, not all were savants, interested in the anatomical variations, or poets reflecting on human mortality.  Parties were held in which much wine was drunk and ladies  shrieked at macabre stories and pranks were played, usually with a view to ending up inside crinolines.  As time wore on, and social attitudes changed, the authorities began to officially take notice and the wild times came to an end.

 

Still, the pull of the Underworld continued, and the visitors kept coming.  The lighting changed from candles, to gas lights and again to strings of electric light bulbs.  The queues continued to grow along the Place.  But still, there was the real danger of the ancient mines collapsing from the weight of the growing city above.  The present danger mainly arises from old bell chambers, aven-like cavities left from the early mining days

They are still there in places as you walk round the passageways, great bottle shaped voids heading up towards the surface, buttressed by soaring arches of masonry to slow down their inevitable collapse. 

 

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Of course, not all were savants, interested in the anatomical variations, or poets reflecting on human mortality.  Parties were held in which much wine was drunk and ladies  shrieked at macabre stories and pranks were played, usually with a view to ending up inside crinolines.  As time wore on, and social attitudes changed, the authorities began to officially take notice and the wild times came to an end.

 

Still, the pull of the Underworld continued, and the visitors kept coming.  The lighting changed from candles, to gas lights and again to strings of electric light bulbs.  The queues continued to grow along the Place.  But still, there was the real danger of the ancient mines collapsing from the weight of the growing city above.  The present danger mainly arises from old bell chambers, aven-like cavities left from the early mining days

They are still there in places as you walk round the passageways, great bottle shaped voids heading up towards the surface, buttressed by soaring arches of masonry to slow down their inevitable collapse.

 

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On through the quiet stacked remains of disarticulated skeletons you progress.  Some alcoves bear the memorial plaques, details of the churchyard where this collection has come from, and a simple date.  Others recall specific details, victims of riots during the height  out into a chamber, still walled with bones, but in the centre of which is a low wall around a grille topped shaft – The Well of Lost Souls.  Despite the Romantic and melancholy name, it is a remnant of the original quarries, dropping down to a lower, now flooded, level.

Eventually, after 1100 metres of passage, following the black line on the roof until the smell in the air changes and you reach the foot of another stairway.  A short climb brings you out into the warm sunshine of a Parisian alleyway.  Where?  You are not back at the green cast iron booth but about four streets away in a quiet back street.

 

A short distance away is another Empire of the Dead, of a later, more respectable and conventional persuasion, the giant Montparnasse Cemetery.

It too has it little secrets.  Beyond the staid, detached mausoleums of civil servants, soldiers and respectable families of a disapproving middle class rest the artists and musicians.  They may not have the superstar clout of the residents of Pere Lachaise across the city, no Jim Morrison or Oscar Wilde to bring out the groupies, these are the local eccentrics and characters.

You can spend ages wandering about here, but its not a place for lively street life.  Time to rejoin the world of the living and the physical realities of life.      

 

Martin Fagan

 

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