Christmas Rendez-Vous: Exploring the Underground and Other Sides of Paris

Thursday, January 29, 2015 | Paris, France

Winter wedding in Paris, a city of old world charm.
Winter just isn't the time to go to Paris.

That was my first conclusion from the Christmas season, when I rendez-voused with my mom and sister for a week in the French capital, followed by a few days there on my own. Paris, so verdant and effervescent when I last visited in the spring, is a chilly, rainy drag of a city in late December. Sure, it's still Paris, but with short and dreary days, it's hardly at its best.

Good weather or bad, our little family had a nice time catching up, as we had the year before in Lisbon. (At least I did, though I can't vouch that my mother and Maggie shared the sentiment!) Our Christmas meetup in Europe—neutral ground between our respective homes of Algiers, Baltimore, and Boston—is fast becoming an annual tradition, as the only time of year when we are all together.

Catacombs: And after that nice, family-friendly note I'm transitioning to a picture of skulls.
Both my sister and mother had visited Paris exactly once before—Maggie for a few days back in college and mom for a few days back in the 1970s. So classic sightseeing was definitely on the menu for this trip. We strolled through the Tuilieries Gardens and Notre Dame Cathedral, climbed the Eiffel Tower on Christmas day, shopped at Rue de Rivoli and Bon Marché, and made half-hearted (and unsuccessful) attempts to beat the throngs of tourists to the museums. And Lord knows we ate well.

Luckily I was able to mix in a few less typical sights and activities too. We vélib'ed everywhere. We visited the eccentric St. Ouen flea market. We snagged falafel sandwiches at Chez Marianne in the Marais. And after years of trying, I finally managed to visit the Catacombs.

In previous visits, the line outside the public entrance to the Catacombs stretched around several blocks—an utterly hopeless wait. Early in the morning on the day after Christmas, it was only a matter of yards, and after an hour's wait in the cold I finally got the chance to head into Paris's famed underground crypts.

First begun in Roman times, this network of tunnels under present-day Paris stretches for over 280km (170 miles). Miners dug the labyrinth of tunnels over the centuries, quarrying the limestone from which Notre Dame Cathedral, the Louvre, and many of the city's other famous above-ground landmarks were built. In the late 1700s, when centuries of growth began to overflow the city's church graveyards, King Louis XVI decreed that the remains of 6 million of Paris' finest former inhabitants were to be transferred to an unused stretch of quarry tunnels to make room for future burials.

That 1.5 km stretch, stacked to the ceilings with skulls, femurs, and other assorted parts is the one now open to the public. After a long descent, my mom and sister and I found ourselves creeping along damp, dimly lit corridors, flanked by mildewing bones and the occasional macabre placard ("Halt, for here is the empire of death").

The Halloween-like thrill wore off though, as we wound or way past rows upon rows of bones, eventually numb to their chilling effect. The Catacombs were worth a visit, but would not have merited waiting hours and hours in the cold. In truth, the Catacombs benefit significantly from the cachet brought by the secret underground parties that Paris's "cataphiles" hold illegally in the hundreds of miles of tunnels that are off limits to the public. (It's those that are on my list for a future visit.)

The low lighting at Comptoir Général did not play nicely with my Rolleicord.
Paris being the hub that it is, in my final days there I was also lucky enough to see a few old friends who were quickly passing through. Besides the fun of catching up with them, however, the highlight of those days was undoubtedly my visit to Le Comptoir Général, perhaps my new favorite place in the city, if not the world.

A friend had tipped me off to this self-described "ghetto museum" by sharing an article on multicultural hotspots in Paris. On a whim, I decided to go, and found the entrance in the back of a darkened courtyard off the Canal Saint-Martin.

Inside, I walked down a long hallway of photographs of African dictators and framed t-shirts from Congolese election campaigns, paid the entrance fee (whatever amount one feels moved to drop in the bouncer's tip jar) and headed to the bar. On the way, I passed a bookstore, dance floor, tiki bar, film corner stacked high with old TVs, radio studio, and old couches piled with trendy young Parisians of all stripes, tending toward the bohemian.

Sipping a vodka-and-bissap concoction, I wandered further, finding a barbershop, vintage clothing and jewelry shop, outdoor garden, greenhouse, and performance space. The whole place was outfitted with retro African posters, colonial-era furnishings, and curious trinkets. The music completed the vibe.

* * *
View from the Eiffel Tower: looking forward to a new year of travels.
After a week of waiting in lines and fighting crowds of fellow tourists, my visit to Comptoir Général was a useful reminder of just how supremely cool Paris can be. I will definitely return to the city and its "ghetto museum".

But in those final days in Paris, biking around town and exploring on my own, I made a New Year's resolution to spend 2015 seeing new places, rather than trodding the same familiar trails. Onward to new destinations.

See album below for more Rolleicord photos from my Paris trip:

1 comment:

Unknown said...

For the record, I had a great time! :)

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