I had tried to visit the Catacombs in Paris on several different occasions, but the entrance queue always defeated me. Early morning, late evening, midday, it didn’t seem to matter at what time of day I tried to visit, the entrance queue always snaked endlessly out of sight, and the prospect of joining the back of it seemed like a long wait to the grave. So, I always gave it up. Until now.
Now, wiser––perhaps wealthier––rather than join the back of the interminable queue, I purchased queue-busting tickets online. These stipulate a guaranteed fixed-time entry. The catch? They are over double the price of turning up on spec and joining the queue––€29 compared to €13 at the time of writing. What the hell: I wanted to visit the Catacombs and if I was going to have to pay over the odds for the experience, I might as well get full value for money out of it.
It would have been nice to have turned up in full 18th century costume with multiple layers of linen skirts and a tall, scented wig, but even in my modest 21st century garb of jeans and trainers, I still felt like Marie Antoinette as I walked past the long line of indignant, cheap-skating humanity to join the front of my separate queue of one, and from there to be ushered directly into the labyrinthine depths, all by the simple expedient of displaying a small, online-purchased barcode.
And so there I was. After several failed attempts: beyond the queue. In the Paris Catacombs. Somewhere I had wanted to visit for years. And what was I feeling? Nervous. Nervous that after all the years of waiting––and seconds of queue-jumping––that I might be disappointed by the experience. Nervous, also, that after my top-side segregation I was now to be thrown back in with the subterranean, unwashed hoi polloi. How would they react? Would there be a revolution? Marie Antoinette no longer seemed quite such an attractive proposition.
Thankfully, I need not have been anxious. Along with me, the proletariat all seemed to be enjoying the experience, sufficiently so that any distinctions of class could be ignored. The Catacombs were much more atmospheric than I had expected. Perversely, this had much to do with the queue. Visitor numbers are strictly limited, and so for long segments of the visit it is possible to feel like you are a lone explorer in this underground world. Also, the distance required to walk is greater than I expected––a good thing by my reckoning. 131 steps down; 600 metres as the crow flies between the entrance at 1 Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy and the exit at 36 Rue Rémy Dumoncel, and a lot further in real terms with all the twists and turns underground; and 112 steps up––not my calculations of course; you can’t expect Marie Antoinette to do any actual hard work when someone else can do it for her.
There is a small, informative museum area for those of an inquiring bent, immediately before entering the actual ossuary, but this is not somewhere that I dawdle: I am more about experience than information. And then there are bones. Lots and lots of bones. Walls of bones. Structures of bones. Foundations of bones. It is both chastening and evocative.
I entered the Catacombs as a Queen, but I like to think that I left them a more humble woman.
© E. C. Glendenny
E. C. Glendenny will always be more a pleb than an aristo.