Les Catacombes de Paris

I hope you’re not claustrophobic because one of the most interesting places in Paris – and certainly the most unique – is the Catacombs, which stretch for more than a mile… beneath the city.

In the late 1700s, Paris’ developers were looking for more land to accommodate a rapidly growing city. Not expecting to hear any complaints from the tenants, they decided to build on the city’s oldest – and fullest – cemeteries. The only problem was relocating the millions of skeletons from their resting places.

Paris had been mined for ages for its limestone deposits until the city started caving in on itself and the public pleaded with King Louis XVI to end the excavation before Paris became the new Atlantis. Not wishing to be undermined (ha ha), Louis conceded and the mining was stopped. Later, when asked where to put the remnants of the dead Parisians, the king knew just the place. This is how the limestone quarries of Paris became its infamous Catacombs. The entrance stands where Paris’ “Gate of Hell” used to be at the southern wall of the ancient city at Place de Denfert Rochereau, in the 14th arrondissement.

Some details about visiting: It opens at 10AM so you should be in line by 9AM at the very latest to avoid a long wait. We arrived at 1015AM and waited for 2.5 hours. The line to get in circles around the small park that sits above the entrance to the Catacombs. By the time we reached the ticket window, the line had wrapped completely around the park and the wait from there I judged to be about 4 hours minimum. On a rainy day in Paris.

Rent the audioguide with your ticket. It’s 10 euros to enter, 5 euros for the audioguide and it is well worth it. The path through the Catacombs is marked by small numbered signs that correspond to tracks on the audioguide. Without the context and history provided by the audio, you’ll just be looking at a very big pile of old bones. Some informative panels appear in the beginning and at the end of the walk but they pale in scope compared to the audio.

It should take you 45 minutes to an hour to walk through the Catacombs and it is a 103-step flight down and 86 steps back up. I wouldn’t recommend it for the claustrophobic and the temperature is rather cool all year round so wear a sweater or jacket.

Walking past thousands upon thousands of bones – a small fraction of the six million skeletons moved to the ossuary – neatly stacked underneath the city of Paris, interspersed with maxims from French, Latin and Italian authors on the nature of life and death, well, it makes for an interesting experience. If you’re open to it, you may feel yourself wanting to seize the day, literally and figuratively. I wondered about the men who took the time to stack the bones and skulls so neatly and how often they got to see the blue sky…

It is a memorable experience and reminds me of the Latix maxim: memento mori, or, remember death! At the gift shop outside, I couldn’t help buying the mug that says “Keep Calm and Remember YOU WILL DIE.”

Crêperie Josselin, Paris 14ème

Tucked among other restaurants in the neighborhood of Montparnasse, Paris 14ème, is the bustling Crêperie Josselin. We arrived at 10PM on a Sunday night and waited only ten minutes before a table became available and were rushed inside by the hostess in between her shouts at waiters and gesturing toward tables who needed service. The restaurant was packed and the atmosphere was saturated with butter, conversation, and the familiar clink of cutlery on dishes.

My friends and I took our time reviewing the menu and its large selection of sweet or savory crêpes, each named for a region or person of its inspiration. For lighter fare, however, there is also a small section dedicated to dinner salads. We were there for the namesake meal, however, and selected three different crêpes to share, including the one named Josselin. These were very American breakfast-style, with varying combinations of egg, sausage, bacon, and cheese. As a sidenote, Europeans in general are less inclined to eat eggs for breakfast and often balk at the idea of a breakfast bigger than an espresso and biscuits, or cookies in American English.

We also chose a crêpe for dessert, layered with thinly sliced orange, doused in Gran Marnier, and set aflame at our table, or en flambé, as they say. The crêpes themselves were perfection and the fillings to par but nothing to hurler about. I had started with a kir royal to drink, made with cider instead of champagne, and we also shared a large jug of house cider, which complemented our the salty, buttery, and overall delicious meal.

The restaurant had mostly cleared out by the time we finished. Closing time is 23h00 and before we paid I asked the young waiter about Josselin, whom he told us was his grandmother, who worked in the restaurant until around 2009. He works there alongside his brother and uncle, and presumably other family members, and the family also runs Le Petit Josselin, a restaurant less than a block away on Rue du Montparnasse, that also serves crêpes. In fact, the entire neighborhood of Montparnasse seems to be home to the majority of Paris’ crêperies. In the 1930s, at the age of 14, Josselin came to Paris from Bretagne, historical origin of the crêpe. By 1946, she had opened a restaurant on the same street, though the original location is now gone. The interior of the present restaurant, however, felt like Josselin’s home, dark-wooded walls lined with traditional ceramic pottery and a grandfather clock, among other antiques.

Overall, we were satisfied, and, as usual, the context provided by the brief history of Crêperie Josselin completely enriched the experience, like butter on… well, anything.

An American in Paris, Again, Part I

The last time I visited Paris was in 2009 after a six-week stint in Cork, Ireland, for the video game company I was working for in Seattle. There, I came across a young Polish man who was studying at the university and we had a brief love affair in which I was torn between adventure and the guy I had been seeing for several months already in Seattle, Charlie, whom I would date, and love, for the next two years. Charlie and I had an explosive relationship – in that it happened much like a fireworks display, all sound and fury and bursts of colors that sizzled and sparkled to start but then fizzled and faded and eventually drifted away in clouds of smoke, or, more accurately, when I left him for Provincetown. But that’s another story. I was in Paris.

I had flown first to Milan to meet Marco whom I had known in Caen in 2006 while I was studying abroad junior year of college. We drove together from Milan to Marseille and explored the city together before parting ways in Avignon. I took a late train to Paris and met my Brazilian friends who had also studied with me in the small capital of Normandy. My third night there in the city of lights, myself and some other friends from my studies abroad were having dinner on the terrace of a sushi restaurant. On the other side of the entrance, alone at a small table, was a young American, failing adorably to order a glass of white wine in French from the Japanese waiter. I leaned over and ordered for him, striking up a conversation. He turned out to be a doctor from California, returning from medical service in the war in Iraq. I recall my friends raising their eyebrows at the interaction. In Caen, I was notoriously friendly, especially with the other gay students. It’s where I realized my penchant for American guys. And where I learned the power of flirtation.

To make a long story short, I spent the next three nights with the young American doctor in his hotel room in the Marais and he joined me as I explored Paris with my friends. Meanwhile, some several thousand miles away, poor Charlie was pining. He would say some time later that he had a feeling I was exploring romantically during my travels. He was right and, despite my guilt, I’m afraid it can’t be helped. My adventures have always been as much concerned with the heart and the libido as they have with culture and cuisine. I’ve always possessed a great thirst for life. A thirst I’ve quenched many times at many fountains and yet the fires of desire burn eternal.