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Paris Gothique: A Gothic Travel Guide to the City of Love
In which our faithful correspondent visits Morrison's grave, Quasimodo's cafe, and braves the resting place of the Permanent Parisians.
By Denise Dumars
November 02, 2000
If you're too Gothic for Milan, New York, and Japan, you'll be right at home in Paris. First of all, if you wear all black, no one will assume you're a member of the Trenchcoat Mafia; Parisians themselves wear black a lot because it's chic, and they also have a healthy attitude toward minding their own business. Secondly, you will be immersed in the realities of Gothic style in everything from actual 12th century architecture to the tombs of the rich and famous to possibly the creepiest, most orderly ossuary on the planet. That's Paris for you, in a nutshell.
'Gothic' used to mean barbarous; as an adjective it's taken from the habits of certain tribes of Germans known as Goths, many bands of whom, such as the Ostrogoths and the Visigoths, were known more for blood and thunder than for style. It is perhaps, then, appropriate that France was the place that made 'gothic' into an adjective, generally to mean any architectural style that was not classical in origin and particularly to indicate a certain type of pointed arch that everyone now recognizes from Art History class. The Medieval era gave France its Gothic style, and many of the gloomy associations we call Gothicelaborate crucifixes, gargoyles, hooded monks' habits and the likecome from this era. Later the term came to refer to any tragic, darkly beautiful tale or style or manner, such as Gothic novels, Gothic Revival style, and finally, today's Goth lifestyle.
Travel to Paris, then, should be a priority on any Gothic fancier's wish list. From nearly any of the first ten arrondissements (Paris is divided into 20 of these districts) you can see a medieval-style building or monument capped with angels, saints, gargoyles, or all three. Greco-Roman figures have their due, and thanks to Napoleon, so does Egyptian style. It's an Anne Rice fan's dream come true.
Three major sights in Paris of primary importance to Goth types will be covered in this article, with a few other suggestions thrown in. Recommended guidebooks include the wonderfully sardonic Rick Steve's PARIS 2000; Judi Culbertson and Tom Randall's PERMAMENT PARISIANS, a guidebook to Paris cemeteries; and Frommer's PARIS 2000, a mainstream guidebook that doesn't shrink from more esoteric interests.
In the 20th arrondissemont, you will find probably the most famous cemetery in the world: Cimitiere du Pere Lachaise, best known in America as the final resting place of Jim Morrison but also known for its large collection of tombs, crypts, mausoleums, and graves of Gothic design. There is a Metro stop at Pere Lachaise that brings you up out of the underground and right in front of the cemetery entrance. Across the street is La Brasserie du Pere Lachaise, where you can have the lunch special, which includes salad, wine, lasagna, bread, and lemon pie (all for a good price due to the devaluation of the Euro) while watching the people milling by (noticed lots of women with burgundy hair in this part of Paris, so felt right at home).
Most of the burials in Pere Lachaise are aboveground, and the ones below are, in many cases, falling into disrepair, leading to rumors of catacombs beneath Pere Lachaise filled with bones. Several fallen-in tombs are in evidence, and the monuments tend toward the flamboyant. Hooded stone mourners, known as Pleurants, grace some tombs; winged skulls, mourning angels, and ceramic wreaths are all part of the decor. Egyptian motifs, including the sphinx that graces Oscar Wilde's tomb, are also not uncommon. Those interred in the cemetery include some who are of great interest to the Gothic enthusiast. Spiritualist Allan Kardec is buried here, and his followers still tend his grave and don't let visitors photograph the bust of the man who, among other things, greatly influenced the magico-religious beliefs of Brazil. Writer Colette is here, whose early writing career reads like a Gothic novel--her husband locked her in her room to force her to write, then often rewrote and published her stories under his own name.
Just possibly the most Gothically romantic couple in history, Abelard and Heloise, are buried here, in their own mini-Gothic cathedral. 40 year-old teacher Peter Abelard fell in love with 16 year-old student Heloise, and to make a long story short, when her relatives found out he paid for it with his manhood. Heloise took religious vows and the two continued a correspondence throughout their lives that generated many famous letters on spiritual subjects. Proto-surrealist poet Apollinaire is here, as well as dancer Isadora Duncan, known more now for the spectacular accident that claimed her life. Indeed, an endless list of famous deceased artists, writers, and performers make Pere Lachaise their permanent residence.
The one letdown of the tour of this monumental--in both senses of the word--cemetery is Morrison's grave. Now guarded by a cranky caretaker who won't let visitors linger, the grave that most annoys Parisians has been stripped of its bust of Morrison and indeed of virtually any decoration--purposely dressed-down in order to prevent the vandalism that has plagued the cemetery ever since his interment here. Disinterring and moving Morrison is often spoken about, and will no doubt take place some time in the near future.
Pere Lachaise is huge; one visit is not enough to cover the 118 acres of this humongous boneyard, opened in 1804 by Napoleon. Uneven ground requires sturdy shoes, and on a cold, drizzly day in May, full Gothic attire would not be out of place or even ill-advised. At least take a walking stick and a cloak with a hood. Hundreds of cats are supposed to reside here; I didn't see a single one. Not only tourists visit here; locals do as well. Many families visit the cemetery on November 1, All Saints' Day and November 2, All Souls' Day, which, as in Mexico, is called the Day of the Dead. You'll see more granite, marble, and wrought iron than you ever knew existed; just admiring the sculpture in one section of the cemetery is enough (PERMANENT PARISIANS lists four separate sections to tour--better allocate one day for each). OD'ing on Gothic atmosphere is a real possibility. Better have another glass of Merlot.
If you still haven't had enough of cemeteries, head on over to the 18th arrondissement to visit the cemetery of Montmartre. You'll be told that the name of the place means 'Martyr's Mound' or the place where St. Denis was martyred, had his head chopped off and was left to wander around with it under his arm. Others in the know will say it's the Mound of [Roman god] Mars, just as 'St. Denis' is a Christian syncretization of a favorite Franco-Roman deity, wine-god Dionysus. There are layers of pantheons and religions in this ancient city, as we'll see very soon when we visit Notre Dame.
Montmartre is the second most famous cemetery in Paris--sort of Pere Lachaise-lite. It's 28 acres, and famous folk such as Emile Zola, Vaslav Nijinsky, and Edgar Degas are buried here. In fact, there's not a cemetery in Paris where you can't find the graves of famous people. PERMANENT PARISIANS lists other cemeteries of note.
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A visit to Paris wouldn't be complete without a trip to the Cathedrale de Notre Dame, located on the Ile de la Cite, home of the Parisii, the original Celtic inhabitants of the city. If you find yourself in too much of a tourist crush when you exit the Cite Metro, sit down for a cup of tea at the Quasimodo Café, or browse the English-language bookstore Shakespeare & Company nearby on the Rue de la Bucherie, though you're not likely to find many Gothic novels or dark romantic poetry there; I had to be satisfied with a copy of Bukowski's SHAKESPEARE NEVER DID THIS and James Elroy's BLACK DAHLIA novel. It is, however, open till midnight; a good idea, especially in the summer, as in this northern clime it's light until well after 9 PM.
Finally, if you need a black ruffled shirt or some silver finger armor, head over to Dam Dom on the Rue de la Huchette to complete your Gothic look; all of these are within spitting distance of the cathedral. If you can read French, newsstands have a variety of magazines including some very good ones covering horror and science fiction films. Also get a copy of PARISCOPE; it tells all about local events and has a section in English. While I was in Paris there were huge billboards for AMERICAN PSYCHO and the Australian slasher film CUT; Parisians love their movies and love to read--in department stores such as Printemps you'll find large sections of horror and SF books.
The site of Notre Dame has been a spiritual place for--well, who knows how long. Millennia. It was the site of at least two previous Christian churches before the construction on Notre Dame began in the 12th century. In the cathedral's crypt they are excavating the site of the Temple of Jupiter, which was there prior to France's conversion to Christianity, built by the Romans. It is thought that the Parisii had a temple to the Gaulish god Cernunnos on the site prior to the Roman occupation. (The French love revisiting the 'Gaulois vs. Romain' conflict; there's a tacky theme restaurant that features a Gaulois tournament, and the popular comic ASTERIX, which pits Gaul against Roman, was made into a movie with Gerard Depardieu and Roberto Benigni, with a sequel in the works).
Notre Dame is in the heart of Paris--all distances in Paris are measured with it as a starting point. Saw just a few sedate Goths--a bit of black eyeliner and black lipstick and the typically French all-black wardrobe--and what seemed like thousands of Japanese tourists. Came back at another time and the tourists had thinned out, and actually entering the cathedral was now a reality.
It's very, very dark inside. Centuries of candle flames have blackened those famous arches. And what arches they are--incredibly high, especially without internal supports. That's what the famous flying buttresses outside are for. Lots and lots of candles (you can light one and say a prayer for a couple of Francs) and niches with different saints and variations on the theme of 'the goddess Mary', as Rick Steve calls her. A great stature of Joan of Arc, arguably the only witch to be canonized (if we leave out former Druid priest St. Patrick) stares up at one of the famous stained glass rose windows, the only one which still has the original glass from the Medieval era. These windows are not only beautiful but tell stories; not only religious but also secular themes are represented, including the seasons and the zodiac.
Walk around the church and look in the niches; seeing the Virgin of Guadalupe here helps a little with homesickness. There are many great things in here, from saints to demons. It's easy to see how Victor Hugo was inspired to write his tale of the perfect Goth couple--gypsy Esmeralda and hunchback Quasimodo--just from living in proximity to this incredible place. Just take in the total Gothic experience and remember that this edifice took--I don't know, couple hundred years--to build. And have some respect; 1300 oak trees gave their lives to build Notre Dame.
Go outside and head to the archeological crypt to visit Jupiter's old haunt if it's open (it rarely is, despite what the sign says.) Now walk around the church (don't fall in the Seine, that water is really nasty) and admire the flying buttresses, the gargoyles, the statues of the kings of Judah lost their heads in the Revolution when they were mistaken for statues of the kings of France, and the big ol' statue of Charlemagne. Now, if you want to go up and see those gargoyles face to grimace, it's 380 steps to the top. I went to the Café Quasimodo instead and watched the rain pour from the waterspout mouths of 'les gargouilles.' The bells ring at 8, 12, and 1800 hours, and since it's usually freezing cold and pouring rain (as it was on June 1 when I visited it again) it's the perfect Goth experience.
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Save the best for last--my black Reeboks were destroyed in the Catacombs. Les Catacombes, also known by the unintentionally hilarious title of Municipal Ossuary, is not for the squeamish, the claustrophobic, or the disabled. Don't wear anything flowing or 'dry-clean only'; you'll see why.
Take the Metro to Denfert-Rochereau, a very urban part of Paris with lots of traffic, workin' folks, apartments, stores, and so on. The Catacombs are only open from 2-4 PM on weekdays, closed on Mondays, and open 9-11 and 2-4 on weekends. Only 50,000 people a year visit the Catacombs--a drop in the bucket compared to how many tourists actually visit Paris overall. There's an unassuming sign that states 'Entree des Catacombes.' Here's where a surly guy takes a few Francs from you and lets you in. Another surly guy takes your ticket, and never fear, there's a third surly guy who's posted down in the catacombs during open hours (now, there's a job!).
Before we begin our tour, a bit of history is in order. Paris is in constant need of more cemetery space. In the late 1700's it got so bad that bones were sticking out of the cemeteries and decomposing bodies were fouling the air and the water supply. The Catacombs were the site of the limestone quarries that were mined in order to build Paris. In 1785 it was decided to make room for more dead folks by emptying out the Cimetiere des Innocents, and in time other old graveyards also had their tired old bones emptied as well. All this was done after the tunnels had been consecrated; bones were loaded onto wagons, and at dusk priests would follow chanting the burial service in what must have been a bizarre scene indeed. Municipal workers stacked the bones neatly, and created sculptures from skulls and tibias and whatnot on the facing rows of bones. Poems and epigrams about death dot the ossuary. But first we have to get there.
One of the first who tried building a staircase down into the catacombs for our viewing pleasure paid with his life in a cave-in. The spiral staircase that was eventually built is 60 feet down into the bowels of Paris, a winding, narrow, low-ceilinged, ill-lit passage that is unnavigable by anyone not in the best of health (and I doubt that someone of, say, Chef Paul Prudhomme's girth would fit in the passage.) Once at the bottom, take a moment to recover from your panic attack. If you think you're claustrophobic now, wait until you reach the passages that are too low to stand upright in. At this point there is no turning back. There is only one way out--and that's through.
It's a half-mile or so through the tunnels to get to the ossuary. The tunnels are very well ventilated and as clean as possible, though the dirt and gravel floor is often wet, and strange stuff may drip on you from above. I recommend taking a flashlight, though there is adequate lighting in most of the tunnels. When you reach the ossuary you will be astounded.
I see dead people. 6 million of them. Three times the population of living Parisians. The city workers who assembled the bones did so with a light touch; decorative flourishes and almost comical designs were made out of the stacked skulls and bones. At times it's hard to remember that these are actual human remains--it seems so much like a very twisted Disney ride, especially with the funereal decor, monuments, and plaques. You're not supposed to touch anything and I would advise against it; even though I doubt there's any health risk here, please remember that lots of these people died of the plague.
Trudging through the tunnels I feel I earned my Gothic merit badge. It's OK to make silly poses and take pictures, but please don't take any souvenirs--surly guy will search you on the way out. The trip back up is much shorter, thank goodness, as you've by this time been walking or sludging for a couple of miles beneath the living heart of Paris.
It's a good place to reflect, to get creeped out, and to remember that lots of stuff has happened down here. The catacombs were the headquarters of the Resistance in WWII. During the time of the Paris Commune, communards who were hiding in the catacombs were trapped and then slaughtered. The 'empire of the dead' has been open to the public since 1810, and in the 1800's a guy from the local hospital decided to come down and look around by himself; he got lost and they found his skeleton 11 years later. I've heard that Parisian kids sneak down into the catacombs and have Gothic parties, but have not been able to confirm this rumor; the lack of Mentos wrappers is probably a good sign that it's an urban legend.
Visiting the catacombs is a true test of one's commitment to thanatology--proof of a strong stomach for creepiness. There's an eerie sense of peace about the place; actually, once you get over the claustrophobia, it isn't very creepy at all. There's a fine symmetry about the human skull; the 'permanent Parisians' of this place are all reduced to their equal components, free of societal prejudices, communing in the one thing we all will have in common one day: our deaths.