Paris: Northern Soul visits the city of death
Forget ideas of strolling hand-in-hand through the city of romance. Paris is not the city of love. It’s a city of the dead.
Wandering along the banks of the Seine, taking in the vistas of the city, it’s easy to tell yourself that you’re somewhere elegant. Paris is, of course, beautiful. But it’s not in the least bit gentile. Paris is obsessed with death. A macabre city, its boulevards and alleys surround us with reminders of those who have already passed – and of our own mortality.
In this spirit I’m suggesting abandoning any ideas of the city of love and instead celebrating the city of doom and peril. Here are my top ten spots for a Parisian tour of the dead.
1. Père Lachaise cemetery
Any narrative of death in Paris has to start with the city’s famous graveyard. Although nobody really knows how many people are buried at Père Lachaise, some claim there are as many as one million bodies here. Many of the tombs aren’t underground but in mini-temples or family mausoleums, making the place extra spooky, especially if you visit at twilight when the long shadows are at their most sinister. Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison and Edith Piaf are perhaps the most visited graves, but that leaves thousands of others to explore.
Top tip: Pay a euro for the printed guide sheet. It makes life (and finding the dead) much easier.
Sometimes referred to as the world’s largest grave, the network of underground tunnels contains the remains of more than six million Parisians. Perhaps the creepiest grave down there is of Philibert Aspairt who went missing in the catacombs in 1793. He is buried in the exact spot where his body was found 11 years later. Despite Airbnb’s idea of offering overnight accommodation in the vaults, the best way to get in is to book via the official website.
Top tip: The shortest waiting times are on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday afternoons.
3. Les Invalides
Wanna see a dead body? Well you can’t as Napoleon Bonaparte’s remains are buried in a sarcophagus that contains six coffins, one inside the other. Once you’ve seen his magnificent tomb though, be sure to check out all the other generals and military bigwigs who are interred here. The complex around Napoleon’s tomb was originally built as housing for war veterans – and you might still spot some old soldiers there today.
Top tip: The tomb can be viewed from the ground, but make sure you also climb up to the gallery to see it from above too.
You might think that a museum dedicated to hunting would be rather bad taste in the modern world. But this is a museum of responsible livestock management. Whether that arouses the cynic in you or not, this place is well worth visiting to explore the dynamic between hunters and the hunted.
While the museum is, admittedly, filled with loads of stuffed dead things, it’s the birds and the beasts who have the last say. Somehow the specimens have managed to regain control of the museum. The cabinets of guns are topped with lions and leopards, sat proudly above the weapons, reclaiming power in their relationship with we humans.
Top tip: The museum is open until 9.30pm on Wednesday nights.
5. Pont de l’Alma
If you want to see something even more tragic than the death of Diana Princess of Wales, go and witness people born well after 1997 openly weeping at the site for a woman they never met. The bridge above the tunnel where the accident happened has become an eerie shrine to Lady Di. Romantically-inclined teenagers from around the world come to affix padlocks to the fence, much to the irritation of the Parisian authorities.
Top tip: The bridge lies between two public transport stations. Alma-Marceau (Metro) is to the north and Pont de l’Alma (RER) is to the south.
6. Palace of Versailles
Although it’s not technically in Paris, a day-trip to Versailles is worth it if the city becomes too much for you. The place is full of gory details. For example, in January 1757 Robert-François Damiens attempted to kill King Louis XV as he was getting into his carriage. His weapon of choice was a penknife, which resulted in only a minor wound to the King. Damiens, however, was tortured with red-hot pincers, sulphur, molten wax and lead, and boiling oil. He was publicly hung, drawn and quartered and then finally burned. A sure sign not to mess with royalty.
Top tip: Try to find the clock with hands stopped at the time of Louis XIV’s death.
7. Place de Grève
Contrary to the many images of the guillotine, beheading was never that popular in France. The last execution by decapitation in Paris was in 1765, and throughout the 1800s hanging was the preferred means of capital punishment. Head to the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville (the square in front of city hall), once known as the Place de Grève, to see the site where people were beheaded, hung and burned for centuries. Sadly there’s little here to remind us of the bloody history of this part of town.
Top tip: If you visit on Bastille Day (July 14) you’ll see plenty of soldiers out on display. Close your eyes and imagine the drum roll before the guillotine blade drops.
8. Musée du Louvre
Navigating your way around the world’s largest museum may leave you feeling like you’d like to kill someone. The key to visiting the Louvre is to choose just a few rooms to see rather than trying to do the whole lot. For those looking for gory details, head to the Egyptian galleries to see mummies whose brains were pulled out through their noses before mummification. Or if you’re visiting with kids go on a Lion Hunt Tour of the galleries in order to see plenty of bodies being maimed.
Top tip: Avoid the queues at the main door by entering through the Carrousel du Louvre shopping centre. If you arrive there 10-15 minutes before official opening time, you’ll be among one of the first people in the museum that day.
9. Grand halle de la Villette
This cultural centre is where the huge abattoirs in Paris once stood. Victorian writers tell of the public and gory slaughterhouses in the city. Indeed, this area was once known as la cité du sang (city of blood) and the streets were reported to have run red. It’s almost enough to put me off my steak tartare. Today this large park filled with pavilions is home to a range of festivals and arts and entertainment events.
Top tip: If all this death is getting a bit much for you, go pick your own veg in the ecological gardens.
10. Musée Curie
The story of Madame Curie’s life is told in this small museum in the very place where she and her husband discovered polonium and radium and first created artificial radioactivity. Their scientific achievements led to the development of X-ray machines and the treatments we use today to combat cancer. But exposure to these damaging materials ultimately led to her death, in 1934, at the age of 66. Be aware, the museum shuts for all of August.
Top tip: No need for a Geiger counter. Her office was decontaminated of any radiation in 1981.
Paris is well served by competitively priced direct flights from the North of England. The airlines seem to be in keen price and scheduling competition from Manchester (Ryanair, easyJet, Flybe and Air France), Liverpool (easyJet), Newcastle (Flybe and Air France) and Doncaster/Sheffield (Flybe). Expect to pay anywhere between £50 and £150 for return flights.
For those seeking a lower carbon option, take a train to London Euston or London King’s Cross, transfer to St Pancras International and hop on a Eurostar service direct to Paris Gare du Nord. Eurostar sells through tickets from Leeds, Manchester and other mainline stations to Paris with return fares starting from £90.
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