There is no better way to feel alive than to travel, except perhaps by having a brush with death while on your trip. With beauty, art and history manifested on almost every corner in Paris, it is the perfect place to use your heightened state of awareness for a little contemplation. While some may prefer to keep their near-death experiences on the table (another crème brulee, anyone?), others will want to visit in the flesh the city’s offerings in the realm of the gothically inspired and downright creepy. Get a copy of some Baudelaire and prepare to experience your own humanity.
ARRETE! C’EST ICI L’EMPIRE DE LA MORTE!
Halt! Here is the empire of death! This chilling proclamation greets you as you enter the Catacombs, the resting place of over six million people, 42 feet below the streets of Paris. In the late 18th century the cemeteries of the city were literally overflowing into neighboring basements, so the bones were moved, by night, to the ancient Gallo-Roman tunnels and arranged by type, not owner- and often with artistic intent. Wild parties were held here during the French Revolution, and in World War II fighters of the Resistance met in the dark, labyrinthine tunnels to evade the Nazis. You may want to bring a flashlight.
The French Revolution looms large in the imagination of many travelers, and you can still see remnants of the rebellion and the terror that followed all over Paris. On the left bank the Cour de Commerce St-Andre was a hotbed of pre-Revolutionary activity as well as the site of experiments by a certain Dr. Guillotin who was in the process of designing a “humanitarian killing machine”.
Radicals like Camille Desmoulins fomented the crowds in the Palais Royale who rushed to storm the Bastille, freeing all seven prisoners and setting off the Revolution. Although the infamous prison which once housed political prisoners like Voltaire and the Marquis de Sade was demolished in the war, its stones were used to build the Pont de la Concorde (Concorde Bridge) over the river Seine so that we can forever trample underfoot the vestiges of tyranny.
Once the Revolution was swinging, most religious statues in the city were decapitated, and you can see these early attempts at a separation of church and state on display at the Musée National du Moyen Age (National Middle Ages Museum) in the Latin Quarter. It wasn’t long after Parisian peasants marched on Versailles demanding bread that Queen Marie Antoinette found herself locked up in the sinister Conciergerie on the Ile de la Cite. You can visit her cell though she did manage to avoid the back tower known as Bonbec or “the squealer”, where tortured prisoners gave the building its cruel name.
Neither the Queen nor her King, Louis XVI, managed to avoid Madame La Guillotine however, which was erected in many Parisian squares but most notably in Place de la Nation and Place de la Concorde, where over a thousand people became acquainted with the “national razor” in a very intimate way.
Pere Lachaise Cemetery is perhaps the most famous resting place in the world: over seventy thousand people are buried here, and there’s a waiting list to get in! Besides being a large free outdoor space (the Parisians consider cemeteries espaces vertes or green spaces along with parks and gardens) it is also a statuary full of moss-covered tombs, winding paths, and crumbling grave markers. Buy a map if you don’t want to get lost finding your favorite habitué, whether it is Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, Moliere, La Fontaine, or the perpetual poet, Jim Morrison. To a lesser extent the cemeteries of Montparnasse and Montmartre also provide the same eerily romantic atmosphere and collection of the celebrity dead.
Paris is also full of plaques and memorials dedicated to those no longer living, so that we who are will never forget their lives and deaths. The best known is the eternal flame of the unknown soldier which burns beneath the Arc de Triomphe and is relit every night at 6:30 PM. The gleaming golden dome of Les Invalides marks the final resting place of Napoleon, whose remains are nesting in six coffins, surrounded by statues symbolizing his military victories.
The Pantheon in the Latin Quarter (after which the United States Capitol Building was modeled) is dedicated to “the Great Men” of France, and though most who lie there are of interest only for students of French history, everyone will know Marie and Pierre Curie and Alexandre Dumas. The giant, angular arch west of the city known as La Defense marks the place where French soldiers defended the city from the Prussians in 1870, and the most poignant memorial is the Deportation Memorial on the east end of the Ile de la Cite, a crypt with one point of light for every French person deported in the Holocaust.
And finally enjoy the human attempts to understand death through art and philosophy. The Louvre is home to amazing Egyptian sarcophagi, alabaster Canopic jars, and protective amulets as a testament to the Egyptians’ belief in an afterlife; the National Modern Art Museum is a demonstration of more contemporary humans trying to make sense of the here-and-now, often inspiring visitors to question at least art if not life itself.
Grab a seat at the now admittedly touristy Deux Magots café (or sisters Cafe de Flore or Brasserie Lipp) where the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre worked for hours, writing and debating with fellow disenchants of modernity. Have a cup of coffee and contemplate your life, remembering that for an existentialist like Sartre, we are not defined by who we are (age, gender, race) but by what we do (actions and behavior); a philosophy which gives all of us the potential and responsibility for creating ourselves and designing our lives. Revel in the newfound understanding of humanity which the city has lent you, and toast your vitality and ability to accept the fleeting nature of time. Take another sip, pause, then declare it all meaningless and have that second cup, slowing exhaling, “ahhhhhh, Paris…”
Now don’t you feel alive?