It may sound macabre to willingly take time to wander through a subterranean mausoleum containing the bones of more than 6 million people. In some ways I guess it was. But that was what Craig and I did when we toured the Catacombs of Paris, France.
Here’s a brief historical note to give you a little context: Paris started as a Roman town – Lutetia for those who, like me, was an avid reader of the Asterix books written by Goscinny and Underzo. In time, as Paris continued to grow, the existing cemeteries became overcrowded. During the 1780’s it was decided to use part of the abandoned network of limestone mines beneath Paris to store the remains.
At first, the bones were simply dropped down a mineshaft and left. Until 1810, when the Minister of Mine Inspections, Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury began to organise the bones and create a more respectful resting place for the centuries of Paris’s dead. As an aside, the ossuary takes up only a small fraction of the network of mines under Paris.
Admittedly, I wasn’t really interested in the ossuary itself. I certainly had no wish to explore the collections of bones using the sense of touch which is how I’d have to have done it due to my blindness – if I’d been allowed to, which I most definitely wasn’t! Rather, what interested me was the history behind the creation of the limestone mines, and the process through which these old abandoned mines had been renovated and became the ossuary that is now a popular tourist site in Paris.
As the story unfolded on the audio guide that was provided as part of the tour, I was enthralled to learn of different events that had taken place in the ossuary and nearby network of mine tunnels. Once the ossuary was open to the public from 1874, it became a popular party and concert venue. The mines were used by the French Resistance during WWII to smuggle information and people, and as a meeting place. In turn, the Nazi’s located a subterranean bunker in the mines. They’ve been used for several movies across the years and Airbnb invited people to spend a night in the mines as part of a marketing campaign. But my favourite has to be the discovery of an illicit movie theatre, complete with large screen, seating, sound rig, a fully stocked bar and restaurant, that was discovered by police in 2004 – they even discovered film reels of recent movies and noir film classics!
It was that history that kept me enthralled during the 90-minute tour of the ossuary.
So, if you still think Craig and I were weird to spend 90 minutes in a subterranean mausoleum for 6 million people, just remember that the Catacombs were visited by 480 000 people during 2018 alone… which means we are by no means the only weird people in the world!
The photo shows me navigating my way through the Catacombs using my white cane.
Craig and I have a tradition. When we travel to a new country, we buy a small flag of whatever country we’ve been to. These flags are displayed in our indoor braai room –barbeque, for those who aren’t South African. So far, we’ve collected around 20 flags.
This begs the question of why our recent trip was to France, since we’ve already been there and have a flag.
The decision came out of a marathon that Craig wanted to do. It was a marathon through the winelands of Bordeaux, with an amazing array of food and wine at the various water tables. If I’m honest, it sounded almost good enough for me to consider taking up running as well. Almost, but not quite! Anyway, Craig didn’t manage to get an entry for that race, but by then we’d already started chatting about what else we could do when we were in France.
Another factor that played a role in the decision was that both Craig and I are fascinated by history. Granted, my interests focus more on ancient history while Craig tends to enjoy both ancient and modern history. As such, it seemed like Normandy would satisfy both of us – the ancient history being that of William the Conqueror, who became king of England in 1066, and the more recent history of the Allied landings in Normandy towards the end of WWII.
Okay, we also wanted a slightly smaller French flag than the one we had, since our collection – shown in the photographs – is becoming quite full. But that was only a secondary consideration.
And so it was that we spent time in France – a week in Paris and 10 days in Normandy. Over the next few weeks I’ll share a few highlights… and lowlights… of our wonderful trip with you.
Hopefully, we’ll be able to add another new flag to our collection next time we travel. But that remains to be seen – we haven’t started planning our next trip yet.
PS: How many of the flags can you identify? Sorry, no prizes for correct answers.
A little while back I read “The City & the City” by China Mieville. It’s a story about a city that, for some inexplicable (or in my case forgotten) reason has been divided into two totally separate cities. As a citizen of one city you are not permitted to acknowledge the existence of the other city and its inhabitants even though you may share the same roads and the same neighbourhoods.
At the time I read the book we were planning our trip to Europe including a few days in Berlin. I found myself wondering whether living in Berlin before the Berlin Wall fell in 1990 was anything like what was portrayed in Mieville’s novel.
Even though Berlin is a united city once more and has done much to reinvent itself since 1990, the strange circumstances in which the city found itself for 45 years has had an unusual impact on the geography of the city.
Usually when we tour a city we find one or two central areas where most of the historic buildings are situated – but not in Berlin. As we navigated round the city Craig commented that many of the sites seemed far away from each other, and that he had underestimated the amount of time it would take to travel around.
Here’s what I think. From 1945 – 1990 Berlin was split into two geographically similar cities. Each city had to develop separately, with systems and services being needed by both. So much was duplicated – within the boundaries in West Berlin, and, often on the outskirts, of East Berlin. So, while many historic buildings are near the Brandenburg Gate, which lies on what was the boundary between East and West Berlin, many are not. And I think that’s the reason it takes so long to travel the city.
You may laugh, but I had a second realization when I was in Berlin. I’d always envisioned the Berlin Wall as being there to keep East Germans “in”. In reality, since Berlin was surrounded by East German territory, the Berlin Wall was built to enclose West Berlin. I guess I equated West Germany with freedom and East Germany with confinement and that dictated my mental image of the city. Still, it was quite a revelation to me when I realized how my reality had been shaped by the words I used.
And so, back to where we started – China Mievilles novel “The City & the City”. I have no idea if living in a divided Berlin in any way resembled the novel, but the book certainly sprang to mind many times during our time in the city & the city that are now united once more.
When I was in high school I went through a protracted phase of devouring any novel or movie I could lay my hands on that was set during WWII. Even now, every now and then I’ll settle down to enjoy a book that’ll take me back to this period in history.
So it’s no surprise that I was excited to have the opportunity to visit Berlin as the final destination on my recent travels. I know Berlin has a much richer history than just what’s happened over the past hundred or so years, which was reinforced when we took a walking tour of Berlin’s history. But somehow I’m never been as fascinated by the city’s more ancient history.
As I walked the streets of the city that had witnessed the rise and fall of Hitler’s regime and had subsequently become such a symbol of the divided East and West, I found my imagination being triggered into memories of things I’d read or seen in movies. I’ll admit it was both exciting and a little daunting.
In the next few Blind Tourist articles I’ll share a few of my most memorable experiences of Berlin. Starting next time with my first startling realization of how Berlin’s experiences have shaped her geography.
I usually try to find out about a city before going there. Learning a city’s story helps me build an impression of what I might find when I arrive. And then I use my experiences in that city, and all that I learn from my other senses, to build a more complete picture.
That wasn’t possible when we went to Wroclaw. We only planned to go to the city later in our trip. Our plans changed when the weather in our next proposed destination, Zakopane – a small but beautiful ski resort in the mountains outside Krakow – was dismally unpleasant. So we went to Wroclaw instead. Which is a very long and complicated way of saying that I had done no research on the city.
I was delighted when we took a tour on the river Oder and discovered our skipper/guide was a goldmine of information of the history of his city. More than that, since we were the only passengers on the boat, we were able to ask questions and dig deeper into any aspects that intrigued us.
Here’s my potted recent history of Wroclaw, based on what I learned from our guide:
Wroclaw has a fascinating recent history. It only became a Polish city when Europe was carved up following WWII. Previously it was a German city named Breslau, with a strongly German population. When the new borders were confirmed, there was an almost total population change – the Germans left (or in some cases were forcibly removed) and the city became populated by Polish nationals.
After WWII, Poland fell under the domination of the Soviet Union. The underground anti-communist organizations Fighting Solidarity and Orange Alternative were founded in Wroclaw. Orange Alternative used an image of a dwarf to help members find their way to secret meetings, and the dwarf symbol has now been adopted in a wonderfully unique way – but more on that in my next article.
With the fall of Soviet power in 1989, Poland started becoming the friendly, fun and dynamic country Craig and I enjoy visiting. Which doesn’t mean everything in Wroclaw has gone smoothly…
In 1997, the river Oder flooded with devastating effects – it was the worst flooding in post-war Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic. About one-third of the area of the city was flooded and took huge amounts of time and money to repair.
Nowadays the city has a population of around 1 million, with almost 130 000 students studying at the university, which gives it a very youthful population.
After our river tour we started exploring the city on foot. As we visited interesting buildings, sampled the city’s markets and eateries, and engaged with people, I was struck by how young and cosmopolitan the city is.
While Wroclaw isn’t a hugely popular tourist destination, we encountered tourists from several countries and heard different languages and dialects. I found most people friendly and happy to chat about the city to an inquisitive tourist (me) which leads me to agree the city motto is an apt one: Wroclaw – The Meeting Place.
I’m not sure I’d go back to Wroclaw to stay for an extended period of time, but I would be very tempted to go back to meet more of the Wroclaw dwarves – which I’ll tell you about in my next article!
The images show a view of the river Oder taken on our tour, and a shot of one of the busy outdoor markets in the main square of Wroclaw.
Note: My use of the term dwarf is not meant as an offensive and non-politically correct reference to persons of small stature; it is the term used by the city itself – and I’ll explain more in my next article.
There’s something special about medieval towns. I don’t know if it’s the charm of cobbled streets, the beautiful old buildings, the sense that time flows a little slower than it does in a modern city, or a combination of all of those.
Whatever the reason, I found myself falling under the spell of the town of Gorlitz, our first stop on our recent trip to Germany and Poland, almost immediately.
Gorlitz is the eastern-most town in the region of Saxony in Germany, on the banks of the Lusatian Neisse River which forms the border between Germany and Poland. On the other bank of the river lies the Polish town of Zgorzelec.
The difference between the two towns is marked – Gorlitz is a beautiful, old medieval town. Zgorzelec, at least the parts that I experienced, appears to be more austere with streets lined with modern apartment blocks, as you can see from the photo taken from the German bank of the river.
One of the things I found most fascinating was the fortuitous location of the towns –neither Germany nor the Allies were willing to bomb the towns for fear of bombing their own people. So the towns made it through WWII with no damage.
Gorlitz is far from being a tourist location, which is part of its charm. Sure, it means that few of the restaurants have English-language menus, but that’s not a significant problem and ordering food in German or Polish soon becomes part of the experience. We found some delightful local restaurants, including one that had a maze, that I may write an entire article about in the coming weeks.
Considering it’s not one of the usual tourist stops, a surprising number of people in Gorlitz speak good English so it’s not hard to make oneself understood, though our smattering of German and Polish did prove useful on occasion.
In the past few years , Gorlitz has gained a degree of popularity as a movie location – the 2013 movie of Markus Zusak’s “The Book Thief” was filmed there, as was the movie “The Grand Budapest Hotel”.
So, if it’s not usually a Tourist destination, you’re probably wondering how Craig and I landed up in Gorlitz. We were there for two reasons. It seemed a great first stop on our road and rail trip from Berlin to Krakow. The timing also just happened to coincide with the Europa Marathon which Craig hoped to run – watch for a possible article on that as well.
That’s just a brief introduction to what turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip – it certainly was a fantastic place to start off our adventure and, if you ever find yourself in Saxony, I’d definitely suggest you give it a visit.