Monday, August 26, 2013

The Paris Catacombs

Bones and skulls in the Paris catacombs.
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In the late 1700s, the cemeteries of Paris began to overflow.  Skeletons and human remains burst into basements, giving rise to modern clinical psychology as doctors were called upon to help French toddlers in basement nurseries.

OK—the toddler part is a joke, but...

Besides the bones, the overfull cemeteries contaminated the Paris water supply and emitted noxious fumes.  People fell ill.  Something had to be done. 

Five hundred or so years before, workers in what were then the rural outskirts of Paris abandoned open quarries and tunneled into the underlying limestone to mine stone for buildings, including the Louvre and the Cathedral of Notre Dame.   After quarrying ceased, the tunnels were largely forgotten until entire neighborhoods began to fall into them in the late 1700s.  In response, King Louis XVI created an inspectorate (the IGC) that still exists today.  As IGC engineers shored up the passageways, they carved their initials and dates  into the stone to mark their completed work.  Eccentrics sculpted elaborate miniature buildings in underground limestone alcoves.   A few lost their lives when passageways collapsed.

In all, there are over 180 miles of tunnel beneath Paris.  National Geographic ran a story in February 2011 about the Paris underground where today fringes of Parisian society create avant garde art, store wine, and party like there’s no EU.  But in 1786, a portion of these tunnels was consecrated as an ossuary, and remains from overflowing Paris cemeteries were exhumed and dumped into them. 

The bones piled up until 1810, when a French politician and mining engineer named Louis-Etienne Hericart de Thury was charged with overseeing the organization of the bone piles into artful patterns intermingled with headstones and other decorations from the cemeteries (he also supervised the construction of the Arch de Triomphe and other Paris landmarks).   Later, in the mid-1800s, more bones were added, probably including those of famous Parisians like Robespierre, whose skeleton came in two parts as a result of an unfortunate encounter with a guillotine very near the end of his life, in 1794. 

Today there are over 6 million skeletons stored in the catacombs, a portion of which can be viewed by visitors along an 800-meter-long section of dark, damp passageway bracketed between the bone-free entrance and exit tunnels.   Only about two hundred are allowed underground at one time, and they enter in a trickle as people exit the other end.  On a bright French morning, along with fellow sufferers who had waited in line for three hours, we finally entered the catacombs and shuffled through the corridors of bones.  Along the way, we passed dimly lit bone piles and peered through locked metal gates into unlit passage where more bones disappeared in darkness.  The only color was from green algae that grew on skulls wherever the faint light allowed. 

In all, one covers about 2 km of underground passageway before emerging into the Paris sunlight to have lunch or grab a gelato or a crepe.  It’s odd to pass by the physical remains of millions of souls, each one of whom once lived a life in this famous city, and then emerge to get something to eat.   But that’s what we do, blinking a little in the 21st century sunlight as we step out of the tunnels and have a look at what Paris has become.  

Engineers carved the date that tunnel reinforcements were built. 

Underground sculpture.

There are clear wells in the tunnels where workers could access water.

Monuments show where where the bones originated.

A cross of skulls embedded in leg bones.

More bone piles.

Detail of bone patterns and cemetery marker.

Skull patterns.


More skulls.

A barrel made of bones.

Back in the light.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Our Dream House in Ireland

Our dream cottage on the Beara Peninsula, Ireland.
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On many mornings at our rented cottage on the Beara, Ellen and I woke early and walked for a few hours while the girls slept, rousing them later to start their day.  One morning, we drove west a couple of miles along the narrow road to Allihies and then walked to an abandoned fishing village that we'd heard about.

The walk passed a small cluster of stone houses at the paved road, and then followed a two-track through fern and foxglove fields and around a steep hill that dropped to the ocean.  The sun was warm and the light was beautiful.  Sheep complained as we passed, but we didn't take them seriously and they went back to their meals as soon as we were gone.

After about a mile, we came upon a perfect white stone cottage, built right at the high tide line in a protected rocky cove beside the sea.  Deep in the ferns beside the ruin of an older stone house, the cottage was almost hidden from view until you were right above it.  Steps led to a stony beach where an old wooden boat rested.  Peering through the windows revealed a lovely fireplace, baskets of seashells on a windowsill, cozy furniture, a substantial rustic dining room table, bottles of wine in a rack, and a Whole Foods bag hanging from a hook in the mudroom.

Later we learned that the house had once been the home of a fishing family, and that they tied their boat right to the front porch to unload their catch.  More recently, it had been purchased by a French couple, who came to stay from time to time, dashing our (idle) fantasies of buying this perfect place.

Farther along the road, the village itself was spread sparsely across a lush green hillside--stone houses and ruins of older houses with views to the ocean.  Some of the houses were being renovated (by an artist, we learned later), and were lovely inside.  Others were as they had been left, some open to the weather.   A small greenhouse was in disarray, but still full of flowers.  We walked across the hill looking at each structure, and then followed old stone walls down to the rocky shore and back to the white cottage for one last look before reluctantly walking back to our car.

Sometimes when traveling you happen upon places where you could have lived in another life. This place was one of them, and it wasn't hard to imagine days spent reading on the couch in the living room, swimming in the cove, or wandering along the shore. But the French couple beat us to it, and we had a different life to resume, and three teenagers to roust from their beds.

Along the road that leads to the cottage.

First view of the old village which is now being renovated into an artist's colony.

Wooden boat in the cottage cove.

The cove.

Ellen in the old fishing village.

View east along the coast from the fishing village.

One of the renovated houses in the old fishing village.

The old fishing village.

One of the renovated houses in the village.

The walk from the village back to the cottage

Ellen on the walk from the village to the cottage.

The sea along the coast near the cottage.

Seaweed in the cottage cove.

A last look before leaving it behind.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Layers of History in Ireland

Wooden boats, Eyeries, Beara Peninsula, Ireland.
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We've returned, reluctantly, from our five-weeks of travel in Europe, and despite my best intentions, I managed to post to this blog exactly once while we were on the move.  Between a surprising lack of usable internet connectivity in many of the places we stayed, to not having time to process the raw images that I shoot, to just wanting to sit and relax with a beer after long days exploring with Ellen and the three girls (Bei and her cousins, Lauren and Leigh), it didn't happen.  Now that I'm back in Laramie, I'm faced with just a couple of weeks to get ready for the school year, but I'm eager to post some photos, so I'll start now.  

Our trip began in Ireland and most of our time there was spent on the Beara Peninsula which juts into the Atlantic near the southwestern corner of the island, along with the Kerry Peninsula just to the north and the Dingle just north of that.  Those two are more famous tourist destinations, and I chose the Beara to escape the tour buses, which apparently are thick as tourists are driven around the loop roads that hug the coast. The Beara has somehow avoided the worst of this, despite its gorgeous mountains and coastline and picturesque villages of brightly painted houses.  Perhaps it is the extremely narrow roads squeezed between stone walls that make navigating by bus more challenging on the Beara.  

Interestingly, the Beara was famous for copper mining in the late 1800s (and all the way back to the Bronze Age for that matter), with deep mines following quartz veins sandwiched between steeply dipping sandstones and "mudrock."  Mining centered around the town of Allihies, very near the cottage we rented during our week on the peninsula.  Miners frequently died in the desperately dangerous mines, and lived in near poverty. When copper mining became uneconomic, many of them migrated to Butte, Montana, and there's a strong connection today between the Beara and Butte, where apparently there are many O'Sullivans and Harringtons in the phone book, prominent names on the Beara (most of the grocery stores we patronized were called O'Sullivan's).  

In Ireland, where it is wet, cool, and famously green, layers of peat build up quickly even on steep terrain, and millennia of human history are layered on top of one another and embedded in the peat.  In more recent history, stone houses were the norm (and still are today), and there are hundreds of abandoned homes that become exquisite places for flowers and ferns to grow among the stones.  Farther back, castles and ring forts stood in defensive positions and many remain.  In deeper history, megalithic cultures left tombs, standing rocks, and stone circles that resemble Stonehenge, though less grand.  Ellen and I found dozens of megalithic tombs once we learned how to see them.  More recent graveyards have layers of graves, with new tombstones on top of old, unmarked ones, all in a sea of green.  

Layers of fences--stone walls are everywhere, but they are rarely tall enough to contain livestock.

An old copper mine engine house at Allihies.

Abandoned stone house, Garinish.

Gravestone, Allihies.

Memorial highlighting ties to Butte, Montana.

Boat detail near Eyeries.

One of the oldest crosses on the peninsula, at Kilcatherine Church.

Megalithic tomb near the summit of Knocknagallaum (a mountain near our cottage).

Stone circle near Castletownbere.

Steps, abandoned fishing village.

Abandoned stone house.

The Ogham Stone, near Eyeries.

Stonework, Kilcatherine Church.

Kilcatherine Church.