Death in Paris

The air was cold and damp. More than damp – the water sat in a dense humidity all around us like a cloying mist. Round me snaked the stacked coils of the dead – radius, ulcer, tibia, skull. So went the procession – the only physical remains of lives once lived were those stored in the hollowed out mines beneath the streets of Paris. These were the Catacombs.

Getting in can be quite troublesome. The queue was long, despite the fact I got there before the door opened and I went outside of term time. The combs, you see, only allow a maximum of 200 people inside at once, so a lengthy queue meanders, down the street and round the park, at all times. This seems like a bit of a nightmare, but it’s a thankful mercy for visitors. This is because it alleviates the claustrophobic atmosphere inside and its addition (through omission) creates a hallowed, reverent quality that seems respectful in this place of interment.

But the history of the Paris Catacombs is actually the history of The Holy Innocents’ Cemetery (Cimetière des Innocents) which was curiously named after the slaughter of infants by Herod when he attempt to assassinate the baby Jesus. The graveyard saw uninterrupted use from 1186 until its closure in 1780. It was an overcrowded slum for the dead.

“For eighth hundred years, day in, day out, corpses by the dozen had been carted here and tossed into long ditches, stacked bone upon bone for eight hundred years in the tombs and charnel houses.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Patrick Süskind [1985]

This sacred churchyard saw approximately 1800 burials a year. From what I can gather, it worked like this: mass graves were dug in the middle and each new body covered with a bit of mud (but not much) until the entire pit was filled. The rich had their own graves along the outside.

After an appropriate amount of time had passed (hopefully long enough for decomposition) new graves were dug and the old bones were hauled out and put in the charnal houses which lay around the walls of the cemetery. The place was heaving with bodies and the stench was toxic.

In 1780, Louix XVI (or more likely his advisors) finally decided it was to be closed. At this point it is thought that over two million bodies were on site. The lynchpin event that spurred on this decisive action? A heavy rain storm that caused a hundred partially decomposed bodies to burst into the cellar of a nearby building, a restaurant in fact, and it was discovered when a man went to fetch more wine. Imagine a graveyard literally bursting at the seams.

Five year later, they excavated the bones and moved them to the catacombs where they rest to this day. There are other graveyards from central Paris housed here as well. You walk through the necropolis and it feels like a tour of the streets from the past.

These city workers spend the next year digging human remains out of the cemetery’s deep mass graves and collecting the millions of bones that had accumulated in charnel houses around its perimeter. They then systematically transported carts full of humans and human remains to an underground quarry on the city’s southern peripheral.

Making Space for the Dead: Catacombs, Cemeteries, and the Reimagining of Paris, 1780–1830.   (Erin Marie Legacey, 2019)

Its current site has been used as a place of tourism almost from the beginning. In 1809 Héricart de Thury managed the project of bone arrangement – artistically taking advantage of the skulls that remained intact after their inglorious ‘tossing into the pit’.

As we race through the centuries, sometimes the site was closed for decades, sometimes with visitor limits, sometimes without, until of course today, where the whole experience is carefully managed, and I suspect, a lot is not on display. When I went a few years back, entrance was significantly reduced if you could prove you were an EU citizen under 26. I think this is still possible, although the discounts aren’t as generous as they once were and alas for Brexit. Us Brits have to cough up now.

The route through the caverns is low roofed, slightly inclined and it swept circuitously. There was a small sign before we entered warning us that “the ossuary tour could make a strong impression on children and people of a nervous disposition”. I really didn’t know what to make of that sign. Surely, if you were of a nervous disposition you wouldn’t decide to visit this macabre site and ogle at the dead arranged like art between doric columns, alters and tombs. Never the less, the sheer force of that many bones is disquieting. Thousands of thigh bones, piles of skulls – people decimated by plagues, childbirth, toothaches, bad food and dysentery. Mothers, children, husbands and wives all washed up and on show. Is this one of those dark-tourism site that is better left unvisited? Or are graves no longer graves when we can no longer remember to whom they once belonged?



Venice with Webbed Feet

Venice, Grand Canal
View from the Rialto down the Grand Canal
Venice, Grand Canal, Italy
The Grand Canal
View from the Campanile, St Marks Cathedral, Venice, Italy
`St Mark’s Cathedral from the Campanile
The Doge's Palace, Venice, Italy
The Doge’s Palace

Venice is made of 118 islands (apparently, not that I had the skills or inclement to check) all composed like a jigsaw puzzle someone had placed, in order, on a table, but forgot to push together. When you are there, however, it feels like an organic structure – like aquatic shoots that have pushed themselves up through the water. In the centre of these reeds, one prodigious bamboo reaches high above the others; it’s the tallest building on the island and is dubbed the bell-tower or The Campanile. 

The city is often described as a maze by befuddled tourists. They stand with paper maps unfolded between two outstretched arms and their sunglasses pushed to the top of their heads. They’d sigh confounded. And I guess I’d have to agree. Occasionally, despite my flâneuse instincts,  I’d be forced to relent and check the GPS on my phone; only to find myself, puzzlingly enough, on the opposite side of the island to where I’d thought. I imagine the contrast this befuddlement creates, next to the local’s superior knowledge, gives the Venetians a sublime sense of power.

At St Mark’s Square you have to elbow your way through the selfie snappers in order to reach anywhere. I pity the average Venetian who must spend a large majority of their time exhausted as they face down the ‘barbarous multitudes.’ But, the art galleries and museums are quite quiet.

It’s early June and the mercury reads 28C with 50% humidity; later in the day, it creeps up to 32. My day is spent eating gelato after gelato, stalking out supermarkets and corner shops with ice-cold bottles of water hidden in the midst. I’d pick places on the map that I want to check out; two hours later I’d arrive, only for it to take me three minutes to make the return journey.

I bemoan the crowds, but it really doesn’t take long to walk somewhere nearly altogether deserted, like a little cafe or a water fountain in a community square from which you can watch as well dressed children eagerly dip bottles and hands into the font.  Others can be found kicking footballs against the walls of mighty buildings. At times the city seemed at peace, and when it did it felt most like a home rather than a playground.

I saw a family amble by. The woman, in front, held a paper bag of groceries in her arms. A small dog and a few tottering toddlers followed in tow. The woman was all designer sunglasses and Italian chic. The three-year-old nudged their shiny red shoes, closer and closer, to the edge of the canal. But maybe it doesn’t matter – after all there is that rumour- that all Venetian’s have webbed feet. I watched her pass over a bridge and out of sight. 

In front of me now, a pink trousered youth stood on his head in the grand archway of some impressive looking building. It was a confident pose – legs bend and elbows out. It wasn’t until I clocked the ambo-boats, that I realised he was posed upon the steps of the city hospital. Was he leaving or checking in? The whole of Venice is a bit like that really.

The city is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. I don’t know if this imparts serious restrictions on the repairs people can make to their buildings, but everywhere the facades of houses were falling and crumbling. Venice has been likened to a museum (carefully preserved) or Disneyland (carefully orchestrated) – I’d say it’s nestled somewhere in the middle. Neither too perfect nor to hallowed. 

The light, however, is from a dream – or the recollection of a dream. It is haunting even in its glaring strength. It flashes and screams and sulks and dapples – it shimmers on crumbling masonry, mottles casino walls, and caresses the faces of those watching the water by moonlight. It speaks of opulence and depravity as it glints off the wine glasses held in the bedewed hands of heiresses. It is the light that makes painters weep.

Like all memories, Venice does not stay stationary in my mind, but changes and grows, mutates and fades, beautifies or indeed decays. Those qualities that were once slight are now gargantuan when I remember back. I have dreams of tiny sidewalks clinging to the edges of buildings. I dream of towering stone and I dream of feeling slight in the presence of centuries of elation and heartbreak.

My travel book of the week is The Passion by Jeanette Winterson. With a Napoleon era setting, this novella is about love and belonging. This was the book that brought Venice alive for me, and spurred on my decision to visit. And books are the most romantic way of being inspired.

Grand Canal, Venice, Italy
The Hospital, Italy
Inside the Doge's Palace, Venice, Italy
Venice, Italy
The Campanile, Venice, Italy
St Mark's Cathedral, Venice, Italy

Slug Cheese and Peeled Almonds

The Dales were, for the first hour, swathes of green velvet, scrubby moorland peaks and granite mountain tops. It wasn’t quite the blistering wilds made famous by the Bronte sisters. Instead, it was tempered by a kind of human tenderness which transmuted the land from desolate to verdant. Before our eyes flashed farmsteads, drystone walls and chocolate box cottages; all lying in wait for the artist’s brush.

My sister and I took my silver Clio on a tour of the National Park. We watched as the fields, like pistachio ice-cream, flashed past, and the white woolly sheep, far in the distance, glistened like freshly peeled almonds. My sister didn’t say much. Although, she never does. Perhaps it was my driving that forced her to remain tight-lipped. Her hands clung white-knuckled onto the door handles as I steered the car through the labyrinth-like road network. I’m not a stranger to single track lanes, but I am to the rocky walls that stop you pulling the car onto the verge. Gone was the endless possibility of space. Gone was the Fenland ability to, given enough gumption, just pass each other with the edge of your tyre balancing on tarmac and wing-mirrors air-kissing as you pass.

The Dales were: stop, watch out for passing places, hairpin bend, sheep, gear up, gear down, blind summit. All whilst keeping your eye on the temperature gauge which was shrilly shrieking like a cartoon pressure valuve.

From within the confines and safety of our little silver ship though, we plotted our way to the Wensleydale Creamery and muttered with glee, over and over again, the website’s grand promise of ‘free cheese’. Quite difficult to say once; very difficult to say a few times over.

At the creamery, we paid our modest dues (about £4 for adults) and embarked on the ‘cheese tour’. My sister learned that back in the day the citizens of the Dale would make cheese out of the sludge collected from ditches. I learned they made cheese from slugs collected in ditches. Either way, I wouldn’t recommend trying it at home. I would recommend, however, that our next trip incorporates a visit to an audiologist. I’m not sure what else I learned (having been pretty shocked with the idea of slug cheese, but also eager about the prospects of making my, ill-advised, own), but I think it included a history of the creamery, the owners, the cheese making process, and a look at the factory in action.

And then, as if walking out of the black and white world of Kansas and straight into Oz, we walked through sterile glass doors, sanitised our hands, and appeared in cheese-heaven. Hark! We hear cherubic choirs and harps twanging. Then a golden suffusion of light, the sort which could literally cure holes in the mortal soul, blared through open windows. And there we were. Arrived and surrounded by a room of ‘free cheese’. For we were indeed presented with a room full of delicious cheeses, which you could eat without labouring under a judge-full eye.

I juggled an armful of these lactose-treats to the checkout, equal in amount to the quantity I’d already consumed. I decided to take a fairly traditional approach to the selection process. After all, why buy anything that’s not Wensleydale at Wensleydale? Although they did also have a range of soft, blues and hard cheeses on offer. I took one waxed truckle of the unadulterated, Gromit saliva inducing, traditional Wensleydale, which was a creamy, slightly acidic, but altogether delightful affair. To which I added an oaked smoked version and a series of mixed cheeses. The latter are made by grating the cheese, adding the fruit and then, for want of a better term, re-squishing it back together again. I added  a ginger, a caramelised onion and a cranberry one to the collection.

Back at the car, the prospect of transporting my body weight in cheese home without refrigeration suddenly became an issue. So we nipped into the little town of Hawes and bought some ice for the cooler box and some fancy crackers for later. Hawes is one of those tourist towns that rake in the money from confectionery and souvenirs, but I liked it, so I won’t dwell too critically.

PS: I’ve checked with Google – it’s defo slugs, but you can also use snails (in fact snails are better).

The Yorkshire Dales
The Yorkshire Dales
The Yorkshire Dales

The Pirates of Thornwick Bay

I stood on the cliff edge at Bempton and watched as the waves flew. They created this deep underwater rumble that moved from the horizon towards the cliffs, before reverberating through the ground. It made my heart quake within its bony cage. At the base of the cliffs, white horses leapt out of their depths, thrusting up their shaking heads and snorting with fear. Their riders had all been forsaken. This stampede of stallions threw down their hooves, attempting to slow their heady speeds. But, it was too late!

They hit full force.

And crushed their foamy bodies against the milky monoliths of Yorkshire’s east coast.

Then it happened again, and I watched as the ritual crash occurred again and again. Water splashed upon the chalk and then they collapsed with a crash.

My trip this month encompassed Flamborough and Thornwick and included a visit to Bridlington and Robin Hood’s Bay before finally ending up with the crowds at Whitby. Right then, however, I was camped up at Wold Farm. The campsite backed straight onto the main walkers’ path. Turn right, and you can find Thornwick Bay and Flamborough. Turn left, and you can reach the nature reserve. At night, the lighthouse spun rhythmically inward across the sheep fields, giving sleeping campers a constant reminder that busy lives continued while we dozed.

One morning, I took a wander through the gloom and found a cliff path. I would take this route several times over the next three days. That evening, though, I stood on tiptoe, bent at the middle, hanging over the railings, and peered down into gannets’ nests perched upon craggy mounds of grass. The salt air filled me with notions of taking to the high seas (17th-century style) with buccaneering, cutlasses, and hijinks on the high seas. Except this was Yorkshire, so my pirates roamed chill waters and pillaged stone houses on the moors. Lovers were windswept and hopelessly entwined in cocoons of rain and passion. The wilds were Northern and coal-stained. The accents sang deeply.

Along the East Coast of Yorkshire, there is a network of pathways. Some were just partings in the grass maintained by footfall. Some were impressive viewing platforms built to overlook the arches, caves, and stacks along the way. It was one part rambling trail, one part pristine tourist attraction.

I was painfully aware, however, that I was standing above all the action, constantly peering over the edge trying to get a glimpse of the cliff’s spectacular natural features, caused by millennia of erosion. Each gully and crack was filled with the nests of seabirds, and I felt an undeniable urge to throw myself into the blue ocean below. Or else, scale with bent fingers and hooked toes, the chalk of the cliff face.

I watched as a little sailing boat, with triangular sails like a Junk, bobbed along on the current below me. I wondered how much of me they could see. The air was foggy and gloomy . Later, when the and the little lights on the ship seemed inviting. Later on, sun burnt off the mist and the cliffs became sun-bleached and noisy.

There was an RSPB site near Bempton. It was here that people, who didn’t walk, drove up to the land’s edge, waddled cliffside, and then headed back to the car. And then, there were those that dragged themselves

Map of Thornwick Bay
Thornwick Bay
Thornwick Bay
Thornwick Bay
Thornwick Bay
Bempton Cliffs
Bempton Cliffs
Thornwick Bay