The trouble with tourist attractions is that they’re teeming with tourists.
A bus full of English school children rolls up just as I arrive at Les Catacombes in Paris, considerably lengthening the queue. Standing in the cold, mostly in pairs of various nationalities, feels like waiting for a space on Noah’s Ark.
We wait, and wait, at a drab, colourless shed. It looks like a lifeless building from the German Democratic Republic, yet it marks the entrance to a subterranean ossuary.
Balding Indian men in puffer jackets inspect rucksacks, letting eight people in at a time. A line of people stamp up and down, gazing at their own breath. With numb feet, we descend twenty metres by spiral staircase, down below even the metro and sewer systems.
A sign warns: ‘the tour could make a strong impression on people with a nervous disposition.’ Once deep underground, there is a long stone-lined passage, running for over 500 metres before anything of interest. Sandals filled with gravel, I soldier on under a dripping roof.
They try and spice up the journey with placards on dry mortar walls, but essentially it would be nice if they moved the hut a bit closer to the interesting stuff. Luckily Namibian is resting today; he’d be too tall for all this tunnelling.
In 1785, rampant disease in Les Halles neighbourhood led to exhumed mass graves. Cartloads of bodies covered with black clothes crossed the city by night under watchful eyes of chanting priests. The rotting cadavers were brought here, to this old stone quarry in southern Paris. Now there is no flesh, just bones.
Another Indian man shines his torch, illuminating these bones, and casually mentions that there are six million skeletons here.
Cor, they take up an awful lot of room: bones and skulls are neatly stacked like firewood, about five feet high and thirty metres deep, lining the tunnel interminably. Well, not interminably because then, like the Louvre, you’d never get out.
‘Attention. Difficult Stairway (83 steps). You are advised to climb slowly,’ says the sign by the exit. Dizzy rather than breathless, I emerge in an entirely different place to starting – which is rather inconvenient if travelling by bicycle; one has to trudge the Citroen-lined streets with a map, looking for it.
Today is a travel day to, of all places, Antwerp again – the fourth time this year. Other than driving through a pea-soup fog in Northern France, there is little to report. But yesterday, I was so busy with a masterpiece on the catacombs, that I had no time to include “Crazy” Sandra, a German pal who is smitten with heavy metal.
She came to Paris to see the AC/DC show, unable to believe that Namibian and I can shun a rock concert in favour of a short nap. It vexes her actually. So I watched a bit, and, ooh, I recognized a song. It’s a great show but I’ll never be a die-hard fan – there isn’t a single trombone on stage.
And, crikey, what an insane volume. Yet Little Dick tells me: ‘Motorhead are louder than that.’ And he should know; he’s driven on the last couple of their tours..