Lifestyleopinion

Dead romantic

George Dobell treats his girlfriend to a trip to a cemetery in Paris...

George Dobell treats his girlfriend to a trip to a cemetery in Paris...

Just like the dents on my car, it's all my girlfriend's fault.

Many years ago, in an inebriated and uncharacteristically romantic moment, I made a rash promise to take her to Paris at least once every year. She's insisted on me honouring it.

So, several dozen or so trips to Paris later, we've been up the Eiffel Tower; we've admired the Louvre and the Musee d'Orsay; we've drunk so much coffee that we've developed irregular heartbeats.

So what next?

Some of the real gems of the city are sometimes overlooked and the darker history of Paris is well worth exploring.

I thought I may be pushing my luck by suggesting a tour of the city's sewage system - fascinating by all accounts - so settled with an exploration of Paris's dead.

First on the agenda was a visit to the city's catacombs.

The story of Paris's catacombs dates back more than 2,000 years. The Romans, having defeated the Parisii (the indigenous tribe from which the city takes its name), quarried stone from the area to gather the building blocks of their new settlement, resulting in a warren of caves far underground.

By 1780, the city's infrastructure was unable to cope with the vast growth in population. Cemeteries in the middle of Pairs were grossly overcrowded.

The ground level of churchyards had risen many feet above streets and disease spread from corpses was an increasing problem.

The authorities made the ingenious decision that the caves would be utilised to dispose of their dead. The dead of four centuries were exhumed and transported to DenfertRochereau in an early morning horse and cart procession that took four years and accounted for around three million corpses. More were added later, about six million in all.

Descending a steep, spiral staircase, one comes across an uncompromising sign in Latin, that would perhaps, be a suitable greeting for those visiting Villa Park: "Stop! This is the empire of the dead."

Beyond lie the narrow passages that snake under Paris and contain the bodies of the city's forefathers.

Unsurprisingly, given the manner of the transportation, the bodies are not intact. There was no attempt to retain individual records, though graveyards were grouped together.

The good and bad, the rich and poor, the young and old were simply stacked in piles depending on how they fitted together, much in the manner of a dry stone wall.

Among those supposedly laid to rest here are Robespierre, Danton, and Marat, three of the key figures in the French Revolution.

At first sight it is unsettling to see so may bodies. Not disturbing exactly, just incongruous. There have been attempts, albeit fairly perfunctory, to honour the dead in some way. An altar stands at the entrance and some bones have also been arranged into the shape of crucifixes or even hearts.

Various signs proclaim trite truisms: "If you have ever seen a man die, remember that one day that fate awaits you," was my particularly cheerful favourite. There aren't many belly laughs in the catacombs.

"Happy is he who always has the hour of his death before his eyes and is ready to die every day" another states, though I can't think of anyone more miserable than a man who always has the hour of death in his eyes. More reassuring - for those of us with crippling Barclaycard bills anyway - is this: "Upon death, you leave everything."

It is, supposedly, forbidden to take photographs and the whole area has been consecrated. But there is little respect shown to the dead. The man in front of me on the tour was frisked as he left and a skull and thighbone taken from inside his coat. Just what he intended to do with them remained a mystery.

Although lamps light the tunnels every 50 feet or so there is still an oppressive atmosphere. At one stage I inadvertently let out a gasp - OK, maybe a bit of a scream - when a drip of water found its way down my neck. The result was a chain reaction of screams far down the tunnel as people betrayed the nerves they had previously just managed to hold at bay.

The catacombs occupy only a fraction of the 170 miles of caves under Paris. Although much of this underground world has been closed to the public since 1955, for security reasons, there are many secret routes to the subterranean city.

Perhaps inevitably they have largely become the province of the homeless, criminals and prostitutes. But police have discovered an underground cinema, complete with offices and bars, which had been showing classic films 18 metres underground.

Rumour has it that the cinema was just a tiny part of an alternative society inhabited by a group of "explorers" - les cataphiles - who use the caves for parties.

The discovery of tunnels directly under La Sante prison suggests that not all cataphiles are so innocent, however.

Like the catacombs, Pere Lachaise, or the Cemetery of the East as it is officially known, was devised as a solution to the overcrowding in Paris's cemeteries in the early 19th century. In order to attract future custom the curator arranged for the remains of several prominent Parisians - the likes of actor and playwright Moliere and poet Jean de La Fontaine - to be transferred to his 41-hectare site.

So successful was the ploy that Pere Lachaise (named after Louis XIV's confessor, who owned a home on the site) soon became the fashionable resting place of choice.

Marcel Proust, Georges Bizet, Edith Piaf, Frederic Chopin, Georges Seurat and Georges Enesco are all buried here, while the ornately decorated crematorium catered for Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre and Maria Callas among many others.

The cemetery is not tied to a church so few restrictions have been made on the size or form of decoration. Victor Noir, the journalist murdered by supporters of Napoleon III, is remembered by a life-size sculpture which, shall we say, shows isolated signs of rigour mortis. Legend has it that women will be assured of fertility if they rub the bulge in his trousers; judging by the remarkable shine around his groin area, it is a fable many believe.

Split into 91 sections, Pere Lachaise is vast and, without a map, could feel impenetrable. It's worth perseverance and, refreshingly, is free to visit, something of a novelty in Paris.

Not all bodies were transferred, however. In 1871, during the last days of the Paris Commune, fierce fighting spread through the graveyard. The battle lost, 147 surviving Communards were lined up against a wall in the south eastern corner of graveyard and shot. They were buried were they fell. The area is still a meeting ground for left-wing groups and bears several monuments to fallen heroes.

Two of the most visited graves belong to foreigners: Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison. Both have suffered for their popularity. Morrison's grave is guarded around the clock after a series of attacks, while Wilde's tomb, designed by Jacob Epstein, is cordoned off to deter over-zealous admirers.

Incidentally, Morrison aficionados tell me the singer's body is not there anyway. It is said he is alive and well and living in Africa under the (preposterously conspicuous) pseudonym Mr Mojo Rising.

Catacombs

1, Place Denfert-Rochereau. Open: Tuesday-Sunday 10am-5pm (closed Monday and some public holidays)

Cost: e5 (e2.50 for children) The trip takes at least an hour and should not be attempted by the claustrophobic or infirm.

Tel: 01 43 22 47 63 More information: www.paris.fr

Pere Lachaise, 20th arrondissement.

Open: 7.30am-6pm.

Cost: Free, though it is advisable to purchase a map.

More information: www.pere-lachaise.com

Hotels: There are many options when choosing a hotel in Paris but broadly they fall into three categories: the adequate, the inadequate and those that positively add to your pleasure of the city.

Visit www.ila-chateau.com and mention The Birmingham Post in any communication. You will be not be disappointed.

Victoria Palace ****

St Germain-des-Pres/ Montparnasse, 6 rue Blaise Desgoffe, 75006 Paris. Tel: 33 (0)1 45 49 70 00. www.ila-chateau.com/victoria

Luxurious, blissfully peaceful and utterly reliable. The hotel was redeveloped a few years ago and, departing from the norm, decreased its occupancy and concentrated on quality. Soundproofing protects guests from the whine of the ubiquitous Vespa and the hotel benefits from its own car park, a rarity for Paris.

The manager, Michael Erwin, was brought up in Birmingham and, perhaps unsurprisingly for a man who lives and works in one of the most beautiful regions of Paris, has no plans to return.

Erwin has developed a style he describes as "PHUT": post-hip, untrendy. The result is under-stated elegance, with all the back-up one would expect from quality hotels: high-speed internet access, flat-screen televisions and temperature-controlled rooms. The service is discreet but attentive.

Rates start at e310 though the website offers special deals.

Terrass Hotel * * * *

Montmartre, 12-14 rue Joseph-de-Maistre, 75018 Paris Tel: 33 (0)1 46 06 72 85. www.ila-chateau.com/terrass

Built on a hill - la butte - high above the city the Terrass offers stunning views over Paris. A seventh-floor outdoor terrace restaurant (closed in the winter) is the hotel's jewel, though many rooms possess balconies.

Great location, in the heart of beautiful and but relatively tourist-free Montmartre, the Moulin Rouge and the Sacre Coeur are a pleasant walk away.

Rates start at e250, though the website offer deals from e166.

Hotel Windsor Opera * * *

10 rue Gabriel Laumain, 75010 Paris. Tel: 33 (0)1 48 00 98 98. paris-hotel-windsor.com

Just off the Folies Bergeres, but in a quiet street, the Windsor is well placed for all the tourist attractions. The knowledge and assistance of the manager, Victor, is a substantial asset (a phone call from him will guarantee a table and free cocktail at many of the best restaurants) and while it can't boast the luxury of the Victoria or the Terrass, in terms of value for money, it is close to unbeatable.

Published rates start at e140, though the website offers single rooms from e59 and family rooms from e118.