Phantoms, Ghosts, and Restless Spirits

Day: 12

Cities / Towns Visited: 2

Countries Visited: 2

Steps Taken Today: 27,904

Steps Taken Around the World: 308,116

As if it could have begun any other way, we awoke to rain, and almost like an episode of Madeline, we ate our bread, we ate our butter, and most of all we loved each other. We then donned our jackets, grabbed the umbrella, and despite not having a tall, French nun to follow around, we walked out the door as a pair and went to adventure in Paris once more.

Our first stop, after having already booked our tour, was, once more, the Palais Garnier. The opera was calling to us, and so help us, we were going to see what inspired the show we had so enjoyed in London. As impressive as it is that the show has been running non stop for 30 years, the Palais Garnier has been delighting theatre goers for over 130. With our earpieces on, the tour guide took us through the doors to the members foyer. Now when most people think of the word foyer, they think of plain, unassuming rooms, used to pen in people prior to shows, events, or doctors appointments. Charles Garnier, the young architect who won the chance to design the opera house, knew that, although he was not rich, in the 1870’s the theatre was a place not only used by the middle class, but by the rich and noteworthy as a way to both attend a show, but also to be on show. These prized poodles of people had money to burn and, god damn it, Garnier was going to give them a stage. The foyer was adorned, top to bottom, not a single inch was left undecorated. The area is no longer kept private for members, but it still upholds its grandeur. As we followed in the footsteps of the former rich and famous, we scaled the gorgeous curved staircase, continuing up to the grand stair case, shared by both the plebs and the rich, so that they may assert their dominance over the lower classes, by showing off their elaborate gowns and suits before heading up to their private boxes. Up the stairs we headed, and turned away from the auditorium to walk through the small museum section which displayed artwork from and of the theatre, including a scaled down replica of the fresco which had once adorned the ceiling, but when decades of smoke from the old gas lights in the chandelier had discoloured and damaged it, the curator of the theatre had taken it upon himself to select his personal favourite painter and friend to paint over it with what we were told, was a somewhat controversial replacement (but more on that in a minute). We were then taken around some of the balconies which looked down on the grand staircase, and were directed toward a fascinating feature. On the ceiling, although at first glance it seems like just another spectacular fresco, was a massive series of mosaics. A masterpiece painted by tiny coloured tiles, that defied imagination. It was almost time for the main event, but first what better place to wait than in the foyer for the masses. Don’t despair though, Garnier was not one to do things by half measures, and his ‘Hall of Mirrors’ inspired waiting room was almost as good as the original (and had significantly more breathing room without the crush of tourists).

This was the previous ceiling fresco in the Auditorium (keep this is mind).

The time had come and we stepped forth into the auditorium, and although it may not be the biggest, it was beautiful. Red velvet covered everything, every plush original seat, every wall, every private box, even the Emperor’s box (which had originally been built for him, but by the time the theatre was finished there was no longer an Emperor to fill it, as France was now a republic). It was fascinating to learn that the view from those expensive private boxes is often terrible, as they were used to be seen, more than to see. The ‘curtain’ (read elaborate curtain painting on a screen, as Paris has had one too many opera houses burn down, so it has always been this screen), was down as they were constructing sets for their upcoming production, but it was raised just enough for us to see the abnormal 5% tilt of the stage, which has tripped up more than one touring ballet group in its time. Then the piece de resistance, the chandelier. It was everything I’d hoped for, and I have no question as to why it was the centrepiece for the famous musical, although we were thoroughly assured that despite the storyline, this chandelier has never fallen. Also for any fans wondering, there is no secret lake under the theatre; although there is a water reservoir, in case of fire, and also to strengthen the foundations. Just when you were busy being carried away into a 1800’s dream world, basking in the beauty and elegance of its features you are absolutely bitch-slapped by the atrocity of a fresco behind it. Its not that its a bad painting as such, and don’t get me wrong its quite beautiful as a piece of art, but my god, this modernist monstrosity sticks out like a sore thumb…no, it sticks out like an extra thumb. In the end, modern art aside, the opera house is stunning, and I call to all of you Phantom lovers, and theatre lovers in general, to add it to your list should you ever find yourself in Paris.

And this is the beautiful chandelier, with the monstrous modern fresco.

After a quick packed lunch we headed on to our other highly anticipated attraction for the day, and one I have been hanging to see for quite a few years now; Les Catacombes. These former granite quarries, are currently, and have been since the late 1700’s, home to some six millions skeletons from the former overflowing cemeteries and mass hospital graves of Paris. It is no wonder this place has been home to many a ghost story, and the inspiration for more than one or two horror movies. Once we finally emerged through the crowd, we made the steep stairwell decent some 20 metres until we reached the bottom, below the subways and sewers of the city above. The first section is a simple series of reinforced tunnels, which had been the first step to this becoming the famous ossuary it is today, as in the 1770’s parts of the old mines collapsed, taking large parts of Paris with them, and thus reinforcement work was carried out. It both allows your eyes to adjust to the dark, and builds that quiet but definite uneasiness that comes with being underground in the cold and damp. After coming to a crossroads with a display of information boards, describing the process of moving the bones, and where a lot of them came from, we finally walked through the door above which states, in Latin, the macabre warning: ‘Come no further! You are entering the empire of the dead.’ Now as a horror movie buff, and after watching probably into the hundreds of gory and morbid films, I can confidently say that no matter how desensitised you think you are to death, there is something inexplicable about coming face to face with row after row, tunnel after tunnel, of decoratively placed skulls and femurs. Quick note; there is a massive disconnect between number of femurs to number of skulls, unless we used to be spider people and they wrote that out of history. Bobbing down to take my first photo of the skulls, I must say I was forced to stop for a moment. I paused and sondered; this was the head of a real person, a person who had a life, and a family, and hopes and dreams just as I do. It may have been a peasant, or a richer civilian; young or old; hell it may have even been King Louis XVI or Marie Antoinette, who’s bones were thrown into a pit with countless others with no acknowledgement of who they were after their less than elegant departures from the world. In the end, no matter how hauntingly beautiful all of the displays were, it was important to take a moment and be respectfully humbled by our surroundings.

Before we headed out for dinner, as we’d decided, for one night at least, we’d go and grab a moderately priced meal, we thought it intelligent to organise the train reservations we needed for later in the week to go to Rennes and then through to Reims, while we were near the station, and had a little spare time. After an annoyingly long wait, we finally made it to the desk of the SNCF office. After explaining our plans, the face of the lady helping us fell. Time for the bad news. As they apparently often do, the rail services were going on strike; and we’re not talking your normal like take an afternoon off strike, we’re talking all out, two out of every five days for the next three months kinds strike. She could sell us tickets to Rennes on Monday, but as we wanted to travel to Reims on Wednesday (the second day of the strike), the best she could do would be to give us tickets on reservation free suburban trains, where we couldn’t be guaranteed a seat (and given the fact we have 2 suitcases, and 2 backpacks to wrangle, this was a daunting possibility). So a trip that should take 2 fast trains, and even with an hour wait in Paris between trains should take about 5 hours, it was going to take 4 slow trains and a long wait in Paris for a grand total of 15 hours. Sigh. She let us know that they could only sell tickets to the fast trains from 5pm on the day prior to travel, when they find out how many staff were answering the call to strike, and how many were actually going to work. That was our only other option, so with restless and worried spirits, unsure of how we were going to continue our trip as we’d hoped, we moved on to dinner.

We headed to a nearby restaurant, recommended by one of the waiters I formerly worked with, as it had been his previous place of employment, Le Laurier. I won’t go into too much detail. We had steak, and braised lamb shanks, followed by a pear tart, and a trio of crème brulees. We were also given a rather confused look by our waiter when we told him we didn’t want any wine with our dinner (mainly because neither of us are particularly fond of it). The food was decent, albeit the steak was a little grisly, but with our somewhat depressed moods, it was hard to truly enjoy the experience, which was a shame. On the train home we agreed to try and keep positive on the issue, and just wait and hope that at least a few French train drivers, despite wanting better job security, were willing to help the thousands and thousands of commuters and tourists who rely on their services so much.

After a day of great highs and lows, I must say, I went to bed with a slight case of emotional whiplash, but when I stopped and thought about all I had seen I could not despair too much. I was alive, unlike those I faced in the catacombs, by life’s purpose would not sit unfulfilled, like the Emperors box at the theatre, and although our travel situation was looking about as grisly as the steak, if you eat around it there was still good bits. Life isn’t perfect, travel isn’t perfect, and dreams rarely ever work out perfectly; but its all part of the adventure, right?

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On my dream trip to travel the world, taste its foods, see its wonders, and meet all the strange and beautiful people who reside here.

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