Wednesday, 25 January 2012

The Phantom of the Opera and other skulls

This morning, after what turned out to be one of my more efficient night's sleep, we got ready fairly quickly and headed into the city. First to Gare du Nord, where we attempted to book tickets for our train to Amsterdam on Friday. Turns out it was going to cost us a booking fee of 39 euro for a direct route. Yep. 39 euro for something that our Eurail pass was meant to cover the cost of. Screw that! So we have to change trains twice and it will take longer, but now we are on a trip that cost 3 euro to reserve seats for instead. After that we headed to the Opera Garnier. I wasn't too sure what to expect from this, but it was something that interested me and a guided tour was free with our Paris Pass, so I wanted to try it out. It turned out to be one of the best things we have done so far, more enjoyable for some of us than Versailles and the Lourve. Our guide was a lovely French woman called Clementine who spoke beautiful English and she told us all about the history of the theatre. It turns out it's a very new theatre, being only built in the 19th century. Napoleon picked the architect, Garnier, out of over 100 applicants including Napoleon's own wife. Garnier has cleverly managed to conceal his signature and even his portrait in numerous artworks and carvings around the opera house, as in those days it was not polite to 'sign' your own work. But Garnier was proud, and he wanted to leave his mark, so he did. Turns out neither Napoleon or Garnier were even allowed in the finished structure because of Napoleon's unpopularity with the French people by the end of his reign. The Opera Garnier was the first theatre in the world to use deep red in their colour scheme. Garnier also left space for an elevator, because he knew the technology would be perfected soon and wanted his opera house to keep up with the times. Back in the day, the lights would be left on during performances and everyone would talk and eat and laugh during the show. Particularly the subscribers, who had their own box in the theatre, would come to the theatre 3 or 4 times a week. They would therefore know the show by heart and were only there to be 'seen'. The Phantom of the Opera (collective squeal, all you ALW nerds) was of course, inspired by this theatre, but Gaston Leroux made up the chandelier crash. Turns out it was actually one of the weights from inside the ceiling that holds the chandelier in place. It fell through the boxes on the side of the auditorium and squashed a lady sitting on the ground level. Ouch. Box 5 has a little plaque over the doorway that announces it is reserved for the phantom of the opera. It is right next to the Emperor's entrance. Needless to say, there were lots of pics taken! The room (foyer? intermission room? I've forgotten exactly what it was called) where all the balls were held is unbelievable. The ceilings are enormous, there are full-size sculptures everywhere and the sheer amount of gold in the room makes you feel like sliding on some sunglasses. There is really too much to say about what we learnt today, and I can't possibly write it all down, but it was a really enjoyable hour and a half and I would definitely recommend it to theatre lovers!

We then had our homemade sandwiches, found coffee, and split up. Some random woman asked me for my sandwich while I was standing outside the coffee shop waiting for Sean. She stopped in front of me and spoke in French and pointed to my sandwich and then to her stomach. I blinked at her stupidly for a bit while she repeated herself and then just started shaking my head while trying to think of the French phrase for 'go away you weirdo'. She hadn't looked homeless, or poor. Of course I can't presume to know either of those things about her, but I've seen some shabby looking people on the streets of Paris and she wasn't one of them. She just looked like someone who saw my sandwich, fancied herself a bit peckish and decided she wanted it.

Alfie and Cara headed to the Musee d'Orsay and the Arc du Triomphe, and Sean and I headed to the Catacombs. For anyone interested, the entrance is right near the Oz Bar and for people between the ages of 14-26, it's only 4 euro. You walk through the door and there is this tiny little ticket booth and turnstile and then they send you down a spiral staircase that goes for AGES. The staircase is fricken miniscule and it's incredibly claustrophobic, so I don't recommend it for anyone with nervous dispositions. You get to this tiny gallery, very well-lit, made of white limestone and there are some pics up about the mining history and stuff. Then you walk into the catacombs. The tourist trail is about 2km all up (though the entire network of existing catacombs spreads out wider than Paris itself and is full of illegal raves and other crazy things) and it is really dark. There are electric lights every few metres so you can see the walls and stuff, but it put me in mind of medieval prisons and that Goosebumps story about the Tower of Terror. Yep. I was scared, I'll admit it. But after a while, you just get used to it (though I was sort of relieved when we would see other groups of people). The ceilings get really low at some points. Sean nearly bumped his head a few times. In some areas there was water dripping through the ceiling which is really unnerving. Then you get to the actual ossuary and it is breathtaking. I felt a bunch of different things walking through there, but thankfully, fear wasn't one of them. By the time you have reached the ossuary you are used to the feeling of being so far underground. When you see the bones up against the tunnel walls, perfectly stacked in arrangements of skulls and femurs and everything else, you just can't quite believe it. The remains of over 6 million Parisians are in the catacombs and every one of these people had dreams and thoughts and pain and love and now their remains are here for all to see. It feels almost indecent, but there is so much reverence for them also. There are altars and monuments throughout the tunnels and I would have said it was sombre, rather than eerie. It probably took us an hour to walk the length of the whole museum, but that was at a pretty leisurely pace, stopping to look and take photos etc. Then you climb about 50 million steps to get out and there is a pretty crappy and tasteless gift shop (in which I watched   a woman brazenly shoplift and leave the store undetected) but even a flat ending to the whole experience can't erase the respect you have garnered for all the souls interred in the catacombs.

The rest of the day was very easy-going, which was a nice change from the rushing around we have done. I got a nutella and banana crepe, which is officially the best food ever, and we made our way back to the apartment. Jules, Neil and Ryan came round and we said our goodbyes. Jules flies home tonight, so you'll all get to see her real soon. It was awesome having someone from home to hang around with at the start of our trip! Then Sean and I investigated a laundromat and made friends with the kebab guy. We accidentally ordered two, but I hadn't eaten dinner yet so it was all good. Tomorrow is our last full day in Paris, so it's going to be busy! Write soon!

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