As I stood there in the dark, damp underground tunnel among endless piles of human skulls and bones, I questioned my vacationing skills.
The moment I realized there was no turning back from this twisty, creepy one-way-street, I muttered to my husband, “Well, it is almost Halloween.”
A nearby woman who apparently understood English chuckled at my comment. But then she disappeared, along with the limited group of tourists who descended with us into this morbid realm. People tend to scatter when you don’t want them to.
As we ducked our heads and continued on in this lonely, dripping labyrinth of artfully stacked femurs and whatnot, I wondered how much of a good sport one can be. Case in point, this was the first time in my life I’d ever had the need to string together the words “artfully stacked femurs.”
For years I believed the time we stupidly took our young sons whitewater rafting in Colorado during peak snow melt would never be topped in the scary travel department. That is, until this particular afternoon, when I glimpsed the first of many skulls 131 stairsteps beneath the streets of Paris. The city’s famous Catacombs blew my Rocky Mountain Raft of Peril out of the water.
It should be noted at this juncture that my life is normally not this eccentric. I’m more likely to be squinting in the fluorescence of a nondescript Kohl’s than to be giving side-eye to a tidy pile of tibias.
But sometimes when you go away to “recharge your batteries” you surprise yourself by gazing at the skulls of people who could very well be your great-great-great — etc. — Aunt Matilde and Uncle Pierre. My dad, after all, hails from north central France. This was possibly the most Stephen King level Ancestry.com experience one could have.
If you’re not familiar, the underground Catacombs store the bones of dearly departed 18th century Parisians, who, post mortem, fell victim to overcrowded inner-city burial grounds. During the tour I learned this ossuary was created when cemeteries began collapsing into basements. Due to this ensuing health crisis, millions of people who were originally buried beneath what I’m sure were charming city churchyards wound up in this maze of already existing underground tunnels.
As did I. On that day, anyway. Voila.
When we hastily planned this trip, the deal was maybe we’d visit the Catacombs if our schedule allowed. Couples on vacation must be willing to compromise, after all, but I had hoped my adventurous sidekick would get distracted by quest for buttery croissants and perfect shots of Sainte-Chppelle’s stained glass majesty. Surely, he’d forget about switching gears to the darkness. He didn’t.
I managed to stall until our last day there. Perhaps I dragged my husband around the manicured gardens of Versailles beyond his limit of gazing at geometric boxwood hedges. It was time to compromise.
However, the whole time we waited on the almost eternal line to view the macabre, plus the actual experience of walking and gasping through the maze of skulls and bones, I was fully aware we were an easy five or so metro stops away from the Arc de Triomphe. A miracle, if you study the pasta maps of Paris transport.
So that was technically how we wrapped up our whirlwind trip ... not descending into an Emily Dickinson nightmare, but climbing above the twinkling Champs-Elysees at dusk. There was no better way to end a getaway on an uplifting note: A cloud-swept moon at twilight, and a view of the glittering Eiffel tower. What more can a gal want?
I just need to forget “ossuary” is now part of my vocabulary. Then again, it is almost Halloween.
Reach Denise Snodell at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @DeniseSnodell