Last winter, I had the wonderful opportunity to spend nearly three weeks in France during the winter holidays. The only thing on my tourist list – aside from eating as many macaroons at Ladurée as I could convince the Frenchman we could afford – was to tour the catacombs.
In the end, I did not get to tour the catacombs, but I did become obsessed with researching the world hidden beneath Paris – secret metro stations and the world of the catacombs outside of the official tour, a world of darkness patrolled by a catacomb police, on the lookout for people who descend below the city to explore or even hold secret film festivals. The idea of forbidden, and ancient, and slightly dangerous is one that I find quite alluring though I am quite too scared to actually run a metro line myself; the dangers and the illegality of the whole thing are prohibitive.
Once a year on a weekend in September, France opens up all of the otherwise shut off historic places (though not the catacombs, sadly) for free exploration by the public who is invited to visit private mansions, climb up towers, and carefully explore archeological sites. The generally-open sites such as churches and museums are also opened up free of charge and hold special guided tours and concerts and other activities.
This year, these national heritage days or <<Les Journées du Patrimoine>> were last weekend, September 14 and 15. Unfortunately, we did not find out about the weekend until Saturday evening by which time the tickets for Montpellier’s most alluring and closed-to-the-public attraction, the Jewish bathhouse or <<Milkvé>>, were all given out for the following day. We contented ourselves instead with going down below one of the city’s main public squares into the Crypte de Notre-Dame des Tables and high above it into the belfry of its grandest cathedral, Saint-Pierre. Both the crypt and the bell tower are generally closed to the public, thereby satisfying my desire for exploration into the generally forbidden.
First, we went down into the Crypte de Notre-Dame des Tables, which is hidden right in plain view in the Place Jean-Jaurès. Prior to being dismantled by the Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries only to be rebuilt and destroyed again in the 18th century in response to the destruction of their own places of worship during the wars of religion, the original 11th century church of Notre-Dame des Tables was a major center point for the old village. It took its name for the large tables located outside its wall where the money-changing merchants sat as they exchanged foreign coins. After the church was destroyed, the crypt was obstructed and all that remained of the church was a statute of the virgin Mary. The church was long forgotten until the 20th century during demolishing and excavation. In the musty-smelling crypt we found an ossuary, with bones estimated to date back to the 11th century, papal remains from one of the popes of Avignon, and the remains of a king of the region.
Oddly, the crypt also apparently contains a museum on the history of Montpellier though the exhibits were all closed, and the entire crypt and museum have been closed on a long-term basis.
After the darkness of the crypt we went up, and up, 201 stairs up, into the windy belfry (bell platform?) of the 14th century cathedral of Saint-Pierre. The views from the top were remarkable with the entire city spread out below, an amazing view for someone new to the city.
Though <<Les Journées du Patrimoine>> were a great experience, I hope someday we can be in Paris for them as the activities in France’s capital seemed even more explorative into the general off-bounds with visits to archeological sites, private castles and mansions, and a look at some of those abandoned metro cars!