The ‘Danse Macabre’ or ‘dance of death’ dates back to the late Medieval period. After the Hundred Years’ War, across France the population was reeling, not only from the fighting, but also from a series of famines, Black Death epidemics, and the constant predations of lawless roaming bandits.
Death was ever-present and there was a sense that not only was death the great leveller, but that since it was so close one should dance while one still could.
Churches began commissioning wall paintings depicting the danse macabre which often include three skeleton figures greeting the dancers, or even skeletons dancing with a variety of different people, to illustrate how death accompanies us all, throughout life.
Examples exist all over France but the best is probably in the 12th century church of Saint-Germain in the village of La Ferté-Loupière, near Auxerre in Yonne. The paintings stretch over most of the walls and show an entire story involving three young noblemen who meet three harbingers of death while out hunting. There is a full guide available as a smartphone app powered by LiFi. (See www.lamefel.fr)
Paris’ tourist attractions include several macabre sites; the Père Lachaise cemetery and of course the extraordinary Catacombes. Wander through the 11,000 square metres of catacombes, 20 metres under Paris, among the bones of several million Parisians. The experience is mesmerising.
There is a village called ‘La Morte’ in the Alps of Isère. Despite only having a population of 133 at the last census, it has a reasonably large ski station which was constructed 80 years ago in 1938. The name of the ski station was changed in the 60s for understandable reasons, and is now called the ‘Alpe du Grand Serre’ although the village still rejoices in its unusual, original name.
France’s castles are full of gruesome examples of torture chambers, dungeons, gloomy prisons and ‘oubliettes’; underground prison cells only accessible via a trap door in the ceiling into which prisoners were thrown and left to die, quite literally ‘forgotten’.
There are also many museums ranging from laughably dusty, privately-run, one-room ‘exhibitions’ through to the most detailed and blood-curdling. A favourite with older children is the gory Musée de l’Inquisition in Carcassonne (see image above). It offers a selection of waxwork figures covered in red paint, and a display of torture implements which are horrible enough to give anyone nightmares.
Many versions of ‘Danse Macabre Op. 40’ by composer Camille Saint-Saëns are available. Written in 1874, it relates an old French tale that death appears at midnight every year on Halloween.
The piece starts with 12 single piano notes representing the clock striking midnight, and then death plays his fiddle (a solo violin) and the skeletons dance until dawn (a xylophone plays the rattling noise they make while dancing) and then the cock crows (played by an oboe) and the dead must return to their graves for another year.
The piece is only around six minutes long but has been adapted many times; used as ballet music by Anna Pavlova; and as the theme music for British TV series Jonathan Creek.
If you really want to get up close and personal with a ghost, however, visit the ‘Château de Fougeret’ in Queaux, just south-east of Poitiers in Vienne.
The owners say it is haunted and it certainly gives that impression, with its towers, spires and jumbled interiors.
It is not a hotel, it has no bar, no television, no mod-cons at all, but if you have the courage and do not mind carrying firewood into the castle so that the dining room fire can be lit, you can stay the night for just €50. Other options include taking part in a seance with a medium, and although the appearance of a ghost isn’t guaranteed, the atmosphere certainly is authentic. (www.fougeret.com)