Several weeks ago we went exploring in a deep, dark wood. And in the middle of the wood there was an abandoned sanitarium.
Ooh, what fun it was.
It was an early start (unusual for us these days), taking the metro out to the edge of town - the station seemingly untouched since the early 20th century. A friend was waiting in the icy morning sunlight, his rusty car idling on the footpath.
We drove for an hour or so through the concrete towers of the Paris borders and then the quaint stone villages of the countryside.
Soon the winding roads led us to the forest and the fields were replaced with close-set birches and towering chestnuts.
We parked the car by the edge of the empty road and set off into the soggy, rotting undergrowth. The sky, when you could see it, was milky white and perhaps the sun had never existed. Every tree looked the same, our footsteps were quickly filled with the oozing mud of dead leaves. The weak light played in spiderwebs and on the dew drops on fallen chestnuts – it was all quite beautiful, but if our guide hadn’t known where he was taking us I would’ve been utterly lost.
After a while trekking through the forest a low wall, an easy jump; and soon after that, looming suddenly out of the trees, the sanitarium, our target. A monumental complex of gently curving modernist concrete and a thousand sprayed-on slogans.
The place was truly huge. It had been built in the 1930’s as a retreat hospital for tuberculosis sufferers. During The Second World War it was used as a concentration camp. Later, with the development of antibiotics to combat TB, the place took on a more varied role but in 1988 the doors closed for the final time.
So now, it’s an incredible desolate and empty tomb half-overgrown by creepers and the detritus (and murals) of midnight raves. Like some sort of Art Deco Ziggurat.
You walk around in the perfect silence, shoes cracking slightly on the plaster and the broken glass strewn across the floor. The tiled spaces where the shower cubicles were are still there, but the pipes are gone and the once shiny tiles are covered in brightly-sprayed paintings of video game characters. The vast space that was once the theatre for the patients to enjoy performances is a fire-blackened shell with one ripped vinyl chair sitting alone in the middle of the ashes. The corridor that leads to the patients’ rooms stretches into the distance, the floor covered with a thin mirror of water, disturbed only by a single slow drip of water somewhere far away. The bulky machinery that operated the elevators is still sitting under the roof but the cables sway slightly at their frayed ends, and the elevator shafts themselves are half-filled with old beer bottles and spray cans.
A tree grows from between the cracks on an upper story balcony, the forest moves to reclaim it all. But it moves pretty slowly.
And as we make our way back to the car we stumble upon the ‘new’ hospital – one of the buildings in the complex has been reopened as a teaching centre – the same building, the same age, the same everything, but with a fresh coat of peeling white paint and working elevators. And suddenly, without any of us quite realising how, we're standing covered in mud in the middle of carpark full of shiny, empty cars.
Then, the other night we went to see some live music! We’ve not seen too much while we’ve been here, so it was a real treat.
A narrow street (as always), an old factory, maybe a warehouse? Through a heavily sound-proofed fire door into a wonderfully 90’s nightclub – exposed concrete, strangely split levels, ribbons of red and purple neon sunk into the ceiling and the best cloak room (yes, I get excited about the strangest things) ever: little nook beneath a large polished concrete staircase, glass bricks for a counter behind which shone a perfect orange light. Above that, a pink ribbon of light reflecting off the empty coathangers. I simply have to paint it. And beyond that empty cloak room the blue and purple light of the stage.
So anyway, two of the bands not so good, but we stuck it out and the third and final group was terrific! The Black Electrics, a trio of gangly Frenchmen who belted out a set of something that was a cross between Delta blues and Jimi Hendrix. Distortion peddles galore but an unbreakable bassline beneath. Such fun! And they looked great too, with tattered velvet jackets and braces over their shirts.