Postcard from Toulouse, France: A boulevardier with a collector’s eye

Above: The Marriage of Shiva and Parvati, with Vishnu on her left, 13th century, Angkor, Khmer Empire, Cambodia, Collection of Georges Labit Museum

The son of a wealthy businessman who owned the largest department store in Toulouse, Georges Labit (1862-1899) was not applying himself seriously to his studies, so his father packed him off to Paris to attend the Ecole Superieure de Commerce. Instead of business, Georges developed a fondness for the subjects of history and geography. He also was smitten with the vibrant street scene and managed to accumulate numerous debts, partially from keeping up with the fashionable crowd placing bets on the horse races at Longchamps.

No longer trusting his son to manage his own affairs, Antoine Labit reined in his free-spending ways by placing him under financial guardianship. Georges, however, was able to convince his father to send him to Vienna to further his education in a commercial apprenticeship. The liberated nightlife of fin-de-siecle Vienna appealed to him while his interests continued to broaden with trips throughout Europe from London to St. Petersburg. In addition to learning his way around upscale auction houses, Georges scoured fairs and bazaars for bargain treasures.

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Postcard from Bordeaux, France: Churches, saints and bones for All Saints and Souls

Above, a carving of Saint Michel slaying the dragon tops the baldaquin in the Basilica dedicated to the Archangel.

And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent called the Devil, and Satan which deceiveth the whole world; he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.

Book of Revelation, Chapter 12

This part-time boulevardier does not just spend her time “going cafe to cabaret,” as Joni Mitchell sang, she goes to church. Well, sort of. That part of Mass, communion and particularly confession are all avoided. But I do visit tons of churches, appreciative of their architecture, art, role in history and stories of saints and miracles.

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Postcard from Monopoli, Italy: Church dedicated to liberating poor souls in purgatory

Travel is not simply assuming the role of boulevardiers. Journeys this past year lifted some of the weighty worries about religion haunting my childhood. A year ago in Malaga, Spain, I found out Limbo was gone. It was banished by the church and vanished. All those little babies stuck in Limbo have been liberated to flit upward to heaven.

There is still purgatory though, with bazillions of souls trapped in purgatory waiting to be freed by prayers. How could God keep them there, suffering, denied entrance into heaven for sometimes seemingly minor infractions? My memory of religious instruction is rather hazy, but it seems as though we only devoted one day a year, All Souls Day, to try to liberate them.

This past fall, I learned there are Italians looking after them, praying for their release. There is both a church and a cemetery dedicated to this effort year-round in Naples.

And in Monopoli we found Chiesa di Santa Maria del Suffragio detta del Purgatorio. Tucked on a narrow street adjacent to the bell tower at the back of the Cathedral, the church dates from the late 1600s. Symbols of death are carved into stone on the facade, and a pair of skeletons dominate the carvings on the door.

Locals refer to it as “the church of the dead who walk.” But, alas, we found the church closed. We squinted through cloudy, very smudged glass trying to see the reason why. Mummies. With imagination, we kind of could make out maybe four of them.

There are a total of eight robed figures – skeletons really – poised erect in glass cases inside the church, founding members and administrators of the church who refuse to retire from their mission. And a young mummified girl somehow made the cut for permanent display as well. Know you are disappointed to have no shots of the mummies, but Atlas Obscura has taken care of that for you.