Autumn Snapshots: The Paris Catacombs

This past weekend, in an attempt to celebrate Halloween in some capacity, Chris and I decided to pay a visit to the Catacombs of Paris. We really didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into, except that we’d get to see a few bones, maybe learn some historical tidbits, and, above all, we’d get a healthy dose of some pre-Halloween spookiness.

While all of these expectations were met during our tour, I never anticipated finding it as entertaining and informative as we did. There is a vast expanse of history (nearly 2000 years!) buried in the dark tunnels below The City of Light, and it was an eerie experience to actually climb down into it.

 

What are the Catacombs?

The Catacombs of Paris, formally known as l’Ossuaire Municipal or Catacombes Officiels, are underground ossuaries housing the skeletal remains of more than six million Parisians. They encompass a small portion of the nearly 200 miles of abandoned limestone quarries that have resided covertly beneath the city since the 13th century.

Prior to the Catacombs’ conception in the late 1780’s, Paris had run into a real problem: too many dead people. That’s right, the city was growing and more and more people were living and dying here. Local cemeteries were literally bursting at the seams and living residents were beginning to complain that the odor of decomposing flesh was almost too much to bear. It was souring their milk, and, even worse, was contaminating their groundwater. Eventually in 1780, after a particularly rainy season, the wall surrounding Paris’ oldest cemetery, Les Innocents, collapsed and rotting corpses that had not had a proper burial began spilling out into the basement of a neighboring property. Something had to be done, and quickly.

By 1786, the Church gave permission for all remains buried intra muros (within the [old city] walls) to be moved into the newly reinforced quarries. Thus, the catacombs were born.

It took nearly 12 years of nightly processions to relocate all of the bones. At first, they were unsystematically placed within the tunnels, a bone repository of sorts organized only by the cemetery from whence the bones had come. But then, beginning in 1810 under the direction of the Paris Mine Inspection Service, the bones were sorted by type and stacked in the patterns you can see today. Some monuments and tombstones were added, complete with morbid warnings and poetry to complement the nature of the ossuary.

The Paris Catacombs have been an official tourist attraction since 1874, although it’s attracted visitors with a taste for the macabre much earlier than that. And it still rises a certain curiosity among Parisians today.

A Few Fun Facts

  • Those who lost their lives during the French Revolution (1789-1799) were buried directly in the Catacombs.
  • The Catholic Church was very unhappy when the Catacombs began attracting tourists. They fiercely opposed the exposition of “sacred human bones” and in 1833, the Catacombs were closed to the public. By 1850, however, the Church lost their battle to public demand and, over the course of several decades, public admittance increased to regular daily visits.
  • Human remains were still being added to the Catacombs until 1860.
  • The Catacombs were utilized as underground bunkers by Parisian members of the French Resistance during World War II. Ironically, the Nazis also had hideouts in these expansive tunnels.
  • While only a small portion of the Paris Catacombs are open to the public, urban explorers and self-professing ‘cataphiles‘ have become notorious for sneaking into the tunnels via manholes throughout the city. This has been going on for as long as the quarries have been in existence… some of the wall carvings and graffiti date back centuries, and there are stories of whole orchestras sneaking inside to perform secret concerts in the early 19th century! But now, police are finding an assortment of more sophisticated feats, including makeshift bars and even movie theaters.

 

The Tour

The only (legal) public entrance to the Catacombs of Paris is at the Place Denfert-Rochereau in the 14th arrondissement (1, Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy).

You can purchase tickets at the door, but a word of warning: the line for general admission will stretch down the block on a good day and you’ll easily wait for 2+ hours. Around Halloween, as you can imagine, the wait can be even longer! Chris and I purchased a Skip-the-Line Ticket online before our visit and we were able to enter the Catacombs almost immediately. Of course, this ticket was more pricy than that of general admission, but it was worth every extra penny to avoid the line.

Included in the cost of our Skip-the-Line Ticket were complementary audio-guides. (They can be purchased at the door for a few euros as well if you opt for general admission.) We found the guides to be a wealth of historical information and stories. While there are a handful of informational plaques posted along the tour route, they don’t cover nearly everything and much of what you see will go unexplained. The audio-guide gave us a much more complete picture.

The tour begins with the long descent down a narrow, spiral staircase – 130 steps, 6 stories to the bottom. Once on level ground, a dim stone passageway guides you nearly a mile along the labyrinth of tunnels.

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Prior to the incorporation of electric light, the passageway’s ceilings were lined with black paint to be used as a guide for explorers. Additionally, explorers were able to keep their bearings using the “road names” assigned to each leg of the tunnel which correspond to the names of the roads on the surface directly above.

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Finally, upon arriving at the entrance to the ossuary, you’ll find this portal which reads “Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la mort.” “Stop! Here is the Empire of the Dead.” And then, in you go.

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Thus passes everything on earth

Spirit, beauty, talent, grace

Such is a short-lived flower

That’s blown away by the slightest breeze.

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Overall, the tour took us about an hour to complete. We hiked back up the stairs and entered again into the beloved Paris of today, feeling as if perhaps we understood her a little better.

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