The Creepy-Coolness of the Paris Catacombs

The last time my husband and I were in Paris was about seven years ago. We toured the Catacombs underneath the city, but my memories of the experience managed to fade over time. I do remember that it was fairly dark, a little creepy (which I’m cool with), and that most of our photos didn’t turn out very well because flash photography was prohibited. This year, we decided to go back again, this time with better-quality cameras. What a difference it made to have cameras that work well in low-light settings!

The Catacombs are located in the 14th arrondissement, just a short walk from the Denfert-Rochereau metro stop. We made the mistake of trying to visit one day in the afternoon. The line-up of visitors that wrapped around the block deterred us from even trying to get in. So we decided to try again the next day, but to arrive before the doors even opened to try and beat the rush. We didn’t remember it being so busy when we were here in 2009!

The next day wasn’t actually any better. Even though we showed up a half-hour before the Catacombs were set to open, there was already a line-up around the block to get in!

Catacombs line-up

We accepted the fact that there would never be a good time to see the Catacombs without throngs of people. So we got in line and settled in for a long wait. Once the doors opened, though, the line started to move fairly quickly. In total, we stood in line for about 45 minutes before we reached the entrance:

Catacombs entrance

We almost bought the audio guide, but Mark decided to purchase a book on the history of the catacombs instead. It made for a quick read on the plane trip home, as well as a souvenir we can lend out to friends. Descriptive signage inside the catacombs was sufficient for our needs anyway.

One thing I had forgotten about the catacombs is that once you go down the spiral staircase and start making your way through the tunnels, the crowds dissipate quickly. There are roughly 2km of tunnels to walk through, which seems to provide a natural flow of traffic.

Catacomb tunnel

Be sure to read the signs above your head, too. Translation: Stop! This is the Empire of the Dead. That isn’t ominous at all:

Empire of the Dead sign

So how did the catacombs come to exist? Well, the story first goes back about 45 million years ago, when this area was originally a tropical sea. Sediment in the sea bed compressed over time to form limestone. Gallo-Roman people used this local limestone as far back as the 1st Century AD for building projects, although they probably used open-air quarries back then. People continued to mine the limestone well into the 13th Century, when underground mining gained popularity. These underground quarrying techniques eventually formed the vast maze of tunnels that exist today.

Meanwhile, in the cemeteries, things were getting a bit overcrowded. In fact, things got so bad, that in 1780, the weight of a mass grave in the Cemetery of the Innocents collapsed the basement wall of a home next door, spilling numerous bodies into the basement. Something had to be done.

So, in 1785, a King’s State Council decree ordered the transfer of all the bones from the Cemetery of the Innocents to these now-empty tunnels.

Overcrowded cemeteries were thought to pose a health risk, so over the next 74 years, the bones from more than 150 monasteries, convents and church graveyards were moved here. Initially, the bones were just unceremoniously dumped into the tunnels, usually at night.

Paris Catacombs bones

In 1810, the Inspector General of Quarries turned the ossuary into a funerary monument. This included the decorative stacking of the skulls and femurs. I feel like he was maybe a little bit OCD. But he would’ve been really good at Tetris:

Catacombs ossuary

The work is just incredible, even artistic. It’s a strangely beautiful thing to behold, if you can get past the creep factor:

Paris ossuary cross

I tend to get claustrophobic in certain situations, but the catacombs aren’t actually that terrible. There’s sufficient ceiling height and the corridors open up to larger spaces here and there:

catacomb interior

According to the catacombs book we purchased, back in the day, concerts were even held in the larger rooms because of the combination of solemn atmosphere and great acoustics.

The re-internment of the bones wasn’t completely haphazard and disorganized either, despite how things may look. There are numerous tablets along the way identifying which cemeteries the bones were taken from:

catacomb sign

Apparently, there are even “swimming pools” of sorts down in some of the tunnels, many of which have yet to be explored. Cataphiles, or urban underground explorers have gone into some of these side tunnels and found some wonderous things, albeit illegally. For me, I was quite satisfied with seeing the things that have been well-marked out and labelled, such as this fountain. Known as the Fountain of Lethe, or of the Samaritan, this fountain was discovered by quarry workers in the late 18th Century and restored in 1810:

catacombs fountain

There’s no shortage of fascinating history here. If you can get over the initial “ick” factor, the catacombs are incredibly interesting. There’s even information on the geological aspects of Paris and the quarries themselves. The whole tour takes about an hour, and is well worth the lengthy wait to get in.

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