Paris Catacombs

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Entrance to the Catacombs

I first heard about the catacombs under Paris when I visited for a weekend while I was in Brussels with the circus. The friend I was travelling with explained she wanted to see them, but it was forbidden and all the entrances were locked. She thought there was a way down through one of the mausoleums in Pere Lachaise cemetery, but we didn’t have the time to go monument to monument and test the theory. Also, ew.

I’m not sure whether the catacombs tour (part of the Carnavalet – History of Paris Museum) actually existed at the time and we just didn’t know or whether it has opened since, but it is now certainly possible to visit in a perfectly legal manner. No grave-hopping required.

What ARE the catacombs, you may ask? Here’s the short version:

45 million years ago, the area of France that is now Paris was covered by the sea. The sediment that settled during this time accumulated to later form a large limestone deposit. From as early as the 1st century A.D. that limestone was quarried to build the buildings of Paris. (Notre Dame is built of that limestone, as is the Louvre.) Quarrying the stone left a labyrinth of tunnels under the left bank.

The quarry tunnels were uncharted, dug as needed in a haphazard manner, with no planning and no reinforcements. The city expanded over the honeycombed ground with no one realizing the extent of the potential problem. Until, in 1777, there was a major collapse. Engineers were sent down into the tunnels to build reinforcing walls and render them safe.

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Markings made by the engineers who shored up the catacombs, including the date, which in this case was 1781.

Around the same time, the graveyards of Paris were so overused and in such bad shape that they became a serious health hazard. (The audioguide in the catacombs mentioned that milk left sitting out in a house bordering the cemetery curdled in a matter of hours, which makes me not even want to THINK what people were breathing in.)

Toward the end of the 18th century, the cemeteries within the city were shut down in favour of newer ones in the suburbs, and over the next half-century or so, the bones of centuries-worth of Parisian dead were exhumed and transferred to an ossuary created in the old quarry tunnels.

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It is… pretty much as creepy as you think it would be.

On Wednesday, I waited in line for a little over two hours to get in. They limit admission so there are never more than 200 people underground at once. I was expecting to be stuck in a shuffling snake of humanity the whole way around, but I was pleasantly surprised to find there were only ever a handful of people in the same area as me at any one time. I could take my time, which I really appreciated.

The air was damp and cool down there. There was a smell, but it was more like wet earth than anything unpleasant. The floor was compressed mud covered in small stones, and quite slippery in places. The initial tunnels were a little underwhelming – just stone walls with an arched ceiling, lit by regularly-spaced bulkhead-style electric lights.

Other tunnels branched off frequently to right and left, but were blocked either by doors or locked gates. Those tunnels were unlit and disappeared almost immediately into utter blackness.

In a few places water seeped through the walls and trickled down, and at one point in the ossuary water dripped through the ceiling, forming a tiny forest of centimetre-long stalactites.

The tunnels are twenty metres underground (the website warns that the catacombs are “unsuitable for people with heart or respiratory problems, those of a nervous disposition and young children”) and the tour covers a path about two kilometres long. This area, claimed one sign we passed, is about 1/800th of the actual area of the catacombs. There are 11,000 square metres of ossuary, but the rest of the catacombs are just a labyrinth of stone tunnels. (There is a great National Geographic article about the intrepid folk who find illegal ways down into those tunnels to explore, if you’re interested in learning more.)

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There was enough light in this alcove to get a good shot. Now imagine this wall of bones repeated a hundred times over. So many bones.

The ossuary, when we reached it, seemed to go on forever. So many bones. The estimate is that the remains of six or seven million bodies are housed down there.

The femurs and skulls were built into the patterns that are visible in the photo above, but I became a little obsessed with wanting to see evidence of all the rest of the bones – ribs and shoulderblades and shinbones and kneecaps. From what I was able to tell, I think they’re just heaped behind those visible walls of bones, and the smaller ones must have sifted down to the bottom.

I also wondered a lot about what all of those people died of. Many of the skulls were damaged in some way, but I would guess that would have more to do with being exhumed, moved, and then exposed to 200 years worth of tourists than any kind of fatal head wound. The National Geographic article mentioned that certain deformations in the skull indicate the person suffered from leprosy, but I don’t know nearly enough about that to be able to judge on my own.

I did think a lot about viruses and how they can survive outside of the body, and that made me very pleased about all the no-touching-the-bones rules. (If you want to freak yourself out before you go down there, read Doomsday Book by Connie Willis.)

It’s all a little weird and a little creepy, but definitely interesting. And there is a lot of information provided about the geological history of the area, if you’re into that sort of thing. I recommend renting one of the audioguides (at a cost of 3€), which provide a lot of context to help you understand what you’re seeing.

The catacombs are open from 10am – 8pm, Tuesday through Sunday. (Closed on Mondays and public holidays.) Admission is 10€ (8€ for concessions). Nearest metro station is Denfert-Rochereau. And, seriously, bring a book and some comfortable shoes. And maybe an umbrella. And a snack. You’ll be standing in line on the sidewalk for about 2 hours to get in.

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