“Stop! Here lies the Empire of Death” reads the inscription on the wall, but I don’t know this until later because it’s in French. I’ve just descended a staircase that has taken me over sixty feet underground into the catacombs of Paris, a 200-mile underground ossuary holding the remains of an estimated six million people. But before I got here, I had a little waiting to do, two hours to be exact. And that’s with an arrival fifteen minutes after opening time, mind you. Touring the Paris catacombs became a popular thing to do in the 1800’s, and it’s no different today.
Descending Beneath the Streets of Paris
After making it inside and down a seemingly never-ending staircase (130 steps), we entered a series of underground tunnels. The entire stretch of these tunnels is close to 200 miles, but only a very small portion of that is open to the public. Many of the tunnels are short and narrow, so if enclosed spaces give you the heebie jeebies, I’d think twice about visiting. (What am I saying? You’re here to see old bones possibly infected with the plague. You’re not scared of anything, are you?)
This was when the guy standing in line in front of us thought it would be funny to hide behind one of the corners in the tunnels and jump out and scare me as I passed. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t funny at all. (But his little girls sure did get a kick out of my terrified shrieking!)
The Limestone Quarries
Here we are in the blurry “Workshop”. (Sorry, low light makes it difficult to get decent photos in some of the tunnels!) Before these tunnels became the final resting place for millions of Parisians, they were limestone quarries used for mining stone that was used in building Notre-Dame Cathedral and the Louvre, among many other places. The empty spaces where the limestone had been became the perfect place to house bones from nearby overflowing cemeteries.
After passing the Workshop, we came to the Port-Mahon corridor where sculptures built by a quarryman named Décure remain intact. This one is of the fortress of Port-Mahon, the largest town on the island of Minorca where Décure is believed to have been held prisoner for a number of years.
Just before entering the ossuary, we made our way through a much more spacious section of the tunnels that led us to the final exhibition room. The exhibitions change regularly. When we visited, it was an exhibition about the geology of the land around the tunnels.
We quickly perused the exhibits before heading straight to the crypt, because really, we were here for only one reason – to creep ourselves out looking at old, dead bones. (Give me a break – it was the day before Halloween! If you can’t do something a little macabre then, when can you?)
The Paris Catacombs
Femurs and tibia and skulls, oh my! There were stacks upon stacks of bones everywhere once we entered the catacombs! There were so many of them that I forgot for a second they were real. When I remembered that, it got a little freaky. Besides that realization, there was also the niggling thought in the back of my mind that if someone were to close the door and lock us in, we’d be spending the night with six million, possibly angry because they’ve become a tourist sideshow, souls. That thought will give you the willies.
Even though you’re not supposed to, I couldn’t keep myself from very lightly touching the top of one of the skulls. Positive that this quick contact had left me riddled with disease, Lexie refused to come near me for the rest of the day. (For the record, after I did it, I regretted it.)
History of the Paris Catacombs
So how did these bones come to rest underground in the first place? Back in the late 1700’s, the Cimetière des Innocents, a popular cemetery in Paris, had become so full of remains that it was a health hazard to those living around it. Plans were drawn up to begin using the abandoned underground quarries to house the overflow, and in 1786 the first of many bones were brought into the Paris catacombs.
Coming from cemeteries all over the city, at first the bones were simply thrown into the tunnels, but it wasn’t long before the curiosity of the public motivated the city to renovate the underground cemetery, allowing visitors to enter and tour the catacombs.
Bones are displayed along every inch of wall space in the Paris catacombs, most of the time in tall stacks using skulls missing their jawbones as “accent pieces”. Here and there, bones have been laid out in more artistic formations, like those that make up the barrel in the Crypt of the Passion. It was in this crypt that a secret, illegal concert attended by prominent and wealthy city members took place in 1897. Talk about a unique venue!
Taking a Paris Catacombs Tour
Tours through the Paris catacombs are self-guided and take approximately 45 minutes. In my opinion, after the first kilometer (you’ll walk about two), it all starts looking very similar. Bones, bones, and more bones. Granted, I realize that the sheer amount of remains is part of the appeal, but there are only so many you can see before it gets a little repetitive. Photography is allowed in the catacombs, but using flash is prohibited. Your best bet is to try to shoot directly beneath the lights, everywhere else will only produce grainy or blurry photos unless you’ve got a tripod. (Which I highly doubt are allowed on the tours.) When you eventually make your way to the exit, you’ll only need to climb 83 steps to get up to street level. Much better than the 130 at the beginning of the tour!
Final verdict: I liked our Paris catacombs tour, and I love a lot of the pictures I got from it, but I did not enjoy the two hour wait beforehand. Since tickets are not available for purchase online and still-breathing bodies in the Paris catacombs are restricted to 200 at a time, that’s the wait you’re looking at if you decide to go.
Tickets are quite reasonable at only €8 for adults and free for children. Audio guides are an extra €3. Due to the subject matter and that much of the tour is in the dark, be aware that this might not be the place to bring really small children. Otherwise, if you’re looking for something different, or maybe even a little creepy to do, a Paris catacombs tour will certainly fit the bill!
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