The Catacombs of Paris are an incredible experience steeped in history. Mysterious, atmospheric, and sprawling, The Catacombs have housed everything from the dead of Paris to fine wine cellars to classical music concerts, resistance fighters and even an illegal movie theatre. They are absolutely worth a stop if you're visiting Paris.
The attraction takes roughly an hour to complete, although I would recommend booking tickets in advance as it was busy when we visited and only 200 guests are allowed into the tunnels at any given time.
I would also strongly recommend paying the extra for the audio guide headset as there are few signs explaining anything and the history of the catacombs is rich and interesting and not otherwise communicated.
Like many French sites and attractions, there are no attendants, guides or signs in the tunnels to answer questions. You can wander through the ossuaries, but to understand or appreciate any of what your seeing, you really need the audio guide.
Covering about 1.5 kilometres more than 19 metres below the streets of Paris, the catacombs open to visitors are only a small portion of a wider labyrinthian network of limestone mine tunnels constructed and subsequently abandoned and largely forgotten in the middle ages.
The collapse of streets and structural foundations as the tunnels eroded and caved in over the centuries eventually prompted the exploration and reinforcement of the tunnels during the 18th century in order to keep Paris from falling in on itself.
Despite the shoring up of these tunnels the shaky foundation, even to this day, prevents the construction of tall structures requiring large foundations in many parts of Paris.
The late 1700's also saw the culmination of another, even more disturbing problem: the graveyards of Paris were full. Apparently, in 1780, a basement wall shifted and collapsed and a multitude of corpses poured into a residence from the nearby Cimetière des Innocents.
Other reports speak of pervasive and widespread fumes hanging over the city as the decomposing corpses of Paris's deceased, piled literally atop one another in overfilled cemeteries that stood in mounds up to two metres high, released noxious gasses and facilitated the spread of disease.
It was said of Paris that the air was so vile that it caused fresh milk to curdle and wine to sour immediately when exposed.
To solve the problem, a great public works was undertaken to relocate much of the city's dead into the catacombs beneath the streets. Over a period of several years, more than six million bodies were exhumed and placed in neatly arranged patterns along the walls of the tunnels. Centuries of bones came to be housed in the largest ossuary in the world.
Descending into the catacombs for the first time is an experience for each of the senses. The sound of the busy street dies away, replaced by a muffled and reverential silence. The echoes of footsteps as we descend the 130 steps of the utilitarian metal staircase reverberate on the thick stone that slowly closes in around us.
The stone and the air itself slowly becomes damp. In many places, the walls and floors are slick with water, which condenses and pools on exposed surfaces as the air cools. Fresh water drips in, filtered through the limestone. We visit the catacombs on a hot summer day and the rapid temperature drop as we descend is welcome and extreme; the humidity noticeable.
If you are like me, a North American living in a city little more than 100 years old, you aren't often exposed to skeletons and bodies open to the air. There is a faint, morbid curiosity and maybe even a little anxiety about what it will be like to be surrounded by hundreds of years worth of slowly decomposing skulls and bones.
We wander through some empty limestone passages, learning about the millennia of mining and quarrying that occurred in the area. Again, I'd absolutely recommend purchasing the audio guide headset for the best experience, but I'm a completionist.
Throughout the experience there's a solemn hush and a building sense that we walk on sacred ground. While photography is (I think) allowed, most people seem to use greater discretion and respect than I notice at other tourist sites (including the ones which do not allow photography... a rule often and flagrantly broken).
The audio tour is filled with factual episodes out of history supplemented with the strange and anecdotal stories and legends that surround the history of Paris, the Catacombs, and its dead.
One of the things I enjoy about the audio tour is that it allows me to move at my own pace. If I would like to take some time to really take a look at something, or even just wait as a group passes me to spend a brief moment completely alone in a passage before the next group comes through, this is doable. I enjoy silently noting the small details as we move through and prefer to wait for others to pass by so that the full, eerie effect of the place can be achieved. This helps me feel less like I'm on a tour and more like I'm on an exploration.
Eventually, we come upon numerous gated side tunnels and our attention is drawn to the engraved markings that helped the eighteenth century excavators navigate the labyrinthine passages.
As a mild (maybe moderate...) claustrophobe myself, I can't help but imagine just how frighteningly easy it would be to become lost in the tunnels were the path not gated. I also imagine what it must have been like to be one of the early surveyors who explored the catacombs without adequate light, not knowing what is ahead or if the rock above is stable.
As we move through, the audio guide reveals more and more interesting stories about the history of the catacombs.
One story is about a mysterious and clandestine classical music concert that supposedly occurred in the caverns. Apparently many of the elite of 19th century Paris received anonymous invitations to an event near an entrance to the catacombs. Upon arriving, they were ushered underground where a chamber orchestra played fitting music such as funeral marches and Saint-Saëns' "Danse Macabre."
In war time, bunkers were often built in the catacombs. French resistance fighters used the underground mazes as headquarters from which to strike out against German forces and hide supply caches during the Second World War.
In 1955, with the exception of the official catacombs tour, entry into the underground network was made illegal.
Interest in the catacombs was rekindled, however, by amateur urban explorers in the 1970s and 1980s who became known as "cataphiles." Despite (and perhaps even because) of its illegality, a movement apparently blossomed during this time in which sub and counter-culture groups literally flourished underground.
The audio guide reveals that the catacombs have hosted illicit private clubs, bars, live performances and art exhibits, and even a secret cinema which was discovered and dismantled by a special police task force created to patrol the tunnels.
Eventually, the tour leads us through a series of ossuaries. The bones are arranged artfully, often accompanied by carvings and inscriptions which document the source and date of the remains.
This being, as I said, one of my first encounters with human remains, I am mixed in my reactions. On the one hand, it is all surprisingly clinical. With the bones arranged as walls, it is possible to forget that they were once real people. It's easy to see them as simply a building material, decoration or a Hollywood prop.
Yet as the empty eye sockets stare out over the passages, there are many moments, allowing myself time to stop and contemplate, when I simply have to reflect on my own mortality and the fact that one day everyone on the tour would leave behind exactly as much as lined the walls. Each one of us would be just as anonymous as the masses of skulls; hardly distinguishable from one another.
For me, the experience is in the detail. I am surprised by the lack of smell, or at least surprised that the smell is one of earthiness and fresh water rather than whatever it is I imagined human bones and ancient tunnels would smell like.
For obvious reasons, it is not acceptable to touch, disturb or take any part of the remains. That said, as we move through the sometimes very narrow passages, it is possible and sometimes necessary to come very close to them. There is nothing separating the visitor from the bone; no fences, plexiglass, laser alarms or motion sensors.
I recommend getting right up close and spending some time really examining the teeth, the eye sockets; the fractures.
I find it fascinating to try to analyze the skulls, imagining what the face might have looked like in the flesh or trying to guess whether damage was caused in life or long after death.
It is possible to notice, as the audioguide instructs, bullet wounds and other injuries suffered during revolutionary fighting.
Though I'm not sure why it fascinates me so much, (maybe because I'm just a big fan of moss. Actually. For real. Always have been.) but it is very interesting to note the thick green mosses that form wherever a lightbulb shines. In some areas, this moss grows in deep patches on the walls beneath the light fixtures. Sometimes it spreads thickly overtop the bones and skulls closest to the light. There is something very satisfying about seeing green life slowly reclaiming the otherwise bleached and lifeless bone.
Upon completing the tour, it is jarring to re-climb the steps and emerge back into the hot, sunny streets as though nothing at all has happened. The contrast between the cool, silent tunnels and the hot bustling crowds hits me like a solid wall and it takes a few moments to adjust back into normal life.
I am struck by the fact that just metres below the surface, at any given time throughout Paris, the sound of life and traffic and voices gives way to a silent, strange and eerily beautiful land of the dead. While the world around me held its breath underground and moved with slow solemnity, the world immediately above had carried on just as it always does, with little or no awareness of what lies beneath its feet.