Underground Paris: The Catacombs

Sorry for the lack of a second post last week. My sister was visiting and I was too busy having fun!

I'm a sucker for history and hidden things in a city. We like to see the big sights, but we also take great joy in exploring the lesser known parts of cities when we travel. One of the things I really wanted to do with our time in Paris was make a visit to the catacombs. While not secret by any means, climbing underground for a few hours, exploring tunnels bored hundreds of years ago and now filled with bones, definitely has the air of feeling secret, hidden, and definitely eerie (what can be more hidden than something underground with limited access?!). The catacombs were the first stop of many on our days of sightseeing in Paris.

They opened at 10 AM so we planned to show up then, hoping that we would be able to get right in with minimal waiting in line. Wrong. The line wrapped all around the block. We estimated that it would be a 2 - 2.5 hour wait, but it was definitely closer to a 3 hour wait. And the line didn't seem to shorten much at all the entire time we were waiting. They only allow 200 people in at a time, which doesn't help the waiting situation, and I don't think that you can buy tickets ahead of time. So, if you are planning on going, I suggest getting there early. 

Once we finally reached the front of the line, we bought our tickets, walked through the turn style, and descended down a spiral staircase into the ground. Below Paris is a large network of tunnels. In these first few rooms and tunnels, visitors are given a history of the tunnels. They were originally limestone mines from where the stone that built the city above was taken, but after they were depleted of their stone, they were abandoned. Archaeologists and paleontologists have been able to do much research in these tunnels and uncovered thousands of fossils. Over the years, cave-ins have occurred as a result of the weakened ground and in areas where the tunnels are located, you won't find any tall buildings (adequate foundations can't be dug). It was these cave-ins that prompted the creation of a mine authority that would inspect the mines for signs of instability.

Date showing when the wall was inspected and strengthened

Name of the street which we were under

Inspecting the walls of the tunnesl

In the tunnels, there is also a number of sculptures. These carvings are incredibly intricate and depict buildings and sights within and around Paris.

Remarkable detailed carvings in the tunnels

Starting the 1700s, Paris began to experience a shortage of consecrated ground in which to bury their dead. To initially combat the problem, older remains were exhumed and the bones stacked nearby to make room for more burials. It wasn't long before the most crowded cemetery, Les Innocents, had a two meter high wall of stacked bones buried under a thin layer of dirt surrounding it. In fact, the mass graves had become so large that a nearby basement collapsed under their weight. Starting in 1785, the remains from all of Paris's cemeteries were removed and taken to the newly consecrated catacombs. The process took 2 years to complete. Initially, bones were just haphazardly placed in the mines. However in 1810, the head of the mine authority at the time undertook massive renovations of re-stacking the bones into intricate patterns that can still be seen today, creating a type of mausoleum - and the results are really impressive. 

Intricate carving of Port Philipe in the tunnels

Old well that was dug to help lower the bones into the catacombs

As you're walking through the tunnels, it's almost easy to forget the real reason people come here - to see the catacombs, where millions of Paris' long dead have their final resting place. But then you come upon this door way, with the words, ''Stop! This is the power of death!'' carved in the lintel. Behind it lie piles upon piles of bones. 


underground entrance to the catacombs


It is absolutely mind boggling how many remains are in the catacombs. Current estimates put the number somewhere between 6 and 7 million. It's eerie to walk through, see the stacked femurs interspersed with skulls, their empty eyes staring back at you, and wonder who all these people are. What's their story? How did they die? How old were they when they died? What was their life like? Did they have families? Children? 

I wonder who he (she?) was

skull stacked within long bones

While the one skull is in focus in this image, I think the most haunting one is a little further back. 

Some of the skulls show obvious damage - broken pieces, missing pieces, some even have clean holes in them. Much of the damage is probably from moving them, but others, especially the ones with holes the diameter of a pinky, clearly show the cause of death.

Skulls and Femur artfully DISPLAYED in a heart shape

Skulls stacked within femurs

One thing that stuck me was how quiet the Catacombs were. I expected some sort of echo that was heard in the other parts of the tunnels, but once stepping into the catacombs, all echos disappeared. Rationally, this makes sense. Bones are porous and absorb sound, but it doesn't make the experience any less creepy.

inscription in Latin (top) and french (Bottom) that says, ''Believe that everyday is your last.''

Throughout the catacombs, little monuments and alcoves are built in. Some have plaques indicate the years in which the remains were placed and which cemetery they came from. Others have little alters where people can pray. Still other have signs with ominous sayings carved into them (such as the one in the picture above). There are small stone benches upon which people can sit, but honestly, I can't imagine sitting in the half dark of the catacombs, especially alone. The ghosts would get to me.

Stunning arched walkway in the catacombs

Skull with teeth still in the jaw. Where the other teeth lost in the move, or did the person suffer from severe tooth loss in his lifetime?

At the end of the tour, you climb some steps to get out. You emerge on a small side street of Paris, in the blindingly bright sunlight, a couple of blocks from where you entered. But make no mistake, the person that entered the catacombs is not the same person that emerges from their depths.

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