Visiting the Catacombs of Paris was the most bizarre part of my trip to France. The long underground tunnels have hosted for centuries the bones of an estimated 6,000,000 Parisians. The reason for the existence of this ossuary is that nearly two centuries ago the French capital ran out of cemetery spaces and the solution was to move the bones underground into the abandoned quarries. Originally, the remains were dumped there but gradually they were neatly arranged into walls of bones with skulls put in-between to face the passerby with their empty eye sockets.
Originally, the tunnels were quarries for extracting the so-called “Paris stone”, a type of high-quality limestone, used to build most of the houses and palaces in Paris. In the Roman times they used open quarries, but by the Middle Ages the extraction moved underground, which created that complicated maze of tunnels. By the XVIII century the extraction works stopped but new problems emerged. Some of the tunnels started caving in, damaging houses and causing panic among the city population. That forced King Louis XVI to create in the 1770’s a special institution to deal with the problem. That was described on a large plate near the entrance of the catacombs:
Everything came to an end after the anarchy of the French Revolution stopped most public works. They were continued only after the Restoration in the early 1800’s. Meanwhile, the underground space became a repository for more and more remains. It took the bones of the thousands of the victims of the revolution, including their butcher Maximilien Robespierre. By mid-XIX century the catacombs became a popular spot. Many Parisians felt the thrill of walking the stuffy and humid tunnels while watched by the skulls. According to our guide, the place was visited even by royalty – Emperor Francis I of Austria in 1814 and Emperor Napoleon III of France in 1860.
Not much has changed since then, other than the fact that no new bones have been moved in. There is electric light, but the tunnels are still dark and depressing. For safety reasons only 200 people are allowed to be in at a time. That makes the access complicated. The visitors line up in a queue that runs around the whole block. The average waiting time is over an hour.
Once you reach the door, you are faced by two grim security guards who look in your bag and check you with a metal detector, which has become the new normal in Paris. There are no elevators and the visitors are going down in small groups through a deep and narrow stone stairwell (about 90 stairs). Climbing them on the way out is almost a nightmare.
Then we take a long corridor, which is strengthened with bricks. At its end we enter the old quarries where the limestone is still visible.
That takes another long walk and we finally reach the entrance of the ossuary where a sign tells us that we are required not to touch anything or smoke.
As I mentioned above, the remains of millions of people are not concealed but laid in the open. Walking along those long corridors surrounded by so many bones and skulls creates an eerie feeling. Some people couldn’t take it and rushed at full speed to the exit.
At some places the bones look like they have been hastily thrown in a pile, but in most parts they are arranged neatly and it looked that the people who did it enjoyed their work.
Most of the piles are neatly marked with signs, which indicate the cemetery where the people were originally buried. The remains below came from the old cemetery of Faubourg Montmartre and were laid to rest in the catacombs in 1859.
The remains above are much older – they came from the St. Eustache Cemetery and were placed at the catacombs in 1787, just two years before the Revolution.
It is not easy to walk around surrounded by so many dead people. Still, I didn’t mind spending another hour among them. My wife, however, didn’t feel at ease at all and I agreed with her that we should get out quickly. The way out involved a long walk through a wet and slippery corridor, which fortunately wasn’t decorated with attentive skulls.
At its end came the grueling climb of another narrow stairwell with 90 stone stairs.
Stepping out of the darkness and on the sidewalk brought the same experience Dante probably had after leaving hell. The cloudy skies of Paris and the cool air outside felt like a salvation.
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