One of the coolest features Paris has to offer is the Catacombs beneath the city. I had no idea that these famous tunnels rumoured to hold the bones of millions actually spread throughout the entire city. In fact every property in Paris has a “cave” assigned to it. Many shops or restaurants will use it as a cold cellar, or bars will use it for their dancing area. These catacombs are a result of the beautiful architecture that gives Paris its harmonious vibe- Limestone excavation. One of the highest paying jobs at the time… because if you were mining limestone you didn’t live very long. These tunnels bury deep into the city where you will find a black line along the ceiling and dates on the walls. These dates signify when the tunnels were originally deemed “safe” by the inspector. The black line was his Hans and Gretal way of ensuring he did not get lost in the depths of these damp halls. These dates go back hundreds and hundreds of years.
As you make your way through the catacombs the air becomes much cooler and the walls become damp, you can feel the depth as you descend deeper. There are areas that contain water running through them. Deep lakes that carve their way through the tunnels. There is only one legal entry to the catacombs and specific tunnels you are allowed to enter. However many have been known to enter them through the sewers and entrances by the abandoned train yard (“the little belt” for anyone who’s interested). Thrill seekers will come scuba diving through these waters in hopes of making new discoveries and exploring the caves. The school of geology actually does a baptism for their graduates in a special pool used during their graduation ceremony. (Which is totally rad and I’m wondering if I chose the wrong major). There have been raves of up to 2000 people in various caverns. Project X actually paid to rent out a lake in the catacombs one year fully stocked with Gondolas from Italy for their guests. A secret society was discovered fully decked with a functioning movie theatre. Authorities stumbled upon it one day and when they returned the next there was a sign on the door which stated “Do not try to find us”. When the leader of this group was interviewed on the news there was mention of the closing of his theatre and his reply was “This is not a concern, we have many more”. Those who enter, enter at their own risk and call themselves “catophiles”. Police search the tunnels daily, looking for those who have gotten lost sneaking through. It sounds crazy, that something like this could exist beneath an entire city but I looked it up and I’m convinced it’s real. My tour guide admitted that he’s entered quite a few times without the badge and I’m officially convinced that I need to make good friends with some catophiles in Paris so I can come back for my own adventure.
In one part of the catacombs that we explored there was an area named Quatier de Carzene that belonged to a man named Francois Décure. When his shift was over he did not return above ground like the others. He chose to live down below and carve into the stone. His creations are absolutely breathtaking. Here are some photos:
The year that Décure opened his creations to the public in the hopes of sending the money to his family, there was a collapse and sadly his life was lost along with much of his work. I felt honoured to be able to witness what he quite literally dedicated his life to.
And so of course the part that everyone is waiting for.. we entered the area of the catacombs that holds the bones. Above the door is written “Arrete! C’est ici L’empire de la Mort” which translated means “Stop! Here lies the Empire of the Dead”. Experts say that more than 6 million bodies are buried in the tombs of Paris and I can tell you that it is mindblowing. There are stacks of bones, many of then femurs lining the walls, with skulls placed throughout. Many of these extend so far back that you run out of light before the catacomb runs out of bones. It is one of the most unfathomable things I have ever, EVER, seen in my entire life. Now I feel like in tourist situations such as these it’s easy to desensitize, but I want to acknowledge that although this occurred years and years ago, these were still people and their lives still had value.
Years ago air bnb had a contest where you could enter for a nights stay with a plus one in this graveyard- said to be one of the scariest places on earth. It’s safe to say this fellow did not last the night before he called it off and wanted to be taken out. In his defence, right above the bed they provided him, “Si vous avez vu quelque fois mourir up homme, considérez toujours que Le meme sort vous attend”, is carved into the wall. This means “If you have seen that some men die, consider that the same fate awaits you as well.”
You’re probably asking yourself why all of these bodies ended up here in the first place. Paris had a cemetery called Cimetiere des Innocents and as you’re probably aware this city went through some terrible times in regards to overpopulation, disease and famin. People were constantly dying the the cemetery was overflowing with bodies. One year there was absolute flooding there the stink and smell overwhelmed the entire city, complete with bodies washing up into people’s cellars. So finally the decision was made that there must be somewhere to store the bodies and that is how they were placed into the catacombs.
I left that tour completely wonderstruck and absolutely fascinated with the city below this city. I feel like I have so much to learn. If you’re planning on touring the catacombs in the future I have two suggestions for you.
1) book a tour. Not only will you not have to wait in the 3 hour line up, but you will gather so much more knowledge from someone who currently lives in this city rather than a droning audio guide.
2) If you can, choose to do this on a hot day. It was 35 degrees outside (46 with the humidex) and we were so thankful to spend a few hours underground with the damp, cool air.
That’s all for now!