Paris the ‘City of Love’ is a top tourist destination. The lively atmosphere, the rich culture, the historical monuments, world-class museums, and the vibrant nightlife are the major draws for the tourists and fashionistas to this beautiful city. But did you know under these bustling streets of the gleaming city is an eerie world holding remains of over 6 million dead Parisians. The Catacombs of Paris are not amongst the top touristy places but definitely something you should not miss if you have some extra time on hand during your Paris visit.
We are not great fans of spooky places and visiting the Catacombs in Paris was never on our list. But after browsing through the pictures of the catacombs on the internet we were very much intrigued to visit the place and see it for ourselves. We had already covered the top Paris attractions and the popular day trips from Paris and were looking for something different and a unique experience for the next visit.
We had already missed Catacombs in Rome on a visit to the Vatican City so Catacombs of Paris was something we didn’t want to miss. We were based in Geneva in Switzerland and Paris is just 3 hours train ride away. We planned a trip to Paris coming weekend to visit Paris Catacombs and more of what the wonderful city of Paris had to offer.
What are Paris Catacombs and Who built the Catacombs?
The Catacombs of Paris are underground ossuaries in Paris which are believed to hold the remains of over six million people. Roman Empires were the first to refer to a place of burial as Catacombs. The Paris catacombs derived the word originally used by the Romans only in the 18th century.
The labyrinth beneath the city of Paris is the former limestone quarries dating back to the 13th century. The stone from the quarries was used in the construction of the buildings of the city of Paris. The limestone from these quarries is said to be used to supply the stone required to build Notre-Dame Cathedral, the Louvre, and the Paris City ramparts.
By the end of the 17th century, the city of Paris was facing an alarming situation where its cemeteries were overflowing to the point where corpses started getting uncovered. So as a solution it was decided that the remains should be moved to the tunnels in the limestone quarries that were then not in use anymore.
Paris Catacombs History
During the 18th century, the City’s main cemetery ‘Saints Innocents’ near the Les Halles neighborhood was already filled to the brim. The people in the neighborhood complained of contaminated air and foul smell of decomposing bodies. The situation also posed a risk to the public health with a possibility of epidemic disease. It was decided that all the buried remains would be moved to the new large-scale burial grounds on the outskirts of the city. Nothing happened until 1780 when a wall of Les Innocents cemetery collapsed due to flood and the remains flowed into the neighboring property.
On the other side, there were numerous mine cave-ins occurring in the tunnels of the quarries due to the weight of the city above creating sinkholes. The mine renovation and cemetery closures were both crucial issues for the city of Paris which was entrusted to Charles Axel Guillaumot, an inspector at the Department of General Quarry Inspection. For the good of the public, the idea of moving the Parisian dead to the newly renovated underground passageways was adopted.
Several night processions of wagons carrying the remains of Parisian dead from cemeteries accompanied by a priest were carried out. The transfer of unearthed remains took almost 2 years to transfer bones from “Saints Innocents” cemetery and few more years to transfer of bones from other Parisian parish graveyards to the Catacombs. The transfer of remains continued until 1860.
Initially, the bones and the remains of the dead were just dumped into the quarries in large heaps. Later in the 19th century, Louis-Etienne Hericart de Thury took upon the task of rearranging the bones into artistic patterns with inscriptions and tombstones with an intention to turn the catacombs into a tourist attraction.
There are different levels of the quarries of which the quarries occupy the upper and middle levels. A well called ‘Quarriers’ Footbath’ which we found walking along the tunnels is said to connect to the lower level.
One of the iconic displays is in the shape of a Barrel which is also known as the ‘Crypt of the Passion’ or the ‘Tibia Rotunda’. The arrangement made up skulls and tibiae supports the roof of the room in which it is housed.
The underground cemetery became a tourist attraction from the early 19th century and has been open to the public on a regular basis since 1874.
Paris Catacombs Tour
We had booked tickets online to avoid queues. We collected the audioguides and climbed down the 130 steps to an underground depth of 20 meters equivalent to a five-story building. All the water pipelines and the entire city was now above us.
The tour started with a small space before the entrance to the ossuary which displayed exhibits and information boards on the history of Paris. The tunnels of the limestone quarries which today hold the remains of the Parisians were formed 45 million years ago. Forty-five million years ago Paris and the surrounding area were covered by a shallow sea which caused the sediment accumulation forming the limestone deposits visible in the Catacombs today.
Then the visitors walk into the Ossuary through a door marked with an inscription ‘Arrête, c’est ici l’empire de la mort!’ which means ‘Stop! This is the empire of death!’.
We walked through the long dark maze of tunnels, chambers, and halls with carefully and artistically arranged bones in various patterns. Most of the bones are grouped by the cemeteries.
Along the way, one would find other monuments, tombstones and lots of inscriptions of historical events.
The Catacombs visit may not be recommended for people suffering from claustrophobia, cardiac or respiratory problems. During our visit, we did feel a little eerie initially walking amidst the piles of bones but we soon got engrossed in the audio guide information. We had our daughter along with is who was just about a year old which meant she didn’t understand much. But if you are visiting with older kids you may want to decide if you want to take them along. When we visited there were some kids who visited with their parents and looked pretty comfortable to tour the catacombs.
Paris Catacombs Facts
Only some part of the underground quarries which are used to keep the remains of six million people is open to the public for tours. But it is believed that the network of tunnels under the city of Paris even more extensive. The tunnels dug by limestone miners is estimated to be around 320 km most of which are undiscovered. At several points during the tour, we could find gates blocking passages leading to other unrenovated and unvisitable parts of the catacombs closed to the tourists and the regular tours.
During World War II the tunnels of the quarries were used by the Parisian members of the French Resistance as well as by the Nazis who built underground bunkers.
The catacombs have a constant temperature of around 14 deg Celsius and high humidity. Make sure to dress in warm clothes and comfortable shoes.
The path winding through the tunnels are dim lit, uneven and sometimes slippery and hence is not accessible to people with reduced mobility.
Paris Catacombs Tickets and Open Times
The Catacombs of Paris are open from daily from 10 am to 8:30 pm except for Mondays when it is closed. Check here for ticket rates and guided tours.
Your entrance tickets to Catacombs are timed and only 200 people are allowed inside the catacombs at a time. It is recommended that tickets to the Catacombs are booked online which comes with Paris Catacomb Skip the Line benefit. The entrance has really long queues. The Audio Guides are included in the entrance tickets.
Catacombs are not only in Paris but in various cities all over the world. Australia, Austria, Czech Republic, Egypt, London, Greece, and Spain are few to name.
The entrance to the Catacombs of Paris is located in Paris’ 14th arrondissement, at 1, avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy.
You can take either the metro line 4 or 6 to Denfert-Rochereau metro station which is less than 10 minutes walk away.
The Catacombs of Paris may not be among the top visited museums in Paris but it definitely offers an unusual experience. Have you visited the catacombs? Do you find these Catacombs interesting or eerie? Let us know what you think in comments.
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