Paris is one of my favourite cities in the world because it is filled with so much beauty and history. So on my last trip I took the time to explore on of the oldest sites in the city with a very spooky history.
Visited by millions of tourists each year, the Catacombs are a labyrinth of tunnels that stretch for several (approximately 168) miles beneath Paris. To really enjoy the history and significance of the Catacombs, it is best to visit in April or November. During the peak tourist season of summer (June to August) there is a minimum two hour wait, yes minimum, to get inside. Once inside, one will find themselves winding through a network of tunnels piled high with skulls and bones which are the remains of an estimated six million Parisians.
Of the many miles of tunnels beneath the city streets, about two kilometres of these are made available for the people to visit. There are many thousands of miles more to the Catacombs, but these are inaccessible and dangerous. As you make your way through the tunnels be sure to stay on the path marked with spotlights. Overall, the visit will take you on a 45 minute walk- so there are fitness benefits as well as intellectual.
Essential items to take with you on a visit to the Catacombs are a jacket and a small pocket torch. It gets quite cool below ground and even though there are spotlights, the light is not adequate to comfortably navigate the uneven surfaces.
The sign located on the doorway above the Ossuary allows visitors to pause and think about the people whose bones lay in this final resting ground as they move along on a timeless and memorable journey through history.
As you travel along the eerie paths, one will notice how the bones are piled on each side, but also that there are bones laid delicately on the ground. There are skulls that stare at you blankly through leg bones in carefully designed patterns as you pass. It is as if you can feel the presence of spirits watching that nothing is disturbed or stolen. On the ground are fragments of arms, ribs and heads scattered haphazardly and it is not known how deep into the ground the bones go.. There is no going around these bones, so unfortunately you must walk across the remains of these people- be sure to say a prayer before continuing.
So why were the Catacombs built? Cemetery space was scarce in the 1700s and church yards and other burial grounds were filling up fast as Paris expanded. However, improper burial techniques at the time caused ground water and land in the nearby Les Halles district becoming contaminated which resulted in the spread of disease. Subsequently, the cemeteries were declared a major public health issue to the city. Thus, the Catacombs were created in limestone from nearby quarries as a alternative burial ground for the deceased.
So six to seven million bodies were moved in silent procession from the overcrowded cemeteries into the newly built Catacombs between 1786 and 1788. In respect of the people, and descendants, a priest blessed the new resting place before the remains were placed neatly against the sides of the tunnels to form the walls that visitors see today. The Catacombs continued to be used as an alternate cemetery up to 1814.
It is fascinating to learn that Paris has an extensive network of tunnels underneath, in fact most of the Left Bank in a maze of hollowed out tunnels boasting a depth of around twenty-five feet. These tunnels are a mix of sewers, vaults, canals, reservoirs and crypts; some were even converted into nightclubs and galleries under the southern Parisian neighborhoods – but those stories are for another blog.
Some Catacombs fun facts
- Contain the bones of about six million Parisians
- Located 20 metres below Paris
- A total of 213 steps to enter and exit (130 down and 83 up)
- Distance travelled 2 kilometres
- Duration of tour is 45 minutes
- An average of 14 degrees celsius inside the tunnels
- \The Ossuary is 11,000 square metres
- Largest Ossuary is 800 metres long