When people began to get sick in Paris in the late 1700s, they did the natural thing – dig up all the 6 million corpses and artistically arrange them in an abandoned stone quarry under the city.
I admit that I am drawn to underground attractions (literally) and the more macabre sites around the world, if there’s a tunnel, a skull or mummified human corpse on display, I’ll probably go there. So of course, in Paris, the catacombs were on my must see list. Two out of three – check.
Since I only had six Euro the last time I was there and the cost of a ticket is 8 Euro, I had to miss it, but this time I was flush, so I caught the subway to Montparnesse, gave the vendor my 8 Euro, and descended into the bowels of the city where even though I had read about it and knew the numbers, I was astounded by the sheer volume and artistry of the human bone arrangements.
Before reaching the bones, I had to descend 19 meters on a rusty circular staircase, then walk through wet stone tunnels where I found a view to the massive aqueduct below and a model of the Port-Mahon fortress created by a former Quarry Inspector well before the bones were brought. The model itself was quite creepy, like a miniature city of the dead waiting for inhabitants. (The sculptures of the gallery of Port-Mahon made by a quarryman called “Décure”, veteran of the armies of Louis XV, who carved in the wall a model of the fortress of Port-Mahon, principal city of Minorque to the Balearic Islands where he would have been a time captive by English army. Finally restored and exposed by a specific lighting, they constitute an undeniable curiosity of the circuit re-opened to the public after 13 years of closing.)
In truth, the overflow of dead bodies had become a serious health risk in the 1700’s since the church made a huge profit on burying people in the ‘fashionable’ cemeteries – it is after all Paris and always has been. So they would put more bodies than the earth could decompose in the most expensive plots and it took the government condemning and shutting down the cemeteries to put an end to stuffing more status starved dead rich people into the chic districts.
It was a police lieutenant, Alexandre Lenoir, who came up with the bright idea of putting all the human remains into the abandoned stone mines.
Twelve years of bone filled wagons emptied the city’s dead into the caverns below where they sat in piles and heaps for twenty-two more years until Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury, decided to turn the bone piles into an artistic monument which also incorporated gravestones and funerary monuments such as could still be found. Stacking the femurs and skulls in artistic fashion was difficult work and one can reasonably ask where are the finger bones, scapula, and toes since only skulls and femurs seem to have been used. The answer may lie buried in the rest of the vast network of combing tunnels that create a city of the dead beneath the city of love. And since it is Paris, it’s indeed a beautiful city of the dead.
Reaching the Paris Catacombs
The entrance to the Paris Catacombs is located at 1 avenue of Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy near the Montparnesse Cemetary. You can reach there by the Paris Metro station Denfert-Rochereau or by taking bus #s 38 or 68. If you are taking the Paris Open Tour, take the yellow line and depart at the catacombs exit. Entry is 8 Euro per adult.
Getting out of the Catacombs
You do a good long bit of walking down beneath the surface of the city. The catacombs extend hundreds of miles but only a small portion is open to the public. However, you do come out quite a distance from where you go in and it is completely disorienting. After coming out you will see plenty of confused looking people squinting into the sunlight and looking at maps and for non-existant street signs. Here is the simple way back to where you started. Come out of the Catacombs, turn right, walk to the next big street, turn right, walk back to Denfert-Rochereau, it should take you fifteen to twenty minutes. Or, just find the metro and go back underground.