Paris Catacombs – Paris, France
In 2001, I went from my native Denmark to a romantic weekend in Paris with my then-girlfriend. Once there, I had to see the catacombs—as one does with loved ones.
We were lucky that there was almost no line the day we went, but before we descend into the dark, time for a history lesson.
The catacombs are thousands of years old, but have been expanded as the city of Paris grew. This vast maze of tunnels beneath the city is hundreds of miles in length. Most of the catacombs are sealed off since it’s very easy to get lost, and if you do not find your way to the surface before the lights run out, you’re probably dead.
Around 1780 Paris had a major problem. The city grew, and as the city grew, so did the graveyards. Paris simply ran out of room for the dead, and the many graves undermined several buildings in the city, making it obvious that they had to do something.
So, they moved the bodies.
Working at night they exhumed the skeletons from the many graveyards and brought them underground.
Somewhere along the line, someone looked at all the bones and skulls and decided not to just dump the remains, but make them works of art. Miles and miles of art made from bones.
The first thing to greet you at the stairs going down is a huge sign informing you that bags will be searched when the exit is reached. No-good people are stealing skulls as souvenirs!
Then we descended by a narrow staircase and ended up in another narrow pathway. The ceiling still had black burn marks from the thousands of torches being carried back and forth in the old days.
When we finally reached the entrance, it was a small gate with an inscription in French at the top. If I recall correctly it translates: “Welcome – to the empire of the Dead.”
Inside the gate, a world of morbid wonder and magic opened up.
Whoever got the idea to decorate with bones did not think small. The walls are constructed by untold thousands of thigh bones stacked almost to the ceiling. They leave room to look beyond the walls and realise that the walls are perhaps 6-7 meters deeper. And the space in-between is packed with human bones. The remains of approximately six million people are down there.
It was surreal at first. I had never seen death in such a massive amount before.
The walls were decorated with skulls in varying patterns, and as the catacombs form natural sections, the decorations changed as you walked in solemn silence.
Every so often, the skulls formed a motif. A cross. A heart. A wavelike pattern. Columns appeared and formed small areas that simply reminded me of old time Diablo—unbecoming as that might seem.
It was an interesting mental journey, too.
At first, it seemed almost sacrilege to walk around and admire decorations made of corpses, but as we walked on, I felt a numbness growing. I realised that while these dead people were on display, they were still there. They were still remembered to some extent.
In Denmark, graves are usually recycled after 20 years and any remains destroyed. These people were not destroyed. Their remains still existed several hundreds of years later.
It was a strange, calming experience. We are so used to thinking of death as a negative—something to avoid. Being surrounded by massive death on all sides was a new experience.
Several side tunnels were blocked off to keep people from wandering off and dying among the dead. Every so often, there were signs incorporated into the bone walls with information about which graveyards were relocated to different parts of the catacombs, along with dates from the original graveyard and the date it was relocated.
After a fairly long walk, we ended up by a spiral staircase leading to the world of light far above.
After having our bags searched for stolen body parts we were let out onto the streets and had to take a few moments to digest the experience.
The catacombs beneath Paris are truly a unique experience, and, if you ever find yourself in the City of Love, go visit them. It will be worth it.
The catacombs have a low ceiling. I’m a fairly short guy, and I could reach the ceiling easily at all times. Claustrophobics might not have a good time.
Note that there is no disabled access. No lifts or elevators.
Address: 1, avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy – 75014 Paris
Want to know more? Go read the Wiki—it’s worth it: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catacombs_of_Paris.