The Paris Catacombs

  
  - darkometer rating:  6 -
 
Paris catacombs 13 - and skullsA major dark tourism site in Paris: former underground quarry tunnels filled with the bones of millions of dead reburied here when Paris's regular inner-city cemeteries were closed down at the end of the 18th century. Deliberately designed to cater for visitors with a taste for the macabre, this has been one of the world's most established great classics of dark tourism for over two centuries. 
More background info: A peculiarity of Paris (amongst countless others) is that much of it was built from stones quarried right underneath the city – some quarries even date back to Roman times. So the underground of Paris has more holes than a Swiss cheese – an endless system of labyrinthine tunnels and passageways (some 200 miles long in total).
 
As the city expanded and expanded, so did its cemeteries, which became seriously overcrowded. This turned into a major health hazard, when decomposing bodies in way too shallow graves started oozing scary liquids. On one occasion a cellar wall collapsed under the pressure of the masses of human remains in the neighbouring cemetery. Markets, esp. at what today is Les Halles, were affected by diseases originating from the unhygienic burial practices of the era.
 
So eventually, by a decree of 9 November 1785, these city cemeteries were closed and all remains were to be removed and reburied in sections of the maze of underground quarry tunnels under the city, safely away from the citizens' lives above ground. Over the following decades, the remains of millions of dead were relocated to the old quarries in the south of the city.
  
At first, the remains were simply dumped there, only in 1810 it was decided to stack them in an orderly fashion, with femurs and skulls forming patterned wall linings behind which the remaining bones were heaped (out of view). Sometimes the technique was also used to disguise reinforcement structures such as support columns.
 
Such reinforcements had become necessary as sometimes the ground would give way as underground caverns caved in, creating sinkholes in the streets and making buildings collapse. In the wake of this, all mining under Paris was outlawed from 1813.
 
Amongst the millions of dead whose bones are stacked in the catacombs are a few famous names too – allegedly including revolutionaries Robespierre and Danton, though no one could tell these days exactly which bones might be theirs …  
 
Not long after the catacombs were established they became an early dark tourism attraction (not that the term for the concept had already been in use, of course) – it was an era in which the macabre was en vogue (also expressed in the new genre of the Gothic Novel).
 
Early visitors included many an illustrious name (e.g. Napoleon III, or Franz 1 of Austria). The catacombs have also featured in works of literature (e.g. Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables", Anne Rice's "Interview with a Vampire", etc.) and pop culture. Modern history took place for real down here too, e.g. when the French Resistance used parts of the tunnel systems during the occupation of France by Nazi Germany in WWII.
 
The Paris underground also has a more general history of being accessed illegally. Today, such illegal explorers of the Paris underground are known as "cataphiles", who gain access through unofficial entrance holes, vents or metro tunnels. The semi-illegal underground spaces have been used for all manner of obscure (and not so obscure) activities, from growing mushrooms to illicit raves, from picnics to (literally) underground art. While this may have extra thrill for extreme tourists, it is of course not to be condoned officially …
 
Dark tourists will mostly be attracted by the ossuary part of the catacombs anyway, and these have been an official morbid tourist attraction for two centuries. In fact, a visit to the Paris catacombs has become one of those cases where dark tourism meets mass tourism.
 
Still, it remains one of the most quirky and darkest tourist attractions of today's Paris, especially since the reopening of the catacombs following some restoration work in 2005. Not to be missed!
 
 
What there is to see: Bones and skulls galore, en masse, stacked high and densely in scores of gory and spooky cavern walls. The bony remains of some six million people are said to have been layered here, often arranged in artistically captivating ways. It must be the world's most extensive ossuary.
 
On entrance to the underground, you have to descend some 130 steps leading down 20 m below street level. It's cool down there, so in summer make sure you take an extra layer of clothing. It's obviously not for those who suffer from severe claustrophobia (though space doesn't feel that confined really). The length of the tourist circuit inside the catacombs is about two kilometres. You come out at a different location after climbing up 83 steps. And you might get a little dirty and wet. It's all worth it, though.
 
The entrance to the catacombs on Place Denfert-Rochereau near the RER/Metro station of the same name can usually be identified easily enough – by the queue outside. The place is really popular, and visitors are only allowed in in batches to avoid overcrowding underground. So be prepared for a little wait.
 
Once you've obtained your tickets you descend down a spiral staircase. The first series of rooms serve as an exhibition space. Here you can learn more about the background and the history of the place. Historic images are complemented by informational text panels in French, English and Spanish.
 
Then there's first several long corridors to negotiate, with relatively little to see (and no bones whatsoever … yet). In some stretches the cavern ceilings are quite low in places, so tall visitors should watch their heads. Moreover, in places water drips from the ceiling so you can get dribbled on (protect your camera!), especially in the latter part of the tunnel system.
 
Along the way you pass some passages that still look more or less as they did when quarrying was going on. Note also the wall markings, which provided orientation inside this maze in the early days. Today, you need not worry about getting lost, as there is only one pre-determined concourse – with interconnecting gates locked, and guards positioned in some corners (both to provide a sense of security for the visitors as well as for watching the visitors' appropriate behaviour …).
 
Two points of interest, or at least breaking the comparative boredom of just endless plain passages, are a) a model of the Port-Mahon castle/fortress of Minorca sculpted by a quarrymen who had once been imprisoned there, and b) the well. The latter looks a bit like a wishing well (because people have thrown coins in – as they do) but was actually dug by the quarrymen to get access to clean groundwater used for mixing cement. Despite its profane and practical origin and purpose it does look spookily romantic, though.  
 
Finally, after a seemingly endless walk you get to the entrance to the ossuary. The space in the anteroom is used for temporary exhibitions. At the time of my visit this was about another star ossuary of the world, the Catacombe dei Cappuccini in Palermo, Sicily, Italy.
 
Then you get to the real reason for being here. As you pass under the lintel of the gate to the ossuary note the inscription on it: "arrete, c'est ici l'empire de la mort" ('stop – this is the empire of death'). More such "cheerful" inscriptions alluding to humans' mortality can be found all over the ossuary on stones set in between the stacks of bones.
 
And there's loads of these. For a good half mile, you'll pass millions of bones stacked from floor to (nearly the top of the) ceiling. Often it's simply a clean stack of femurs neatly fitting together to form a wall, often rows of skulls form horizontal lines in the middle of the femurs. In some places they are arranged to form patterns – such as (how obvious) crosses.
 
A few of the skulls are surprisingly shiny – and I wonder whether that stems from people touching them (which of course you shouldn't do).
 
You pass a couple of "crypt" places, including an altar-like structure, as well as the "sepulchral lamp", which used to contain a flame to create air flow for ventilation – no longer required, with vents having taken care of the issue – in fact, the air down here is perhaps surprisingly non-stuffy.
There are some memorial tombstones as well as many stones marking the origin of the bones around them – with the Cimetiere des Innocents featuring repeatedly (the original at today's Les Halles, which prompted the decision for the creation of the catacombs – see above).
 
A popular highlight (especially for the photography-inclined visitors) is the so-called "barrel" – a column hidden by a thick layer of stacked bones and skulls that form a shape bulging outwards, just like a huge wine barrel.
 
Eventually, you come out of the ossuary part, past a heavily-graffiti-ed green wall. Then it's more long, plain corridors. Some open up above to reveal tall hollow spaces, some colourfully illuminated, which apparently are part of an "educational corridor" demonstrating the nature of subsidence cavities.
 
Another spiral staircase finally leads back up to street level. The passageways along the way are somewhat ascending, so on the way out it's "only" 83 steps.
 
As you re-emerge into the light of day, you can't fail to spot the souvenir shop straight across the road. Here it becomes quite apparent again that the Paris catacombs have acquired the status of a mass tourism attraction. The merchandise is accordingly tacky. You can buy anything from postcards with macabre messages to wax skulls, mugs, badges, bone-shaped rubber erasers, T-shirts and even bottles of absinthe in skull-adorned bottles (probably because absinthe still has this aura of potential lethalness – even though the French stuff is rather harmless, just slightly stronger pastis, quite unlike the much more serious "real thing" made in, say, the Czech Republic).
 
The exit from the catacombs, by the way, is in a different location to the entrance. To get back there, turn right (or left when exiting the souvenir shop opposite) and walk to the end of Rue Remy Dumoncel, turn right into Avenue du General Leclerc and this will take you back to Place Denfert-Rochereau.
 
On the whole, a visit to the catacombs is one of the must-dos for a dark tourist in Paris. Despite its current mass appeal it still delivers. It's grim and on a scale unmatched by other ossuaries open to the public. It's a true classic. Really worth it.
 
 
Location: just south-east of Montparnasse cemetery, at Place Denfert-Rochereau, about two miles (3 km) south of the Louvre and the Seine.
 
Google maps locator: [48.834091,2.332387]
 
 
Access and costs: easy to get to, but lots of steep steps have to be negotiated; not cheap, but not too expensive either.
  
Details: the entrance to the catacombs can easily be reached by metro (M4, M6) or RER B train to Denfert-Rochereau. Access can often be delayed if it gets too crowded (there's a cap of a maximum of 200 visitors underground at any one time).
 
Opening hours: Tuesdays to Sundays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., last admission at 4 p.m.
 
Admission: 8 EUR (some concessions apply), guided tours cost an extra 4.50 EUR per head.
Photography is allowed, but no flash or tripods.
 
At the entrance there's a sign warning people with cardiac or respiratory health issues as well as those of a "nervous disposition" (or small children) against visiting the catacombs. The former is probably more of an issue because of the many steps one needs to negotiate in the spiral staircases at the entrance and exit, which are also the most claustrophobic parts of the catacombs system. Some passages at the bottom are narrower and lower than others, but overall it's not as cramped and oppressive as one may expect. It's still quite spooky in the ossuary part, of course, but I somehow doubt that people of such a nervous disposition as to be seriously affected by this would even attempt going there. In reality, there's more risk of visitors behaving rather too cheerfully and cheekily, to the point of disrespect even, than of an atmosphere of true horror.
   
Finally: don't be tempted to take any of the bones or skulls with you. There may seem to be so many that no one would notice a missing one … but it's naturally illegal, and bone-thieves will be prosecuted if caught (there may be bag checks at the exit).
 
 
Time required: between 45 minutes and an hour and a half, depending on how long you linger at certain points of interest (and/or how long you take photographing, under the rather difficult dark conditions).
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: in general see Paris – just round the corner is the only other part of the Paris catacomb system that can be accessed legally, namely the Carriere des Capucins at the Hopital Cochin at 27 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Jacques. This is a private museum (of sorts), but here the attraction is not skulls and bones (it's not an ossuary), but rather a piece of underground history: stone markers carry names of streets the underground passages once followed, but which no longer exist today, following Haussman's great re-buildiung of Paris. Access to the Carriere des Capucins is by guided tour (in French) and by appointment only (contact: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )
 
Quite close by too is another necropolis, freely accessible and above ground – Montparnasse cemetery, one of Paris's greatest (though not quite as glorious as Pere Lachaise), just a few minutes' walk away towards the west up Rue Froidevaux.
  
From Denfert Rochereau there's also easy access by metro to other parts of Paris, including the east (with the Immigration Museum and the Fragonard Museum), the Army Museum at Invalides or the very centre of the city (with the Deportation monument on the Ile de la Cite, or the Shoah Museum just beyond in the 4th arrondissement).
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: in general see Paris – the catacombs are in the interesting district of Montparnasse, which is worth a stroll; the popular park Jardin de Luxembourg is also nearby. The rest of Paris is easily reached by metro, including the city's prime tourist sight, the Eiffel Tower (9 stops away on the line 6 metro from Denfert-Rochereau). 
 
 
 
  • Paris catacombs 01 - on Place Denfert RochereauParis catacombs 01 - on Place Denfert Rochereau
  • Paris catacombs 02 - entranceParis catacombs 02 - entrance
  • Paris catacombs 03 - planParis catacombs 03 - plan
  • Paris catacombs 04 - model of old quarriesParis catacombs 04 - model of old quarries
  • Paris catacombs 05 - model of contemporary undergroundParis catacombs 05 - model of contemporary underground
  • Paris catacombs 06 - going downParis catacombs 06 - going down
  • Paris catacombs 07 - historic imageParis catacombs 07 - historic image
  • Paris catacombs 08 - the wellParis catacombs 08 - the well
  • Paris catacombs 09 - castle sculptureParis catacombs 09 - castle sculpture
  • Paris catacombs 10 - passageParis catacombs 10 - passage
  • Paris catacombs 11 - entrance to the ossuaryParis catacombs 11 - entrance to the ossuary
  • Paris catacombs 12 - bones galoreParis catacombs 12 - bones galore
  • Paris catacombs 13 - and skullsParis catacombs 13 - and skulls
  • Paris catacombs 14 - artfully arrangedParis catacombs 14 - artfully arranged
  • Paris catacombs 15 - some skulls are shinyParis catacombs 15 - some skulls are shiny
  • Paris catacombs 16 - grimParis catacombs 16 - grim
  • Paris catacombs 17 - neatly stackedParis catacombs 17 - neatly stacked
  • Paris catacombs 18 - some gates are lockedParis catacombs 18 - some gates are locked
  • Paris catacombs 19 - underground chapelParis catacombs 19 - underground chapel
  • Paris catacombs 20 - underground altarParis catacombs 20 - underground altar
  • Paris catacombs 21 - yet more bonesParis catacombs 21 - yet more bones
  • Paris catacombs 22 - macabre aestheticsParis catacombs 22 - macabre aesthetics
  • Paris catacombs 23 - skull holesParis catacombs 23 - skull holes
  • Paris catacombs 24 - origin of batch markedParis catacombs 24 - origin of batch marked
  • Paris catacombs 25 - bones barrelParis catacombs 25 - bones barrel
  • Paris catacombs 26 - wall with graffitiParis catacombs 26 - wall with graffiti
  • Paris catacombs 27 - some passages are wetParis catacombs 27 - some passages are wet
  • Paris catacombs 28 - back upParis catacombs 28 - back up
  • Paris catacombs 29 - dark souvenirsParis catacombs 29 - dark souvenirs
  

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