The recommendations of a local can take you to some rather strange places. In this case, whilst in Paris in the spring of 2009 very, very strange indeed.
I was advised from one of my French friends that this was indeed a tourist spot, but since it’s further down the list than the Louvre, Notre-Dame, Tour Eiffel, Arc de Triomphe etc many short stay tourists never make it here due to time constraints.
The reason I’m in Paris is to meet up with an American foodie friend and her husband, as they spend three days in Paris with their tour group and after our lunch it was rather a laugh to surprise them with the news of our next destination: “Catacombes de Paris” (The Paris Catacombs).
We learn from the guide that much of the stone that built the beautiful Paris buildings was quarried from deep under the city streets and that many centuries past cemeteries were located in the central city and not out around the city limits, which became problematic once the city grew and the graveyards became full.
Solutions were tried, such as stacking graves and then once that had reached it’s limit old bones were exhumed and stacked into the cemetery side walls: some of which then collapsed under the sheer weight and so it was clear that a better solution must be found.
The Catacombs website (link below) tells me: “Disused quarries were chosen to receive the remains; the City of Paris had in fact just completed a general inspection of the quarries, in order to strengthen the public highways undermined by them.
The transfer of the remains could begin after the blessing and consecration of the site on April 7th 1786, and it continued until 1788, always at nightfall and following a ceremony whereby a procession of priests in surplices sang the service for the dead along the route taken by the carts loaded with bones, which were covered by a black veil. Then, until 1814, the site received the remains from all the cemeteries of Paris.Since their creation, the Catacombs have aroused curiosity. In 1787, the Count d’Artois, the future Charles X, made the descent, along with Ladies of the Court. In 1814, Francis I, the Emperor of Austria living victoriously in Paris, visited them. In 1860, Napoleon III went down with his son.
The Paris Catacombs re-opened on June 14th 2005, after several months of closure for building work. The lighting has been adjusted, the vaults strengthened and the walls of bones put back.
The official name for the catacombs is l’Ossuaire Municipal. (The Municipal Ossuary) Located south of the former city gate (the “Barrière d’Enfer” at today’s Place Denfert-Rochereau), the ossuaries holds the remains of about six million people.”
We take the stairs into the gloomy darkness below… my point and shoot camera severly struggled in the low light so this is one place you really have to see in person: nothing can prepare you for the amazement of this place…
Do check the website if you plan to visit, since the entrance is rather unassuming and directly off the street there are for instance no public convinces on site, the temperature below ground is 14°C, with 130 steps down and 83 steps back to street level there is no accessibility for people with reduced mobility, the tour is unsuitable for young children or for people with heart or respiratory problems, and children under the age of 14 must be accompanied by an adult.
That said I would take my children once they are old enough, this is an amazing experience, it’s history at it’s most stark and real, these bones are from real people, there’s a certain profound reverence and respect that falls on the visitor as they journey through the tunnels. It’s a place that no amount of photographs can do justice, you have to get the feel of the place by going there. One thing is for certain, it’s an experience you will always remember: …make no bones about that.
The walls by the visitors are actually stacks of bones…
Robespierre (1758-1794) is famous enough to get a special side chamber to himself…
1, avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy – 75014 Paris
Open daily from 10am to 5pm, except Mondays and public holidays. Last admission: 4pm.
Tickets go on sale on site only, no online booking available.