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Paris Catacombs – City of the Dead

by Les Hewitt

Tourists that flock to Paris usually do so to take in some of the iconic sights that the French capital has to offer. Who wouldn’t be taken in by the stunning vista from the top of the Eiffel Tower? Or blow their entire holiday budget somewhere along the Champs-Elysées? And what trip to Paris would be complete without popping in to see the most famed work of art in the world, the Mona Lisa? Any travel agent would recommend tourist destinations like these and more. Paris has another tourist attraction that not every travel agent would cater for. Despite being among the more popular destination spots for sightseers, the Paris Catacombs will not appeal to just anyone.

paris catacombs

The entrance to the catacombs.

Underneath the bustling city lights and the luster of the attractions such as Notre Dame is a wholly different side to the city of love. A rabbit warren of tunnels and crypts lurk just beneath the streets. This maze was initially constructed in the mid 18th Century from existing limestone caves that were known even back in Roman times. Originally located on the outskirts of the fledgling city, buildings were constructed from the materials from within the caves. As times passed and available materials had been exhausted, the decision was made to convert these caves into a makeshift cemetery. Generations of Parisians meant that Paris had grown in size and had consumed the grounds above the original site of the caves.

As the 19th Century approached, the existing cemeteries were becoming vastly overpopulated and improper burials, open graves and unearthed corpses were becoming a problem. An edict from Louis XV in 1763 that banned burials from Paris didn’t help matters either. The Church did not wish to disturb the graves of those that had already passed and refused to cooperate. This stalemate lasted for another 18 years until excessive rain one spring forced a compromise. A wall that bordered Paris’s largest cemetery, Les Innnocents, collapsed and exposed rotting corpses onto neighboring properties. When the quarries were blessed and consecrated, movement of the dead began and took two years for the residents of Les Innocents to be transferred alone. For the following few decades, other cemeteries were moved to the new burial site. After the French Revolution, all burials were held directly at the Catacombs.

paris catacombs

The Catacombs of Paris. Image taken in October 2007 by Djtox

In 1867, the Catacombs were officially opened to the public, but visitors had been gaining access for 50 years beforehand. The sprawling tunnels are extensive, continuing on for almost 200 miles. Getting lost within the confines of this system is quite an easy thing to achieve. There are multiple stories of people entering the tunnels and never coming out. One amateur video of a solo man’s venture into the Catacombs has found its way onto YouTube and become indicative of what many believe has happened to most of these missing adventurers. To date there are 6-7 million deceased contained within the subterranean chambers.

In 2007, a major renovation of the entire area began and took about a year to complete. The Catacombs then reopened to the public with some established written and unwritten rules.

  • Trips usually last 45 minutes but can be as long as 90 minutes
  • The Catacombs can be deceptively cold so a coat or jacket is advisable – even during the summer
  • Tours cover a distance of about 2km and can include stairs
  • Children under the age of 14 must be accompanied by an adult
  • There are no facilities in the Catacombs
  • There are no storage lockers available to deposit personal items or valuables
  • Only limited visitors are permitted at any given time and this number can vary.
  • Group visits of between 10-20 people are permitted only from Tuesday-Friday mornings and must be pre-arranged with the Musee Carnavalet (call 01 44 59 58 31 for information)
  • Much of the Catacombs is off limits to the general public

French legislation from 1955 makes it illegal to enter the Catacombs at any point other than the official entrance. Urban explorers known as Cataphiles still manage to enter the tunnels and explore illegally. The heyday for these activities were in the 1980s and 1990s, but they still occur today with an estimated 300 Cataphiles gaining entry on a weekly basis. Many of these daredevils never get caught and are unknown to the authorities. However, rather than just enter and occupy the tunnels, they have managed to set up creature comforts in secret locations deep within the system. One discovery made was a working cinema complete with a fully-stocked bar and a restaurant.

paris catacombs

A wall of human skeletons.

Paris has a well deserved appeal for lovers of all ages and is rightly considered a classic honeymoon venue. The city has another level of interest that offers an irresistible appeal for tourism on a much more macabre level where death itself has become a work of art.


Ancient Origins

Sites pulled 3 June 2016

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