Below the pleasant district of Denfert-Rochereau (14th arrondissement) with peaceful residential streets and lively Haussmann-style avenues lie the disused quarries that became the Catacombs of Paris. I’d heard about them for a long time but had never dared visit them. Just before Halloween, I summoned all my courage and descended the stairs to the Empire of Death.
The underground ossuary is said to hold the remains of around six million Parisians. (There are currently 10 million people living in the Paris region!)
It’s possible to visit the long gloomy tunnels lined with ancient skulls and bones on a Paris Catacombs Tour. This promises to be an eerie experience!
The Catacombs of Paris: a bit of History
People have used the quarries since the Gallo-Roman era. They were made up of a long series of tunnels excavated at the base of the three hills of the Left Bank: Montparnasse, Montrouge and Montsouris.
By the end of the 18th century, the overflowing cemeteries of Paris which were located in the city-centre posed serious hygiene and aesthetic problems. In 1785 the authorities decided to transform the abandoned quarries into underground ossuaries. It would then offer a more hygienic alternative to Paris’ cemeteries.
Between 1785 and 1810, several million skeletons were removed from the unsanitary cemeteries of Paris to the disused quarries. Many of the corpses came from the cemetery of Les Innocents. Next to Paris’ greatest marketplace of Les Halles, Les Innocents was Paris’ largest cemetery.
The monumental project required the transportation at night of the bones and rotting corpses across the city in huge carts. Therefore it took two years to transfer them all from the cemetery of Les Innocents.
It is believed that the Catacombs now hold the remains of around six million Parisians.
Just before the French Revolution, the Count of Artois (later king Charles X) threw wild parties in the Catacombs.
Finally during World War II the Resistance used the tunnels and set up its headquarters there.
A Visit to the Catacombs
Where exactly is the entrance to the Catacombs? Look for a small, dark-green Belle-Époque-style pavilion in Place Denfert-Rochereau, formerly known as Place d’Enfer (Hell Square).
The first part of the visit involves going down a narrow spiral stone stairwell of 130 steps. Once at 20m below street level, visitors follow 1.5km of gloomy, dark and narrow passageways of mortared stone before getting to the actual ossuary.
A few interesting sites punctuate the walk such as a model of France’s Port-Mahon fortress. It is the creation of a former Quarry Inspector at a time before the place became an ossuary (1777-1782).
There is also a spring named ‘Bain de pieds des carriers’.
Then the passageway goes up a little bit at a monumental site called ‘Les doubles Carrières’ which precedes the ossuary.
The entrance to the ossuary
The surreal and chilling experience starts at the ossuary entry with two black pillars with white geometrical motifs.
The lintel of the stone portal bears an alexandrine inscription by poet Jacques Delille:
“Arrête ! C’est ici l’empire de la Mort !” (Stop! This is the Empire of Death!).
At the entrance hall, a monument commemorates the opening of the ossuary:
Beyond the gate lies the fascinating ossuary of the Catacombs of Paris. Over a length of 800m and a surface area of 11,000 sq. m the halls and caverns hold bones and skulls of millions of Parisians. They are neatly and carefully stacked along the walls.
Hollow-eyed skulls embedded in surrounding tibias and plaques carrying macabre quotations make the ossuary one of the most surprising sites of Paris.
Some famous French people are resting in the Catacombs
As the bones came from several graveyards in Paris, it leaves no doubt that there would be the remains of many famous French people including:
- writers François Rabelais (circa 1483/1494-1553), Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1698) and Charles Perrault (1628-1703),
- sculptor François Girardon (1628-1715),
- painter Simon Vouet (1590-1649),
- architects Salomon de Brosse (1571-1626) and Claude Perrault (1613-1688) and Jules Hardouin-Mansart (1646-1708),
- composer Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687),
- statesmen Nicolas Fouquet (1615-1680), Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683),
- and the Man in the Iron Mask (d. 1703).
Also, those who died during the French Revolution were buried in the Catacombs. This includes:
- members of the Swiss Guard killed in the storming of the Tuileries Palace (10th August 1792) and
- victims of the September 1792 massacres.
The remains of those guillotined were transferred here from their original burial pits including Lavoisier (1743-1794), Madame Elisabeth (1764-1794), Danton (1759-1794) and Robespierre (1758-1794).
Moreover an extensive series of maxims, poems and other sacred and profane messages in French and Latin force the visitors to reflect on death.
The last stage of the visit is the ascent of 83 steps up to the exit situated on rue Rémy Dumoncel (700m to the southwest of Place Denfert-Rochereau). When I visited they also checked we hadn’t stolen any bones! On surfacing it was nice to be in daylight again!
Prepare your visit to this [very] popular site!
The underground visit of the Catacombs of Paris takes approximately 45 minutes and can become claustrophobic at times. The Catacombs of Paris is experiencing a fast-growing influx of visitors (352,616 in 2014). In order to enjoy short queue times, I recommend to arrive early or later in the day and to avoid weekends and school holidays. Only 200 people can visit the Catacombes at one time. The constant temperature in the Catacombs is approximately 14 degrees C.
However the public visit of the Catacombs only shows a small part of the disused quarries (0.05% of the total surface). Rusty gates blocking the way to many more tunnels and caverns.
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To head down into the Catacombs of Paris and for more practical information, visit the official website.