What Lies Beneath the City of Light – The Catacombs of Paris

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Bucket List Worthy  

Stroll through the streets of Paris and you will see outdoor café patios, musty bookshops, quiet green parks and bustling marketplaces brimming with cheese, meat and fresh produce… but have you ever wondered what is hiding underneath the city?

There are approximately 12 million living Parisians on the surface of the French Capital, but below the city another 6 million dead ones are hidden. The Paris Catacombs are not the most well-known attraction in the City of Light, but they are a fascinating glimpse into the history of the city.

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In this Empire of the Dead there are 200 miles of caves, quarries and tunnels which are filled with bones and skulls – stacked meticulously on top of each other. Most of the catacombs are closed to tourists, but there are sections that you can explore – if you dare!

Why Are They There?

Why does this city have such an extensive underground collection of bones? The tunnels themselves are actually a by-product of the early development of Paris, created when the limestone was extracted to build the city. In fact, so much limestone was taken that these quarries actually weakened the city and a number of streets collapsed. Repairs were made, making the underground areas more stable.

In the 18th century, these tunnels became the solution to the lack of space in Paris cemeteries. There were so many people being buried in the cemeteries of Paris that the dead bodies began to break through the walls of cellars. The cemeteries started to have a strong smell of decomposing flesh and even the local perfume stores complained that their business was struggling because of the odour.

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The abundance of corpses was causing serious health concerns, so the underground quarries were used to hold the human remains. Since the 1780s, more than 6 million people have been placed in the catacombs. It took over 12 years to move all of the bones into the catacombs and some of the oldest skeletons date back to the Merovingian Era, over 1200 years ago.

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The overcrowding problem was solved. However, the reason why there are very few tall buildings in this area of Paris is that the large foundations could not be built without disturbing the dead. The catacombs have been used in a lot of other interesting ways over the years as well. During World War II they were used by members of the French Resistance. Also, German soldiers established an underground bunker in the catacombs under the 6th arrondissement.

As you walk through the door into the catacombs you will see a French inscription that translates as “Stop, this is the Empire of Death!” When you venture through the catacombs, you will see countless bones stacked with precision. A wall of criss-crossed femurs, a neat row of bare skulls – they are almost artistic in their arrangement. Some arrangements of bones are marked with the cause of their death, such as plagues and epidemics, but many are anonymous with no year or cause of death.

The Catacombs as a Tourist Attraction

These creepy tunnels filled with bones were a macabre curiosity for upper class Parisians and the first public visits began in 1815. However, they were closed in 1833 because the church was opposed to the idea of sacred human bones being in display.

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They did not open again until 1850, for four visits per year. The public demand for visiting the catacombs increased over the following years, with the frequency increasing to monthly, bi-weekly and weekly.

These days the catacombs are open from 10am until 5pm, except on Mondays and public holidays. The last admission is at 4pm. Only 200 visitors are allowed at one time.

What You Should Know When Visiting the Catacombs

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If you planning on visiting the catacombs during your travels in Paris, here are some tips you should know:

  • The entrance to the catacombs is located in the 14th arrondissement of Paris on Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy.
  • It will take you around 45 minutes to walk through the tourist section of the catacombs. You can purchase an audio guide for 3 euros.
  • Make sure that you wear sturdy footwear. You will need to descend 130 steep steps and the floors of the tunnels are uneven.
  • The catacombs are probably not suitable for young children, as they are dark tunnels underground filled with skeletons. However, you know your own child and what they are comfortable with, so the decision is up to you. Children under the age of 14 must be accompanied by an adult.
  • Take a sweater with you! Even if it is a hot and sunny day in Paris, the temperature underground is 14 degrees Celsius.

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About the Author: Kelly Dunning

A Canadian freelance writer with a love of art, culture, literature and adventure, Kelly loves exploring foreign lands and expressing her experiences through the power of the written word. She and her English boyfriend Lee run Global-Goose.com, packed full with guides, stories and inspiration for those who dream of travel. They have been location independent and travelling the world digital-nomad style since 2011, with no address, no car and no fixed schedule.

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