Europe

Exploring the Catacombs of Paris: A Journey into the City’s Macabre History

 

Paris, renowned for its historical monuments, inspiring art, and romantic charm, harbors a darker side beneath its bustling streets: the Catacombs of Paris. This hidden world offers visitors a unique exploration of the city’s buried history, told through thousands of ancient bones. Here’s everything you need to know about visiting this fascinating underground attraction.

What Are the Catacombs of Paris?

The history of the Catacombs dates back to the 18th century when Paris faced major public health issues due to overcrowded cemeteries. The solution was found in the former Tombe-Issoire quarries, a network of tunnels built during Roman times. Starting in 1785, bones from overflowing graveyards were moved into these tunnels, and by April 7, 1786, the site was consecrated as the “Paris Municipal Ossuary.” The term “Catacombs” draws from ancient Roman underground burial sites.

Visiting the Paris Catacombs

Location and Access

The entrance to the Catacombs is located at 1, Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy (Place Denfert-Rochereau), near Montparnasse. Visitors can reach it via the Denfert-Rochereau Metro station, with a short walk to the entrance. The one-mile underground circuit is one way, exiting about a 10-minute walk from the entrance.

Opening Hours and Tickets

The Catacombs are open Tuesday to Sunday from 9:45 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. (last ticket sale at 7:30 p.m.). Given the visitor limit of 200 at a time, lines can be long. To avoid waiting, buy a timed entry ticket in advance online, or arrive right at opening or after 6 p.m.

Tours and Guides

Audio guides are available for rent for a self-guided tour. For a more detailed experience, join a private skip-the-line tour with a knowledgeable guide, which also grants access to restricted areas.

Fascinating Facts About the Catacombs

The Relocation of Six Million Bodies

Over 12 years, the remains of six million bodies were moved to the Catacombs, starting with the Cimetiere des Innocents. This process involved a labor-intensive, nighttime operation to avoid alarming locals.

Limited Public Access

While the Catacombs stretch over 150 miles beneath Paris, only about one mile is open to the public. This section was first made accessible in 1809 by appointment and continues to draw great interest.

The Depth of the Catacombs

Visitors descend 131 steps to enter the Catacombs, which lie roughly the height of a five-story building underground, and ascend 112 steps to exit. A chilling sign at the entrance reads, “Arrête, c’est ici l’empire de la mort!” (“Stop! This is the empire of death!”).

Artful Arrangement of Bones

Initially a chaotic storage space, the bones were organized into the current galleries in the early 19th century by Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury. He also added decorative elements and educational displays to enhance the experience.

Underground Artworks and Sculptures

The Catacombs house fascinating artworks, including intricate sculptures by quarry worker Francois Décure and other artists who practiced their craft on the limestone walls.

Mushroom Cultivation

In the 19th century, the tunnels were used to grow Paris button mushrooms. The dark, damp environment, coupled with horse manure, created ideal growing conditions, and these mushrooms were believed to have a unique flavor due to the limestone minerals.

Secret Meetings and Parties

Throughout history, the Catacombs have been used for clandestine activities, including French Resistance meetings during WWII and rumored secret parties by King Charles X.

The Cataphiles

A group of urban explorers known as “cataphiles” navigate the off-limits sections of the Catacombs, mapping and preserving the tunnels despite the legal restrictions.

Tips for Visiting the Paris Catacombs

  • Bag Restrictions: Bring a small bag; large bags aren’t allowed, and there are no lockers.
  • Footwear: Wear comfortable shoes suitable for uneven and slippery surfaces.
  • Clothing: The temperature underground is about 57°F, so bring a light jacket.
  • Health Considerations: The site is not recommended for those with claustrophobia, respiratory or cardiac conditions, or accessibility needs. Children under 14 must be accompanied by an adult.
  • Photography: Flash photography is allowed, but tripods are not. Be respectful of other visitors.
  • Respect the Site: Do not touch the bones or surroundings. Bag checks ensure nothing is taken out of the Catacombs.

The Catacombs of Paris offer a unique and macabre glimpse into the city’s history, providing an unforgettable experience for those who venture into its depths.

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