The Dark Side of Paris: Les Catacombes

Now that I've been back in Paris for over a solid month, it seems like chez moi is now open for the spring visitor season. I love spending time with my dear friends and family in Paris, and enjoy seeing how each visit is as different as the individual.

Enter in my good friend Bryan (the type of friend where "good" has been earned over the test of time, all the way back from those awkward middle school days), my first guest to have the Catacombs on the top of his list of things to see in Paris. It took two years of living here and many visitors in, but it was bound to come up at some point.

Off Michael, Bryan, and I went after a leisurely brunch at home. I optimistically banked on the wait in line to be shorter than the standard two hours, considering it was March and not prime tourist season. Needless to say, I had a lot of time to admire Le Lion de Belfort at Place Denfert-Rochereau and enjoy the warmth of the sun before making the descent underground. We arrived around 12:30pm and sure enough, entered to buy our tickets at 2:15pm. 

Popular advice calls to arrive half an hour before opening time to avoid some of the wait. Otherwise two hours in line seems standard. Only 200 people can be inside at a given time. The hope is that no "body" gets left behind so that line can continue inching up little by little.

130 steps down, we descended deep underneath Paris. Below the subway tunnels, five stories beneath street level we allowed our eyes to adjust to the eerie surrounding of the quarry. That's where the story starts, when limestone was being mined to make some of the more "cheerful" sights visitors frequent, like the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Louvre.

I was surprised when we arrived at the Port-Mahon corridor to find these sculptures engraved in the walls. One of the quarrymen, Décure, created this in his free time. He had been previously imprisoned in Minorca and sculpted from memory the palaces where he was held captive. (You can get an overview of the history of the Catacombs from the museum's brochure.)

It felt like we walked through quite a lot of tunnels until we reached the anticipated highlight of the visit: entering into the somber corridors of death and decay.

"Stop! Here is the Empire of Death."

The cemeteries within Paris were filling up and quite unsanitary. One day a retaining wall gave way of the largest cemetery in the center of Paris, Cimetière des Saints-Innocents (where the Fountain of Innocents now stands in Les Halles). The Parisians living next door got a surprise in their cellar from the overflow of decaying bodies, which gave reason in the interest of public health to shut down the cemeteries in central Paris and move remains father afield. An old quarry was selected and the Catacombs erected. 

Plaques are displayed periodically to show which cemetery the remains came from and the date of transfer, ranging from the late 1700's to the last transfer in 1859. 

In the Middle Ages, people were thankful when someone died so they could go to be with God. The mindset shifted in time, and people began to focus more on grief and the feelings associated with being left behind. The Catacombs were created at a time of such romanticism, and it shows in its design. As I walked around, I couldn't help think about who got the grim job of arranging all these skulls and femurs so carefully and artistically. This is the final resting place of about 6-7 million Parisians! 

There is a reason it took two vacations to Paris followed by two years of living here for me to make the journey to visit this attraction. I was not exactly overly enthused to go, but I have to admit, it was a really interesting visit and unique sight in Paris. The key is not to wait in line all that time and then decide to skimp on the €3 audioguide. Without the audioguide's stories and context, walking through piles and piles of bones would become repetitive. 

If you want a slightly offbeat experience to offset all the art museums, take a trip to the underbelly of the city! Its romanticism is not traditional, "classic" Paris but another piece of the long history of this incredible place.


Catacombes de Paris

1, avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy (place Denfert-Rochereau), 75014 Paris

Open Tuesday-Sunday (closed Monday) from 10:00am - 5:00pm; last admission at 4:00pm

Regular admission for adults: €8, Individuals between the ages of 14-26 with ID: €4, Free for those under the age of 13 (prices as of March 2014)

Not covered on the Paris Museum Pass

Audioguides available in French, English and Spanish: €3 per guide (definitely get the audioguide!)

Prepare for your visit - A flashlight was helpful to bring along to illuminate some specific areas I was interested in, and to give additional light at times for photography (no flash allowed). Also, the website says it is 14 degrees Celsius down below (57 Fahrenheit) so dress accordingly.

And back in the land of the living... Take a break on nearby rue Daguerre, a bustling market street in the residential neighborhood. Full of delicious food and drinks for a post-Catacombs snack.