During our recent visit to Paris Ms B & I did what we had been planning to do for a long time: visit the famous Paris Catacombs. They are located close to the metro station Denfert-Rochereau, not too far from the city centre.
Skip the queue, kind of
We had purchased our skip-the-queue self-guided audio tour tickets in advance. The Paris Museums Tickets webpage to which the official Paris Catacombs website links to, charges €29 per person. With a bit of luck you might find one of the daily changing discounts somewhere else if you google around a bit.
€29 is no small amount of money, but you will be grateful to have spent it, when you see the massive queues which meander around the entrance building for two hundred metres and more. While I’m writing this post, I can see on the Catacombs’ website that the queues are currently more than three hours with no guarantee of entry (it’s early afternoon at time of writing). When we visited, we still had to queue in what presumably must have been the “non-queue” for about twenty minutes in the pouring rain, but when we saw the poor people in the proper queue, who had been soaked for more than two hours, it felt half as bad.
No lockers, no toilet, no roof, and beware, there’s no central heating
The museum only permits a maximum of 200 people at a time inside the vast underground area and many of the visitors take two or three times the minimum amount of time (45 minutes) it takes to rush along the 1.5km long path. There is no indoor waiting space on street-level, just the electronic security barriers. It should also be mentioned that there are no restrooms at the entrance (only at the exit, 700m away). Wear something suitable. The temperature is 14 degrees Celsius, independent of the outside weather, so can feel quite chilly, especially during the summer months. No bags exceeding 40x30cm are allowed and there are no lockers or cloakroom. Smaller backpacks must be carried in front of you.
How it all began
So how did Paris end up with this crazy popular tourist sight that attracts over half a million people each year? By the mid-18th Century Paris’ inner-city cemeteries were bursting to the brim, poisoning the ground water and incubating disease. Saints-Innocents, Paris’ largest cemetery, closed since 1780, was the worst of them all. In 1785 the first skeletons were moved from there to the nearby abandoned Tombe-Issoire quarries, which back then were outside the city limits. Initially the bones were moved secretly in the middle of the night in order to avoid a public outcry at the unholy business.
However, instead of being offended, the public started to be fascinated by the so-called “Paris Municipal Ossuary”, so much so that they renamed it “the Catacombs” in allusion to the ancient Roman catacombs which were in the process of being gradually re-discovered at the time. In 1786 the site was consecrated and the city started to arrange existing and incoming bones more elegantly. Previously they had simply been dumped into the empty underground space in no particular order. The evacuations now involved solemn public processions and chanting. Since 1809 the location is open to the public (initially only by appointment, more regularly only a few decades later). The relocations themselves continued until 1860 with several lengthy interruptions.
Six million skeletons, 300km of tunnels
The overall length of all the interconnected underground tunnels of the Paris Quarries is more than 300km. Only two kilometres are being used to store the remains of the six million deceased which ended up there over the following decades. The sheer size of the ossuary and the number of bones is mind-blowing. You walk for an hour or more past piles of bones stacked to the ceiling, and you still would have only seen a tiny fraction of the actual number of bones.
What it feels like to wander through the tunnels
Many of the neatly arranged piles of bones and skulls now feel more like morbid artwork than human remains. I found many of the displays visually pleasing and rather aesthetic. On the walls you can find visitors’ graffiti that is 200 years old. Some inscriptions even date back more than 600 years to the time of the earliest miners.
The audio tour is super-interesting, all paths are well-lit, there are useful displays and signs providing additional information. The ground is relatively flat and even. Obviously, this is not for you if you’re claustrophobic or otherwise sensitive to enclosed spaces and/or the notion of death etc., but most people will experience these tunnels as reasonably pleasant and certainly hugely fascinating exploration tour.