Tuesday 1 April 2014

L'empire de la Mort - Exploring the Catacombs of Paris

Sitting here in St. John’s, Newfoundland, in the dreary depths of another snow storm, it seems hard to believe that only a few short days ago, I was walking around the neighbourhood of Monmartre, Paris, in 20°C weather. Such is the nature of international travel, but the difference makes it hard to readjust to life when you return.

One of the highlights of my trip was a visit to a famous underground site, the Catacombs of Paris, on the city’s Left Bank. The catacombs started their life as quarries, where much of the limestone for building the city was excavated. From the thirteenth century onwards, underground quarries were required to supply the huge quantities of stone required to build Notre-Dame Cathedral, the Louvre and city walls. Over time, the city spread, and by the 18th century many of the city’s arrondissements were overtop previously mined territories, some of which had started to collapse, and in in April 1777, King Louis XVI established the “Quarries Inspectorate” to protect Parisian quarries.

Around the same time, many of the city’s graveyards had become full, with no available space to house the newly dead, and it was suggested that the abandoned quarries would be an ideal resting spot. In April 1786 the former Tombe-Issoire quarries were blessed and consecrated, and the work of transferring bodies to the catacombs began. Black cloth-covered wagons rattled through the streets, carrying the millions of dead from the cimetière des Innocents graveyard, the largest in Paris, to their new home, a process which took two years to complete. Following that, other graveyards were emptied out and added to the catacombs, until somewhere between six and seven million of the Parisian dead had been resettled.

Today, the catacombs and their millions of sleeping inhabitants are open to curious visitors. There are 130 steps winding steps you must descend, taking you well below the level of the Paris Metro line, to the cool 14°C interior. You start the tour in one of the old quarries, following a low narrow tunnel through the limestone foundation of the city of Paris till you reach the consecrated space of the ossuary.

A stone doorway greets you, the entry to the ossuary itself, with the inscription Arrête! C'est ici l'empire de la Mort - Stop! Here lies the Empire of Death. Passing through, one wanders through chambers lined with millions of bones, stacked neatly, and arranged at times in artistic patterns. It is an eerie place, and it can be overwhelming to be surrounded by so many of the dead. Narrow passageways lead through the bones, with dim lighting adding to the sepulchral atmosphere. No noise from the realm of the living pierces the gloom, only the faint dripping of water, and the echoes of your own footsteps on the limestone paths.


If you love history and have a taste for the ghoulish, the Catacombs of Paris are definitely worth the visit.

Notes for travellers visiting the Catacombs:

The entrance is from a tiny green building opposite the Denfert-Rochereau Metro station. 
Visitor numbers are restricted to 200 at any time, and admission may be delayed for a short time during busy periods. On the day we explored the catacombs, they opened at 10am. We had read that it was best to line up early. We arrived shortly after 9am, and there were already 30 or so people ahead of us. Within half an hour, the line behind us stretch around the corner of the block. I would highly recommend getting there early in the morning, rather than waiting and hoping to get in later in the day. We were in the first group to descend, and once down, were at times alone in the passageways, which was a definite bonus. We opted against the portable audio guide (you can download a pdf from the website) and there are English tours only on specific days, but you can easily take the basic tour on your own. Signs include English text throughout.

If you are paying by cash, have exact change ready, or be prepared to pay by credit card. The walk is not for those who are claustrophobic. Once you are down the stairs, there is nowhere to go but forward, about a 2km walk through the old quarries and the ossuary itself. It takes about 45 minutes to an hour to make the trek, and then there are 83 steps up a final winding staircase to the surface. Wear sensible shoes and be prepared for the temperature. There are no toilet facilities, and no flash photography is permitted.  There is a great little gift shop with suitably ghoulish merchandise when you exit. 

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