The quintessential destination for someone looking to venture into the creepy depths of Paris is the Catacombes de Paris. A municipal ossuary that is probably the eeriest place I’ve ever visited.
It wasn’t built to be a tourist hotspot but it has become one nevertheless. It was built out of necessity, by a city struggling to maintain its graveyards and the health of citizens who lived near them.
For centuries bodies had been interred, one on top of another, in public cemeteries across the city but by the middle of the 18th century, the graveyards were full and stories of rotten corpses pouring through the basement walls of surrounding buildings have passed from one generation to another. The first cemetery to be closed was the Cimetiere des Innocents in 1785 and all those resting within it were transferred to the new, underground ossuary in the 14th arrondissement.
Gradually, over the next 80 years, the remains of around six million Parisians were moved to the catacombs. That’s more than double the population of Paris today.
There was nothing glamorous about it, no sense of ceremony or decorum to the new burials. The old mining tunnels and chambers under the city were filled with bones and bodies and bricked up. No attention was paid to whether an individual had been rich or poor, male or female, old or young. Had they had a magnificent tombstone? Had they had none at all? It didn’t matter. Stripped of its clothes, coffin and living connections, a skeleton is just that. The stories of its previous life are lost forever, perhaps remembered by history but not by bone. And that is what I find eerie about the catabombs. Six million bodies, six million skulls, sixty million fingers and sixty million toes. Six million lives, resting in memory alone under the streets of the city.
In 1810, Héncart de Thury was appointed to make the ossuary fit for visitors. It was his vision that created the public displays you see when you visit today.
For a visit to the Catacombes de Paris won’t show you piles of bones in disarray. Instead it takes you from a traditional Hausmannien boulevard and down a flight of 130 stairs to a structured and stylised display of tibia, fibula and crania.
The bones of the Catacombes have been consolidated into walls and symmetrical displays, a sinister décor that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror film. The public tunnels are divided into sections, one for each of the graveyards that has been relocated. Each graveyard has its own plaque. So, if you know your great great great grandfather was buried in the Cimetiere St André des Arts, you couldn’t visit his grave, but you could visit the underground memorial to the place he was originally buried.
I would definitely recommend this visit. Having explored many underground spaces, galleries and museums I have to say that this is the most unique. It is unsettling, contemplative, grand and glauque all at once.
In 2002, the Catacombes became part of the cross-city Carnavalet museum which tells the history of Paris. You can visit between 10am and 5pm every day apart from Mondays and public holidays. Note that there is no disabled access – there are a lot of stairs and the tour is approximately 2km long. Tickets are 10euros (8euros for concessions).
For full details, including a great downloadable brochure, visit the official site.