Paris … skipping the crowds and walking through a city of bones underneath the City of Light: the fascinating and rather ornamental Catacombes de Paris (Catacombs of Paris)

Just a few hundred metres away from Cimetière du Montparnasse, Paris’s second largest cemetery, on a hidden corner of Place Denfert-Rochereau stands a structure that resembles a green Victorian toilet shelter. Contrary to appearances, this is not a public convenience but it does appear to be a kind of gravestone where six million nameless Parisian bodies lie several metres underneath it.

The Catacombes de Paris are a collection of underground ossuaries housed in disused medieval limestone mines under the French capital. Remains were transferred here in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries from cemeteries all over Paris unable to accommodate any more bodies in their over-crowded grounds. The bones and skulls were neatly stacked in the cavities of the mines solving not only the cemetery grave shortage in the city but also helping to prevent the miles of underground tunnels and the streets of Montparnasse above them, from caving in. It could be said therefore, that the City of Light is literally standing on the shoulders… and femas, and humeri… of its glorious dead. Romantic that notion may be, I doubt I would ever be tempted to buy a property in Montparnasse just in case a future visitor to the Catacombs decides to take a bone home as a souvenir and the whole of central Paris above comes crashing down like a jenga tower.

To allow the living to pay their respects, and to raise money to maintain the ossuaries, the catacombs have been opened to the public since the mid-nineteenth century. Crowds still queue up daily by the green metal shelter – the entrance to the catacombs – to have a chance to walk around a small designated section of what has been labelled the ‘largest grave in the world’.

The unassuming entrance to the Catacombs of Paris, opposite Denfert-Rochereau metro station

The unassuming entrance to the Catacombs of Paris, opposite Denfert-Rochereau metro station

Over six million Parisians - albeit dead - lie underneath this shelter, three times as many as live alongside it

Over six million Parisians – albeit dead – lie underneath this shelter, three times as many as live alongside it

There are many miles of underground tunnels connected to the catacombs. Visitors are guided along a short section of them to reach the ossuaries presently open to the public

There are many miles of underground tunnels connected to the catacombs. Visitors are guided along a short section of them to reach the ossuaries presently open to the public

The further down one goes, the narrower the tunnels get

The further down one goes, the narrower the tunnels get

The marks of the hand tools used to dig out these tunnels can be seen in the rock overhead. The black line running along the ceiling was painted here in the nineteenth century to guide visitors along to the ossuaries when the catacombs were first opened to the public. The lighting and graffiti are twentieth century

The marks of the hand tools used to dig out these tunnels can be seen in the rock overhead. The black line running along the ceiling was painted here in the nineteenth century to guide visitors along to the ossuaries when the catacombs were first opened to the public. The lighting and graffiti are twentieth century

These gaps in the toothing stone walls along the tunnels are not signs of subsidence. The brickwork was deliberately laid in this way to create natural ventilation

These gaps in the toothing stone walls along the tunnels are not signs of subsidence. The brickwork was deliberately laid in this way to create natural ventilation

When these tunnels were still used as quarries, stone walls built without mortar known as 'hagues' were put in place to hold back the mounds of earth that prop the quarries up to this day, preventing them from caving in. Some of these hagues date back to the fifteenth century

When these tunnels were still used as quarries, stone walls built without mortar known as ‘hagues’ were put in place to hold back the mounds of earth that prop the quarries up to this day, preventing them from caving in. Some of these hagues date back to the fifteenth century

Catacombes de Paris, Paris Catacombs, hagues

A few centuries later the stone walls were replaced with 'skull and bone' walls

A few centuries later the stone walls were replaced with ‘skull and bone’ walls

Yes, these are all bones, holding the earth back behind them

Yes, these are all bones, holding the earth back behind them

Catacombes de Paris, Paris Catacombs, curved rows

Catacombes de Paris, Paris Catacombs, low ceiling

Catacombes de Paris, Paris Catacombs, neat rows of bones close up

Catacombes de Paris, Paris Catacombs, skull close up side

The bones are laid out according to the cemetery and parish they originally came from. The date the remains were first placed here is quoted on the accompanying plaques

The bones are laid out according to the cemetery and parish they originally came from. The date the remains were first placed here is quoted on the accompanying plaques

Catacombes de Paris, Paris Catacombs, bones from St Eustache cemetery 1787

In many places, the skulls have been arranged into symmetrical patterns

In many places, the skulls have been arranged into symmetrical patterns

Catacombes de Paris, Paris Catacombs, arch pattern side

Catacombes de Paris, Paris Catacombs, arch pattern front

Catacombes de Paris, Paris Catacombs, barrel style monument front

Catacombes de Paris, Paris Catacombs, barrel style monument, side

Although some may think these arrangements are disrespectful and tasteless, there are clear signs of respect towards the dead throughout the ossuaries

Although some may think these arrangements are disrespectful and tasteless, there are clear signs of respect towards the dead throughout the ossuaries

More recently, plaques quoting poetry and prose have been placed alongside the remains. This plaque details a verse from Alphonse de Lamartine's poem Pensée des Morts (Thought of the Dead)

More recently, plaques quoting poetry and prose have been placed alongside the remains. This plaque details a verse from Alphonse de Lamartine’s poem Pensée des Morts (“Thought of the Dead”)

More contemporary signs are displayed by the entrance to each ossuary asking visitors to be respectful too: specifically 'no eating', 'no selfies' and 'no karate-chopping the skulls'

More contemporary signs are displayed by the entrance to each ossuary asking visitors to be respectful too: specifically ‘no eating’, ‘no selfies’ and ‘no karate-chopping the skulls’

The Fountain of Lethe, later renamed the Fountain of the Samaritan, was discovered by quarry workers at the end of the eighteenth century and was restored around 1810 when remains began to be laid here

The Fountain of Lethe, later renamed the Fountain of the Samaritan, was discovered by quarry workers at the end of the eighteenth century and was restored around 1810 when remains began to be laid here

Catacombes de Paris, Paris Catacombs, Fountain of Lethe, Fountain of the Samaritan, back with Latin inscription sicut unda dies nostri fluxerunt, our days as the water flowed

TLT x

PS – all the photos featured on this post were taken without using a flash in accordance to the Catacombs of Paris entrance rules.

Useful information

The Catacombs of Paris are opened Tuesdays to Sundays between 10am and 8.30pm. Full price tickets cost €12 per person (2016) at the door.

The Catacombs are extremely popular and because only 200 visitors are admitted per hour, queuing times can be as long as two hours. To try and beat the queues tickets can be bought in advance online. Surprisingly though, these online tickets cost at least €15 more than if bought at the door! Online tickets also have a strict timed entry, and they go very quickly.

My suggestion to beat the queues is unusually to forget buying tickets online and instead just turn up at around 6.45pm-7pm before the last admissions at 7.30pm. I did this and I only queued up for fifteen minutes. This late arrival also means there are less people in the ossuaries at this time so they are not so crowded.

Visits take at least 45 minutes to complete. The distance through the designated tunnels and ossuaries is two kilometres. Reaching the first set of ossuaries takes around 15-20 minutes alone, depending on how fast one walks. The tunnels are well lit but are uneven, cold and wet in parts so bring a cardigan and comfortable walking shoes.

It is an offence to enter those ossuaries that are not open to the public, but these are clearly closed off and the path to the public ossuaries is well sign posted, so there is little chance of straying off the beaten track and getting lost.

Audio guides are available to rent but personally I think they are a waste of money. There are signs dotted around along the tour detailing the more interesting aspects of the tunnels and ossuaries, translated into English and Italian.

The tour is not circular and the exit is at least half a kilometre away from the Place Denfert-Rochereau entrance on a quiet road off Avenue du Général Leclerc called Rue Rémy-Dumoncel. Turn right on leaving the exit and walk up to Avenue du Général Leclerc. Once on the avenue turn right again to head back up to Place Denfert-Rochereau.

For more details about the history of the Catacombs, entrance times, entrance rules and ticket prices, go to the official Catacombs of Paris website here.


Paris, Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, Père-Lachaise Cemetery, Madame Lamboukas aka Edith Piaf tomb, detail sideJim ‘The Doors’ Morrison’s chewing gum tree, Edith Piaf’s romanticised fake birth place and the blanket of metro tickets on Jean-Paul Sartre’s grave: remembering the famous dead Parisian style

 

 

 


Just over half the skulls in Hallstatt's Beinhaus (around 600) have been decorated, named and dated, a tradition that began in the eighteenth century

Salt mines, stunning Salzkammergut views and the Austrian ‘Bone House’ in the lakeside village of Hallstatt

 

 

 

 


 

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