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