Did you know that almost 200 miles of tunnels run the length and breadth of the city of Paris? Quarried since the Roman times to excavate the limestone used to build the city, the digging only stopped in the late 18th century when the buildings above began to collapse into sink holes.
Shored up and made safe by the city of Paris Mines Inspectors and engineers, from 1786 the Catacombs then became the final resting place of over 6 million Parisians. At that time the city’s cemeteries were located in the very centre of Paris, the shallow mass graves were overflowing and spreading decay and disease. It was decided to dig up the bodies, burn off the flesh and remove the bones to the catacombs – processions led by priests made their way through the city and the bones were blessed on arrival. The quarrymen of the catacombs now had a new task, stacking the millions of bones underground.
Today you can visit a small section of the catacombs, but beware! Not of the ghosts – although apparently there are several – but of the long lines. Here again I’d suggest taking a tour, not only do you get to skip the line and learn a lot more about this fascinating piece of Parisian history than you would if you went alone, but since January 2016 you also get to visit parts of the Catacombs that individual visitors don’t, the amazing sculptures by a quarryman called Decure (he sculpted the prison in Port Mahon where he had previously been held prisoner for years by the English), the quarrymen’s foot bath and the altar where the bones were blessed.
Decure worked on the sculptures in secret for 5 years before being crushed when a tunnel collapsed on top of him.
The Catacombs – indeed the whole network of tunnels running under the city – were also used during World War II by the French Resistance fighters, although the Nazis also used sections of them too. Nowadays they are also home to parties, film showings, you can go for a swim there, or walk for miles under the city. However it’s not only illegal but extremely dangerous, lose yourself in the tunnels (only the section open to visitors is lit) and who knows when you may be found? On my visit yesterday I learned that the last person to get lost in there was found 11 years later….
- Paris Catacombs, Place Denfert Rochereau, 75014 Paris. metro: Denfert Rochereau
Open daily (except Mondays) 10:00 – 20:00