‘The City of Light’ is associated with romantic sights, couture, fantastic cuisine, unique art exhibitions and sub-cultures, museums, grand buildings, and infrastructure. There is no doubt Paris is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Just walking around the streets, parks and along Le Seine is an experience in itself – regardless of any season.
This article is mainly about the Catacombs of Paris and my experience. Thus, there is something I need to say, or rather, I feel an obligation to mention. When strolling around the streets and graveyards, I came across a few memorial sites and graves of those innocent lives lost in 2015 terror attacks. It is a sad chapter in contemporary history, and being there in the midst of the crowd of grieving, crying mothers, brothers, fathers, and friends had a significant impact on me. Entirely different than watching it on television, and would like to express the following below:
“I would like to take this opportunity to remember all the innocent victims who lost their lives in the 2015 terror attacks and also to extend my heartfelt sympathy to those left behind having lost someone they loved and cared for. No words, nor any action will ever compensate such tremendous loses, but know that you are not alone in the grief, anger and hate against these cowards who carried out these heinous acts.
Regardless of creed, culture, political differences and races, we are all, but human beings, and we got the same blood running through our veins. Let us embrace our various cultures and unite as citizens of this world.
We can achieve so much collectively!
Hereby, some photos of the picturesque Paris before venturing down the underground passageways which have such a wealth of history…
One of the “lesser-known” tourist attractions is the Catacombs of Paris. It is basically a vast network of tunnels, galleries, and caverns beneath the busy streets in the heart of Paris. According to official sources, about 300km of labyrinth-like old caverns, tunnels, and quarries have been mapped and accounted for. Nevertheless, only a fraction of this has been made available to the general public due to safety issues.
This attraction can found right in front of the Place Denfert-Rochereau subway station. A lot of people refer to the whole subterranean maze as ‘the catacombs,’ which is incorrect. They were actually used for mining purposes. and known in French as Carrières de Paris, or “Quarries of Paris.” in English.
But how did it all begin…?
It is my contention one gets to appreciate the Catacombs of Paris more by gaining a little understanding of how the various historical events paved the way for the creation of this underground ossuary. On the surface, it is merely a collection of bones, which many tourists find ghoulish and macabre. It has a certain “shock-factor” to some and to others just a “cool” place to visit. This is as good as it gets…
My experience with the Catacombs of Paris was more of time-travel and an appreciation of the fascinating European and French history. The idea of standing right next to the bones of former Parisians was somehow macabre, yet, not scary as such, but what sent cold chills down my spine was what many of those individuals went through back then, which ultimately shaped the world, as we know it today.
One of the most controversial political figures in French history, namely, Maximilien Robespierre, notorious for his role in the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror.
Historians suggest his regime ordered the execution of at least 40.000 people opposing his ideologies. All beheaded by the infamous guillotine. He was also behind the execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, but it was a collective effort by the system.
Ironically, he faced the very same fate and thrown into the same jail as the Royals he loathed so much. It was an era of political turmoil and uncertainty. Things were beginning to spiraling out of control, so his peers ultimately used him as a scapegoat to cover up for their atrocities within their fiefdoms and turn down the “heat” domestically.
Robespierre attempted to commit suicide with a gun but failed, leaving him with part of his jar blown off. On the day of execution, his bandages were removed forcefully – leaving him in agonizing pain in front of the spectators. It is said that his screams could be heard by everyone in the back row of the huge crowd. The executors had orders to place his head facing the sharp blade of the guillotine before it silenced him forever. He was buried but his remains were later exhumed from the common burial ground and put in the Catacombs.
Did you know the last person to be executed in France was Hamida Djandoubi, who was guillotined on 10 September 1977?
As previously stated, this subterranean labyrinth was used for mining purposes. The tunnels have been there since there the 13th century. Limestone was excavated for construction purposes. The city was growing rapidly, but the foundation of which the city developed on was like Swiss cheese, and multiple buildings had collapsed into huge sinkholes due to the weak ground. Therefore, the limestone quarries came to an end. It was left alone for a very long time until “re-purposed” in the late 1700s.
Paris was facing another problem, as the infrastructure could not sustain and cater for the ever-growing population. The water supply and cemeteries were the first problematic issues the Parisians had to deal with.
Les Innocents’ cemetery was the biggest and oldest cemetery at the time, it was located near the food market, but the graves were saturated to the point that one pit would hold the remains of over 1500 deceased. Corpses were not even properly buried, which attracted all sorts of animals which fed on the human remains. According to the inhabitants of the neighborhood, the stench of partly rotten corpses made them nauseous, and the threat of an epidemic of unimaginable proportions was lurking around the corner. The authorities had no choice than to act and in 1763 Louis XV banned all burials in central Paris, but the all mighty churches were reluctant to follow the King’s edict. Subsequently, nothing was done until 1780 after a period of heavy rain, a cellar wall in a nearby building collapsed due to the sheer weight of dead bodies. The room was over flooded with stinking human remains.
Therefore, it was agreed to transfer the deceased from the Les Innocents’ cemetery to the underground quarries, and upon the Church having blessed and consecrated the passage-ways, the transfer of bones began. The authorities would work for the next two years during the night in order not to disturb the daily routine and those corpses with any biological tissue on would be scraped off and the fats used to make candles or soaps.
It took over a decade to bring all the bones from surrounding graveyards into the catacombs. It became the resting place for an estimate of between 6-7 million former Parisians.
However, the crypts and galleries were a mess. After the French revolution bodies were buried directly in the caverns. It was impossible to walk inside and the smell atrociously bad. No one wanted to venture down there, and myths began.
Anyway, Napoleon III commissioned Georges-Eugène Haussmann to renovate the Catacombs and most importantly the water systems. He built a lot of properties and created many beautiful parks in central Paris. Napoleon III finalized the vision Napoleon Bonaparte had of his beloved Paris.
The last burials took place in 1859, and the Catacombs stood ready in 1867 after a total makeover. Various symbolic artifacts were created, and facades of bones were neatly set up for the general public to appreciate. Thus, only a few had to opportunity to enter.
Nevertheless, a lot of cataphiles and grave robbers were entering these sacred premises from various gateways around in Paris. In 1955, it became illegal to explore these underground tunnels and only the legal designated areas, like the Catacombs were open to the public. During the 1970s and 1980’s, a lot of urban explorers (known as cataphiles) entered the mining system and sat up creative spaces in some of caverns and galleries – there was even a cinema with a bar. A task force is currently guarding the areas and patrol many times a day. Ther will fine you heavily if you get caught. Also, it can be quite dangerous because one can easily get robbed or lost inside. Today, an estimate of 300 enter illegally per week. I would not recommend people to do this, as it also hosts many drug addicts and used syringes are all over the place combined with graffiti.
I highly recommend exploring the official Catacombs of Paris.
Upon entering the tiny hall you take a flight of spiral stairs down to a museum (this exhibition changes), but you can read about what is on their website. You then proceed to walk through some very long tunnels before you enter a room welcoming you to the “The Empire of the death.”
It is a great experience, and you will even experience graffiti from the French Revolution. To think the French resistance group walked these paths during the Nazi occupation is mind-numbing. Even the Nazis used some parts of the mining system as bunkers. If only these walls could talk? So much history within these bone facades dating back over two thousand years right under the busy streets of Paris is just amazing. To think that millions of years ago this place was entirely covered with water adds to the impressiveness.
The area is well lit, although using your flashlight on your phone will come in handy.
Is it macabre? Yes and no, we need to appreciate death is a part of life, and the fear of the unknown has always been a pursue the human kind tried to explain, a morbid attraction and fascination. Reality is we will end up exactly like these former Parisians. It is really not about the destination, but the brief time, in the bigger picture, we get to spend on this Earth. Considering the dramatic and outright evil done by our race and various events leading up to the way we live. This touristic spot is a reminder of how fragile we really are as human beings and how much evil we are capable of doing in a lifetime. On the contrary, it is also space, in some kind of weird context depicting the good in us, – a homage to those who built Paris and fought evil. A tribute to what we can achieve collectively.
I can highly recommend the Catacombs of Paris, but purchase your entry tickets in advance because the queue is long and only a certain amount of people can enter at intervals. Refrain from touching the skulls and bones and do not be tempted to steal any bones because the guards scan and check your clothes and bags upon exiting.
Show this venue the respect it deserves, and expect to be down there for at least 40 minutes. The tiny spiral staircase leading down and up could be an issue for some tourists. Therefore I also recommend to check out their website in case you have any health-related problems. I hope this article gave you a little insight into the Catacombs of Paris.