Note: this post contains photos of human skulls and bones.
Paris certainly wasn't the stunning city it is now in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. A unique way to learn about it is by taking a trip through the Catacombs, deep underneath it. I've wanted to see them for a long time, but they had never risen to the top of my list until my month-long stay in October 2021.
A little history involving limestone and overcrowded cemeteries...
To best understand why the Catacombs exist, you have to turn the clock back many centuries. Paris was built on limestone which was considered an excellent building material and was extracted from under the city; Notre Dame Cathedral and many other Parisian monuments were built with it.
From the Roman era, it became popular to bury the dead near inhabited areas rather than away from the center of the population. Church grounds were popular burial sites and over the centuries, these cemeteries began to overflow. Toward the end of the 18th century, a wall of Les Innocents, the oldest and largest cemetery in Paris, collapsed due to heavy rains, sending rotting corpses into nearby houses. A series of mine cave-ins occurred around the same time. These incidents precipitated the creation of a commission by Louis XVI to investigate the state of the Paris underground. Lieutenant General Lenoir, the head of the police, was assigned the job of creating a municipal ossuary to which remains from the many overcrowded cemeteries would be relocated. He chose the largely empty underground quarries outside* the city from which limestone had been extracted. The creation of the Ossuary was begun in 1786 to receive the bones from the medieval cemeteries of Paris. The first bones were transferred in 1809 and transfers continued for many years. It is now estimated that the Catacombs contain the remains of more than 6 million people.
*Before 1860 Paris had 12 arrondissements, or administrative departments. When Napoleon III added the 13th through the 20th, the Catacombs, located in the 14th arrondissement, became part of the city of Paris.
To visit, you descend 131 spiraling steps.
You walk for a while before entering the actual ossuary. The total journey is just under one mile and takes about 45 - 60 minutes depending on how much of the excellent information you read along the way.
The atmosphere is damp and cool (a uniform 57 degrees year-round).
The first wall of bones.
There are a number of plaques indicating the date and from which burial grounds the remains were transferred.
Generally, the long bones and skulls were arranged in a decorative pattern behind which the other bones were placed.
This is the Samaritan fountain. The water it provided was used by the quarry workers to make mortar.
Every once in a while you pass a plaque with a touching message such as these.
This barrel-shaped assortment of bones called The Rotunda of the Tibias hides a supporting pillar. The catacombs drew a considerable amount of interest from Parisians over the years. On April 2, 1897 a nocturnal concert was performed here for about 100 people between midnight and 2:00 am. Among other famous works, they listened to the Funeral March of Chopin and the Dance of Death by Camille Saint-Saens.
About halfway through is a table with resin casts of bones. This exhibit is intended to help visitors understand how forensic anthropologists work. Experts realized that they could determine the health and living conditions of Parisians at that time from the study of their bones. Visitors are allowed to touch these bones.
It was a fascinating look into Paris in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
➜ Top Tips
The Catacombs are in the 14th arrondissement toward the southern end of the city. Take the métro line 4 and get off at the Denfert-Rochereau stop which is across the street from the entrance.
There are 131 spiral steps down and 112 spiral steps to climb up; this not a place for those who are mobility-impaired.
Dress warmly enough for the cool environment and wear comfortable shoes.
It's best to leave backpacks or other larger items in your hotel/apartment as the walkways are fairly narrow.
Tall people will have to crouch a bit toward the end.
If you are prone to claustrophobia, this is not the place for you.
Be respectful as this is a burial ground.
Buy your tickets online. They're timed, so we didn't feel crowded despite the number of people who were visiting.
Guided tours are available, however the audio guide and the information posted as you enter are excellent sources of information and we didn't feel the need for a guided tour. The audio guide costs a bit more, but it's well worth it.
Note that you exit at a different location from where you entered. If you go around lunchtime, have lunch at Le Comptoir across the street from the exit. It's an authentic Parisian bistro with great food!