LES CATACOMBES DE PARIS // the city of bones

Catacombes de Paris bones and plaque

The stairs curl downward, further and further into the underbelly of Paris.

At the bottom the air is noticeably cooler. The dimly-let passageway stretches ahead, and gated tunnels branch off, like a spooky ghost-train maze. Suddenly the rough limestone walls give way to a crude decoration, and it takes a moment for your brain to register that you’re looking at bones; human bones.

Paris is a stunning city, but if you’ve already climbed the tower, toured the Louvre and admired the Arc, perhaps you should consider scratching beneath the surface — literally. Because, running underneath the streets and boulevards are 300 kilometres of ancient mines – a winding network of underground tunnels, rooms and chambers.

These subterranean burrows were originally Roman quarries, created when limestone and gypsum were extracted from the ground to help build some of Paris’ most iconic buildings, including the Notre Dame Cathedral.

The dilapidated condition of some sections, not to mention the very real danger of getting lost in the pitch-black labyrinth (eurgh, can you even imagine?!), the vast majority of these walkways have been banned to the public since 1955.

However, there is one section – buried under the 14th arrondissement – that remains open to tourists, offering up what is arguably Paris’s creepiest and quirkiest tourist attraction.

In the late 18th century Paris had a rather grotesque problem on its hands. One of the city’s main graveyards – the Cemetery of the Innocents – had been laying people to rest for nearly 1000 years, and it was literally overflowing. Poor sanitation meant disease was rife, and locals were complaining about the unpleasant smell *shudders*.

In 1785 officials closed the cemetery, and the decision was made to relocate the remains to a disused section of the old quarry tunnels. This became ‘Les Catacombes de Paris’ – the Paris Catacombs.

Catacombes de Paris plaque

The site was consecrated and blessed. For the next two years sacks of bones would be transported under the cover of darkeness and accompanied by a procession of priests, and delivered to their new resting place. Once that had been completed, bones from 30 other cemeteries were collected and delivered to the site.

This mammoth task was finally completed in 1814, and the remains of six million Parisians had been reinterred.

Even back then the ossuary (a traditional site designed to be the final resting place for human skeletal remains) attracted intrigue, with many important French dignitaries and noblemen and women venturing into its depths for a look around.

What made the Catacombs so unique was that the bones weren’t just dumped in piles — as a mark of respect a decorative ‘retaining wall’ was arranged to contain them. Femurs were stacked in tidy piles, like bony bricks in a dry stone wall, and every few feet ran a seam of skulls, empty eye sockets gazing eternally outwards.

Catacombes de Paris wall of bones

Today tourists can see this bizarre resting place for themselves by entering the LES CATACOMBES DE PARIS on the avenue du colonel Rol-Tanguy, near the Denfert-Rochereau metro stop.

The catacombs are open Tuesday – Sunday, 10am to 8.30pm (last access at 7.30pm), and costs 27 for adults and 5 for children under 17 (children under 14 must be accompanied by an adult). The tour takes you in a loop around the ossuary, and lasts around 45 minutes.

Be aware that there are 103 steps down to the catacombs, and 83 back up to street level, and the attraction is not advised for pregnant women, or people who suffer from claustrophobia. Also bear in mind that in peak tourist season there can be a wait of up to 90 minutes to enter the catacombs.

For more information email: carnavalet.actionculturelle@paris.fr, or visit: www.catacombes.paris.fr

(If you’re planning a visit to France, you might also be interested in my features on CHAMPAGNE and GRASSE.)

CATACOMBS AROUND THE WORLD

Catacombs and ossuaries – also known as charnel or bone houses – have been used to rest the remains of the dead for centuries.

The first burial caves are thought to be those under the San Sebastian church in Rome. In fact an entire underground city stretches under the Italian capital; you can explore the many subterranean chapels, crypts, and churches that exist below street level.

The Capuchin Crypt, on the Via Veneto, is the final resting place for over 4000 Capuchin monks, and one of the most unusual. Bones are fixed to the crypt walls and ceilings in intricate patterns, like avant-garde wallpaper. Even the ceiling roses and chandeliers are fashioned from femurs and vertebrae bones.

It’s a remarkable, if somewhat unnerving, sight. And it that doesn’t send a shiver down your spine, wait until the final room when you’re faced with the prophetic words: ‘What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be’.

Catacombes de Paris wall close up

Palermo, Sicily, is home to the unique tourist attraction of the CAPUCHIN CATACOMBS in Piazza Cappuccini.

This site was initially reserved in 1599 for the bodies of the departed monks, but over time this stretched to include related men and women, priests and children.

Bodies were embalmed by dehydrating them for many months, then washing them with vinegar. They were then dressed, and placed in coffins, or slotted into burial niches carved into the walls.

The tomb is definitely not for the squeamish. Long-dead bodies literally line the walls, dressed in their religious robes or their finest clothes, and held in a standing position with loops of wire. The dry underground conditions have enhanced embalming process, preserving some of the bodies so well they still have teeth, hair, fingernails and skin.

The most remarkable sight is that of two-year-old Rosalia Lombardo. Despite passing away in 1920, her body remains so well preserved there is virtually no decomposition of her skin or hair. Aside from some discolouration to her face, the little girl could be sleeping in her glass-topped coffin.

She is one of Sicily’s – and indeed the world’s – greatest mysteries, and will forever remain so, as her embalmer, Dr Alfredo Solafia, never revealed the chemical process he used on Rosalia, and took his secrets to the grave.

While these macabre tourist attractions definitely aren’t for everyone, but there’s no denying these bone houses are a fascinating and unique part of world history.

Catacombes de Paris first plaque

OTHER BONE HOUSE SITES:

THE CHRISTIAN CATACOMBS OF ROME, ITALY

SANTA MARIA DELLA CONCEZIONE CRYPTS, ROME, ITALY

ST BRIDE’S CHURCH, FLEET STREET, LONDON

THE GOLDEN CHAMBER, ST URSULA’S, COLOGNE, GERMANY

ST PAUL’S CATACOMBS, MALTA

SANTA MARIA CHURCH, WAMBA, SPAIN

PALERMO CATACOMBS, SICILY

CONVENTO DE SAN FRANCISCO OSSUARY, LIMA, PERU

THE BONE HOUSE, HALLSTATT, AUSTRIA

CHAPEL OF BONES, EVORA, PORTUGAL

SAN BERNARDINO ALLE OSSA, MILAN, ITALY

BONE CHAPEL, KUTNÁ HORA, CZECH REPUBLIC

8 Comments

  1. Stacey MacNaught - June 8, 2017

    I absolutely love Paris. Beautiful. But I’m like most tourists – I’ve seen everything from an above the ground perspective. I’d love to visit the catacombs in the future.

  2. Amanda - June 8, 2017

    This is on my bucket list! I’ve always wanted to visit here. Did you ever see that film that was set here? It was called “As above, so below”. Good film if you’re into your horror films!

    Amanda | https://ldnrose.com

  3. Anosa - June 9, 2017

    Whilst I am always looking for something unique to see in every city I have already visited I am not sure creepy tunnels is one I am ready for. I am scared of my own shadow so can’t picture doing this lol but interesting read, 6 million Parisians is a lot
    Anosa recently posted…30 Countries Before 30: 2 down 3 to go My Profile

  4. Ickle Pickle - June 9, 2017

    Oh wow – these are so gruesomely awesome! Things like this fascinate me. Kaz
    Ickle Pickle recently posted…Top Tips to stop Travel Moans from ChildrenMy Profile

  5. Angela Milnes - June 9, 2017

    Wow, It really looks interesting and I think I would love to see it I should add this on my bucket lsist

  6. Kirsty - June 10, 2017

    Paris is beautiful and it is so gothic and macabre, I love the darker side of history. I spent some time at uni studying death and remembrance in medieval England so this would be right up my street.
    Kirsty recently posted…The Darker Side To MotherhoodMy Profile

  7. Louise - June 11, 2017

    Ooh, this looks kinda eerie. I like it! I’ve always wanted to visit Paris, so any tips on where I should visit when I get there is always appreciated, thank you 🙂

    Louise x
    Louise recently posted…7 Super Romantic Places to Go On a Date in NottinghamMy Profile

  8. Kirsty - June 19, 2017

    I love the macabre feel and these tombs are spooky and so interesting. I studied death as part of a module in medieval history and these tombs take me right back to that module!
    Kirsty recently posted…Summer PlansMy Profile

Leave a reply

CommentLuv badge