A friend away from home,
helping you explore the City of Lights

Monday, March 20, 2006

Les Carrières de Paris - "Les Catacombes"

Should you find yourself in Paris during a heatwave, I can heartily recommend spending the afternoon 200' below-ground, in the Empire of the Dead - the Paris catacombs.

these mossy, jawless skulls are the first to greet you as you enter l'empire de la mortThe catacombs began as an extensive network of quarries located beneath what has since become the streets of Paris. Much of Paris is situated on a limestone shelf, and when the ancient Romans first established the legionnaire settlement of Lutetia (Lutece), a great deal of building stone for the temples, baths, forums and arenas that superceded the current city was excavated from below. As Paris grew from the original Roman settlement over the next 18-1900 years, the city builders continued to use stone from the original quarries to build the city and streets above them. The maze of caverns grew to over 200 miles until finally in the 18th century, a lack of uniform mining methods began to result in numerous cave-ins and frequent deaths.

By 1777, burial in Paris had also become a problem. The city cemeteries dated back to medieval times and were horribly overcrowded; in some cases, the ground level in church burial grounds had risen as much as 10-20' from the sheer volume of remains interred in them. Poor burial conditions and mass graves had resulted in contamination and sickness. In the Les Halles district, conditions were especially bad. The stench of death hung like a pall over the entire district. Sanitation had become a serious health issue, and the entire neighborhood had been contaminated. Residents were unable to keep milk, wine spoiled in the cellars, and sickness was rampant. In the largest church yard, that of the Cimetière des Innocents (Cemetery of the Innocents), the ground had risen 8', and in 1780, a wall collapsed, trapping and suffocating many of the living beneath the weight of the bones.

Something had to be done, and quickly. City officials banned all subsequent construction of burial grounds within city limits. 350 quarry rooms were connected and given the designation ossuarium, and the decision was made to empty the cemeteries of Paris as discretely as possible and move the bones to a new mass tomb in the catacombs. On April 7, 1786, the Vicar General of the the Archbishop of Paris consecrated the new burial ground, and relocation of the Cimetière des Innocents began that evening. Every night for the next two years, three million bodies - the remains of at least 400 years worth of death - were quietly disinterred and transported through the streets of Paris to the hill at Denfert-Rochereau, to be re-interred in the labrynth beneath the city.

bones re-interred on nov. 7, 1804For the next 14 years, from 1786 through 1860, six million dead were transported from the medieval burial grounds of Paris to the mass tomb. They came mostly from the large cemeteries of des Innocents and St. Nicolas des Champs, but bodies from the revolutionary massacres of Place de Greve, Hotel de Brienne, and Rue Meslee were also deposited there August 28 and 29, 1788, as well as from other cemeteries around Paris. By the final interrments of 1860, the original ossuary of Denfert-Rochereau had been filled, and other chambers were approved around the city, including those beneath the cemeteries at Montparnasse and Montrouge, on the outskirts of Paris.

skull and cross bonesDespite the rather gruesome nature of their contents, the catacombs have, from their inception, drawn a large number of visitors. The tomb was first officially opened to the public in 1810 or 1814, and immediately became a target of graffitti and clandestine activities. Victor Hugo utilized the tunnels in his novel Les Misérables. His friend and contemporary, Honoré de Balzac, is rumored to have given his creditors the slip in their dark maze. Prostitutes driven from the streets above used them to ply their trade, and groups of poor families sometimes made their homes in the caverns' dank embrace. In addition, both German soldiers and the French Resistance movement used them during World War II. The catacombs seem from the start to have been something of a fascination for the living, and underground parties have been held there since the 19th century. In one of the most famous, 45 members of the Paris orchestra performed there in secret - and full tuxedo - for 100 guests on the night of April 1, 1897. In September of 2004, police discovered an underground cinema, restaurant and bar, complete with fullsize movie screen, projector, electricity and 3 functioning phone lines, in closed section of the quarry. They returned to trace the power and phone lines, only to discover them severed, with a note lying on the floor in the center of the room: "Do not try to find us."

In 1830, the catacombs were declared off-limits and closed. At that time, the tomb had not yet been isolated from the vast network of caverns, and many visitors had gotten lost in the dark. Vandalism had also become a problem, and the Paris prefect declared them obscene and indecent as a tourist attraction. They remained closed to the public until Napoléon Bonaparte reopened them, having been closed only once since then, in 1995, for installation of a ventilation system. Once upon a time, one needed a flashlight to tour the tomb system, but it has since been outfitted with electric light, however dim and creepy it may still be!

broken skulls and other smaller bones top a wall of femurs in an alcoveAs you might imagine, six million people break down into quite a few bones. It's really pretty amazing to wind your way through room after room lined with 30 feet of bone. The passageways are mostly of stone wall, though some are also of bone, and alcoves abound, stacked floor to ceiling with the bones of the dead. The method of stacking is interesting as well; you may find yourself wondering what happened to the smaller bones, like fingers and toes. Or vertabrae. Here and there, iron gates lock off side passages from the main path, and I recommend a flashlight so that you can peer down them. It's also helpful for pictures, as flash photography is not allowed.

The entrance to the catacombs, or Denfert-Rochereau Ossuary, is in the front of a rather severe and depressingly bureaucratic building, through a non-descript black door marked simply "Entrée des Catacombes", and down a rather steep steel spiral staircase consisting of 85 steps not so much for the infirm or feint of heart. Winding your way through the mile-long course will take anywhere from 1 to 2 hours, depending on your fascination with the dead and your determination to climb yet another set of Parisian stairs. It's definitely damp down there, so wear comfortable shoes with good souls* and closed toes, and take your jacket, because the catacombs are a chilly 52F, which feels great at first, but gets pretty darn cold by tour end. I wouldn't recommend it for those with claustrophobia or who have problems with caves, since the concept of being 200' below the city is a little unnerving, especially if you spend much time dwelling on the cave-in troubles that led to the quarry's current life as a tomb...or if you live in a city prone to earthquakes, where the amount of time you spend under things that can crush you is something you generally think about anyway. I'm claustrophobic enough that MRI machines cause me to panic, but I did okay in the catacombs; the ceilings are generally between 7.5 - 8' high. I'd have freaked out if the power had gone out though; I have a vivid imagination, and being surrounded by all those bones would pretty much do me in, in the dark!

this high support arch on the way out welcomes you back to the land of the livingLes Carrières de Paris - the quarries of Paris, are open Tuesday - Sunday from 10 to 5. (Closed Mondays and banking holidays). Admission is 5€ The Metro exit is Denfert-Rochereau (lines 4 & 6), and the entrance is directly across the street from the Metro entrance, at 1, place Denfert-Rochereau. Phone: 33(0)1 43 22 47 63

And if looking at all those bones gets your hunger up, when you exit the catacombs, turn right at the top of the stairs, and at the main street at the top of the street you'll be turning onto, there's a McDonald's. I think to your left, but I could be wrong, having eaten there exactly once. It's called McDo in France (say mac-doe), and is distinctly different from American McDonald's and worth a try once, just so you can lord it over your friends back home. Once. :)

*that was a typo...I meant soles, but I like the freudian slip enough that I'm not going to correct it :)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your story has explained something else you talk about... the catacombs. But not the public section.

Here's the "Le passe-Muraille" underground...


5:31 PM  
Blogger Jenie said...

wow, cool! thanks for giving that. i really like "le pass-muraille" underground; it's totally eerie! :)

2:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm from venezuela, I really enjoyed your article because I'm also writting one about "les catacombes". I'm wandering if it's there any chance that I could received your photos. I need them in hy resolution because I work in a magazine... If you send them to me I will put your name and everything in the magazine.
thanks and sorry for my english...

10:37 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home