Explore Paris Catacombs

If you’re claustrophobic or easily frightened, a visit to Paris’s Catacombs, is perhaps not the best idea. But if you’re interested in discovering a slightly strange, mystical place, a place that’s sure to put you on edge (or if you simply want to cool down in summertime) then this is the spot for you!

The Creation of The Catacombs

The Catacombs has had a long and varied history. They were originally excavated by the Romans and from the middle ages right up until the 17th century, stone and gypsum, dug from its depths was used to build some of the city's great buildings such as the cathedral of Notre-Dame. The mines twist and wind an incredible 300km under the city. Remarkably, during the 17th and 18th centuries the tunnels began to give way and swallow vast swathes of streets and housing. In 1777 under the orders of King Louis XVI, the government employed an engineer name Charles-Axel Guillaumot, to reinforce the tunnels. A whole series of works which would eventually prop up the city lasted at least 10 years.

The Transfer of the Cemetery of the Innocents

The Innocents Cemetery in the les Halles area of Paris was used for ten centuries to bury Paris’s dead. By the end of its time, it was completely saturated and utterly wretched. One dosen't have to have to have a wildly vivid imagination to imagine the state of the surrounding area! After many complaints from the residents, in 1785, it was decided that enough was enough, and the cemetery was “evacuated.” An unpleasant task indeed! Old quarries were chosen in the south of Paris near modern day Montparnasse Station, blessed and consecrated these underground quarries acquired the name, Catacombs. It was here that the bones for the overloaded cemetery of the Innocents could finally be put to rest!

From Mines to Ossuary

The engineer in charge of this enormous task of transforming the catacombs into an ossuary, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, was hired by King Louis XVI's ministers. This was a period leading up the French Revolution of 1789 and it is said that Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, the doctor who lent his name to the revolutionary killing machine, visited the site and spent a period of time examining the various states of decomposition of the bodies that were being exhumed from the cemetery. It took over two years to move all of the bodies, but soon after, the bones of all of Paris’s remaining cemeteries were moved, a project that continued until 1814. The sheer volume of bones that were transferred was enormous; in all, six million Parisians are interred in the Catacombs! Remains were removed at night in order to avoid disruption during the day. The sight of endless funeral cavalcades, led by a procession of clergy, was a macabre, de facto sight that snaked its way through the city to the final resting place at the catacombs.

The “Catacombs" is also known as a municipal ossuary. Famously it’s the final resting place of great thinkers, writers, and revolutionaries such as Rabelais, Racine, Montesquieu, Colbert, Lully, Charles Perrault, Lavoisier and Robespierre, who are buried there anonymously.

An Unusual Parisian Site

From their very creation, the Catacombs have inspired curiosity. Members of the court – even Emperor Napoleon III himself – gave into it and descended into their depths to explore. Given this unexpected “success,” certain changes were made, so that in the 19th century, the bones had been arranged to form a romantically macabre décor. Plaques with quotations inscribed on them, skulls jutting out from the walls… the Catacombs were ready to welcome the tourists!

A City Underneath the City

The parts of the Catacombs that are opened to guided tours only represent a small fraction of what truly lies underground. Other parts of the catacombs that are not officially open to the public have been known to have been opened illegally and used for parties and gatherings. A few years ago police discovered a cinema, a bar, and a make-shift restaurant underneath the 16th arrondissement. It has been illegal to go into the catacombs since the 1950s due to safety reasons. They are large and it is easy to get lost, but that hasn't stopped groups from trying.

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