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  • Tuesday, March 10, 2015

    The Catacombs of Paris

    There are hundreds of miles of tunnels under Paris. Some are subway and sewer networks, canals and reservoirs, or tunnels to bank vaults and wine cellars. Many are empty tunnels left from limestone quarries that date back to Roman times. And some of those, such as the Catacombs of Paris, are lined from floor to ceiling with macabre displays of skulls and bones from over six million dead Parisians.

    I waited in line for nearly two hours, but once inside I felt alone in the dimly lit damp tunnel.



    For nearly a kilometer it was so quiet that I actually wondered if I had made wrong turn somewhere, or didn't turn when I should have. 

    As I made my way deeper into the tunnels, I anticipated something possibly horrific around every bend, but the first thing I saw were these beautifully carved sculptures of Port-Mahon, the capital of the island of Minorca in the Balearic Islands. 

    Before any bones were brought into the tunnels, a quarryman named Décure sculpted these models from memory. Supposedly, Décure fought in the armies of Louis XV during the Seven Years War and was held captive by the English at the fortress opposite the port . He was killed in a landslide while trying to build an access stairway to this location.

    At a depth equivalent to the height of a five-story building, the walls in the dark tunnel turned to bones.

     A lot of bones. Artfully organized.

    The bones belong to over six million Parisians who lived as far back as the 7th century. I stared into empty sockets wondering things like, did he have a family? How did he spend his days? Did he die of the Black Plague or during the French Revolution? Was he an important person in his community? 

    Some are actually known to be famous painters, sculptors, writers, and architects, because many of these bones came from overcrowded cemeteries in Paris, which kept records. Overwhelmingly though, they belong to people whose stories are long forgottten.

    By the late 1700s, cemeteries were becoming so overcrowded in Paris that corpses were becoming uncovered and people complained about the smell of decomposing flesh. In 1763, Louis XV banned burials inside the city, but the Church didn't want the graves to be disturbed, so nobody did anything about it. 

    That is until the spring of 1780 when significant rainfall caused a wall around the cities largest cemetery to collapse, spilling rotting corpses into the adjacent property. The solution was to discreetly move the remains of millions of Parisians into the centuries-old empty limestone quarry tunnels. 

    There are over 200 miles of these tunnels under Paris and this catacomb represents only one and quarter miles of them. What else is hiding under the City of Lights?

    Imagine wandering into a 600 year old tunnel with a flashlight and discovering this.


    Or this.

    Due to vandalism and the theft of many human skulls, the catacombs were closed in 2009 and reopened with additional security.


    Can you spot the snoring security guard? Here, I'll go back and make it easier for you...

    In defense of this security guard stereotype, the creepy dimly-lit damp tunnel full of human remains is incredibly cozy. 

    Time to head back to the surface. Thanks to all of you who recommend I add this to my list of places to see in Paris. I enjoyed it more than I thought I could.