Tales of the Unexpected: Braving the Catacombs in Paris
Labyrinthine subterranean passages, chilling tales of macabre carryings-on and spooky anecdotes of bones transported across the city. What better time of year than a bracing autumnal day to take a deep breath and plunge into the depths of the sinister Catacombs, sixty feet below the surface of the bustling Parisian streets? Avoid the eternally long lines and experience an intrepid visit to the largest necropolis in the world, but be warned, it’s not a trip for the fainthearted!
It is a blissfully mild day above ground when I arrive for this pre-reserved skip-the-line guided tour, and the clement weather makes me feel just slightly better for the hordes of people waiting patiently in line to buy tickets on the day. The queue stretches almost right around the block, and as only 200 visitors are allowed inside the maze below at one time, you may have a seemingly everlasting wait if you just turn up hoping to waltz straight in on the day. The Catacombs is one of the most visited attractions in Paris, with over 500,000 tickets issued per year, so if you are on a tight schedule it’s well worth reserving your tour in advance to beat the crowds.
BRAVING THE UNDERGROUND
The ambiance is suitably solemn as proceedings begin: all bags are carefully checked on the way in, and we are told that they will also be scrutinised for bones on our way out, as a visit to the ossuary can apparently bring out light-handed criminal tendencies in some of its visitors… Unofficial ‘souvenir-collecting’ is deeply frowned upon by the powers that be, and the atmosphere is decidedly guarded as we begin our 131-step descent down a narrow winding staircase to the murky darkness 20 metres below.
Deep below the metro lines, the six million bones that we have all heard so much about are located in the former limestone quarries from which the city was built centuries ago. There are over 200 kilometres of uncharted territory underneath Paris, and while it is clear that no one is going to get lost during this tour, the atmosphere is charged from the get-go. A wrong turn in the distant past has led to people becoming disoriented in the dark and being unable to find their way out to see the light of day. We shiver at learning the grisly fate of doorkeeper Philibert Aspairt from 1793, who erroneously entered a staircase from the nearby hospital where he worked. His body was discovered some 11 years later, identifiable only by the key hanging from his belt.
GHOSTLY FUNERAL PROCESSIONS
Before passing through the engraved gateway into the chillingly named “Empire of Death”, we are entreated to eerily visual descriptions of the horse-drawn carriages of the 18th Century, stealthily clip-clopping their way over the bridges of the Seine in the dead of night. These ghostly funeral processions were accompanied by incense-burning priests transporting the innumerable corpses and skeletons housed in the over-populated and disease-ridden mass grave cemeteries over at Les Halles, and depositing the bones in their new resting place.
Entering the necropolis, nothing can quite prepare you for the vision of millions and millions of skulls, femurs and unidentifiable skeletal parts. Tightly packed and often presented with a quite astonishing attention to detail, you cannot help but be aware of how surreal it is to be passing through these chilly, damp corridors, where time has stood still for so long. It feels like being in a time capsule, and it is faintly unnerving to imagine the scattered bones of French revolutionaries such as Robespierre and Marat lying alongside wall upon wall of their fellow citizens – and just conceivably those too of the ill-fated Marie Antoinette. The guillotine reportedly beheaded a staggering 17,000 people in 18 months, and the massacred remains were brought to repose here in a fascinating yet cadaverous show of deadly skull and crossbones.
SPINE-TINGLING ALL YEAR ROUND
Hair-raising stories abound of ghosts spotted lurking in the shadows and of modern-day urban explorers or ‘cataphiles’ who secretly and illegally comb the tunnels out-of-hours. We learn about the discovery of a fully equipped cinema and tales of orchestral happenings in days of yore. The visit is fascinating, and the beauty of attending a privately guided tour is that the doors are also unlocked to off-limit underground tunnels, closed to the general public. We were able to go safely off the beaten track and glimpse hidden limestone sculptures, bottomless wells and the altar-piece where the last rites were given to the poor corpses arriving from Les Innocentes across the city, before climbing our way back upstairs to the comforting fresh air and bright sunshine outside in the real world.
After the initial impact, it was surprising how quickly our group became accustomed to the vision of all these countless body parts. The visit is definitely not for anyone who is not keen on small spaces or is shaky on their pins, however, as the tour covers some three kilometres, with the temperature kept at a constant 57°F and no possibility of turning back once you have headed down the narrow steps at the entrance. Those sensible walking shoes have never been so warmly recommended, as it can be quite slippy underfoot. I’d also suggest you carry some bottled water if visiting over the summer, although you need to be careful when quaffing to avoid being cautioned by the very vigilant staff underground, trained to keep a watchful eye on their precious quarry. You have been warned!
Modern-day skulls you can take home on sale in the boutique…
BOOK YOUR TOUR
Read more here about details of reserving a group or private tour for an alternative vision of the city you definitely won’t see above ground, along with information about personalising your itinerary during your stay – Paris awaits you!
Please note that some parts of this article were first published in October 2017 for Paris Perfect. Photo credit at beginning of article: Localers.