Since I couldn’t go into the Catacombs of Paris the day before, I made it my first stop after breakfast to ensure that I would get the chance to be able to head down into the labyrinth. Like the day before, there was a line that curved around a small park by the entrance. I believe it took more than an hour to make it to the front since they only allow a certain amount of people in the catacombs at a time. You can buy tickets online, but I think you might still have to wait in the entrance line anyway. Regular admission for an adult is €10 (~$11.06 USD) and an audioguide will cost you an additional €5 (~$5.53 USD).
After making your way past the ticket booth, you begin your descent down 132 steps to the start of the 1700 meter path that eventually leads you through the ossuary (where the bones are held) and to the exit several blocks away. The first section is basically just a stretch of dark tunnels, but there are some surprises along the way.
The tunnels were originally dug out to gather limestone and some of the workers left their own personal imprints on the space. A worker in Quarry Inspections named François Décure sculpted models of the Port-Mahon Palace on Minorca by memory since he had been imprisoned in a fort across from the palace for a long time. It is a pretty impressive achievement, but unfortunately, Décure died in a cave-in while trying to build an access stairway to reach his art.
A little further down the tunnels, you finally reach a doorway to the ossuary with the phrase “ARRÈTE! C’EST ICI L’EMPIRE DE LA MORT” carved above. That should translate as “STOP! THIS IS THE EMPIRE OF THE DEAD”, though I need someone to tell me why the letter E in the word “arrête” on the etching has a grave accent instead of a circumflex.
From there, you see bones, bones, and more bones.
They aren’t just spread out randomly either. I don’t know if it is more or less eerie that the bones are so neatly organized and that some are even arranged in a decorative manner.
How did the bones get down there anyway? Well, in the late 18th century, the Cemetery of the Innocents was causing a lot of problems, particularly in regards to infections, for nearby residents. A decision was made in 1785 to disinter the bodies of those buried in the cemetery and move them to a new location. The quarry was selected since it had fallen into disuse. After the Cemetery of the Innocents was cleared, bones from the other cemeteries of Paris were also transferred to the catacombs.
The whole place is one large memento mori, a reminder that you will die some day. There are even poems in French about mortality and creepy Latin phrases posted on the walls, and by walls, I mean the wall of bones. Here are three that stood out in particular:
- Memento creatoris tui in diebus juventutis tuae, antequàm veniat tempus afflictionís (“Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, before the time of affliction”)
- Memento irae in die consummationis (“Remember the wrath of the end of the day”)
- Memento novissimorum, noli oblivisci (“Remember last, do not forget”)
Heavy stuff, right?
Other surprises that you can find down in the catacombs include the Sacellum crypt, which had been used to celebrate mass in memory of the dead.
There is also the sepulchral lamp that was lit to encourage the circulation of air in the tunnels.
There is also the site of a strange and somewhat creepy story of a secret concert that was held within the catacombs. Personal invitations were sent out and guests were asked not to have their carriages pull up right by the entrance so that they would not attract attention as they descended.
For another interesting but also creepy story about the catacombs, I recommend reading this article about a small movie theater that was found within the tunnels. What you get to see as a visitor is only just a small stretch of this whole underground network, so who knows that else goes on down there?
Once you exit the ossuary, you go through a couple more long and dark tunnels. The audioguide mentioned that there would be one final surprise awaiting at the end of the hall and, at that point, I was wondering whether I would be greeted by a pack of cloaked murderers. I’m actually still not sure what the surprise was supposed to be. Was it the 83 steps that you had to use to climb back up? Was it the gift shop standing right across the street from the exit? Was it the ten minute walk back to the park by the tunnel’s entrance?
I think it’s interesting to learn more about the darker and spookier moments in a particular city’s history, even though it can be really eerie and unsettling at times. It gives you a different perspective than the usual polished attractions that you may normally see.
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