I clenched my eyes shut and stood completely still to calm myself, to try and forget that I was in a tiny, dank tunnel with numerous other people in my personal space. The air around me was humid and heavy, the guide’s voice barely audible over the echoes of others. I wanted to run back from where we came, or reach out and scratch at the limestone walls to forge an escape.
I do not have a good history of visiting dwellings underground. While my certain fear of tight spaces has yet to ever bloom into a full-blown freak-out, the panic is always there, taunting and threatening. But once again I somehow managed to find peace within, to put one foot in front of the other and continue.
And we hadn’t even gotten to the really creepy part yet.
There are an astounding 300km of tunnels under Paris. Route markers adorn the gritty walls, matching the names of parallel streets running above ground as they existed in 19th century Paris (and may not be the same today). Enroute to our final destination of the legendary Catacombs, we passed many other hallways locked and sealed. Our guide often spoke of cataphiles (or cata-addicts) – adventurous people who illegally roam the tunnels regularly. They do it to party, to explore the unknown, or just because it is forbidden. Their desire is clearly something I will never understand – especially as our guide also spoke of the many who have gotten lost and died.
This was not our first time in Paris and I had put off this tour until now for obvious reasons. But after nearly a half-hour of walking, stopping and observing, panicking and relenting, the tunnels thankfully began to open up to more space. This was at once soothing to be able to move more freely, but also not without dreadful anticipation, as what we saw next would add another entirely macabre element to this experience.
Seven million of them from 13 centuries of perished Parisians.
For another, the dead were overflowing. Cemeteries were full and thus bodies were not buried to their proper depth. The overflow caused serious stench and health problems for the surrounding neighborhoods.
The decision was made to transfer the remains into the vast empty spaces beneath the city. The gruesome construction and relocation began in 1786 and the Catacombs received skeletons from all of Paris’ cemeteries until 1812.
Their creator, who wanted it to be a visited mausoleum, designed it to appeal to those fascinated with the romanticism of death. Leg bones were found to be best for building sturdy and straight walls and skulls were used for decoration. Poetry and quotations in various languages adorn engraved plaques scattered around the tunnels. Stacks are organized by cemetery so that it is possible to trace ancestors by cemetery and year.
For me, I could fathom nothing romantic about it. Our guide pointed out those skulls which were rough and black and thus had obviously died of the Black Plague. Others noted that very few of them had teeth intact. A quick flash of light behind the scenes showed indiscriminate piles of various bones, broken or small, unusable for the morbid display.
Our guide herself spoke candidly about her job as the tour wrapped up, spilling that even though she had been doing this for less than a year, she thought it was time for a break. She was plagued with nightmares and even sometimes saw people as skeletons as she passed them in the streets. And while I was ultimately glad I had stomached the intriguing tour, after just a couple of hours underground, I could scarcely blame her for this admittance. I knew I could have never lasted that long myself.
how to do it
***Please note that while our tour with Viator was complimentary, all opinions and panic attacks are clearly my own.
I found the Catacombs in Paris so interesting. The creepiest Catacombs I have been to were in Palermo, Sicily where there are full bodies on display, some with leathery skin still attached and one child in a glass case, perfectly preserved, despite dying over 80 years ago. Apparently the way that she was embalmed is a mystery as the embalmer died shortly after and didn’t pass on his secret. Very creepy!
Katie @ The World on my Necklace recently posted..Stepping back in time to the Gold Rush days at Sovereign Hill
I loved the place when I used to live in Paris! Tho unless you’re doing a tour the line to get in is so long!
Anna @ AnnaEverywhere recently posted..My top 5 places to eat in NYC
I loved the Catacombs in Rome, they were one of my favorite parts of it. I think they were a bit different, there weren’t any bones there. However, the Bone Church in Rome is straight up CREEPY! Look it up, also known as the Capuchin Crypt (named after the friars there). Thanks for a great article!
Wow… incredibly haunting. That being said, I would absolutely love to do something like this. Thanks for sharing!!
Lauren Meshkin @BonVoyageLauren recently posted..Photo Essay: An evening stroll through Brussels
I never made it down into the catacombs (the one morning I was hoping to, the line was literally HOURS long), but I totally want to go someday!
It’s so weird; I hate haunted houses and horror movies, but macabre stuff like this is somehow fascinating to me.
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Interesting post, people have a fascination for the morbid. We were recently at Sedlec Ossuary in Kutna Hora which is incredibly popular: http://bbqboy.net/kutna-hora-sedlec-ossuary-photo-essay-travel-tips/. The church almost excuses what is basically the use of bones for decoration as a testament to the “equality of people in front of the throne of god”. We didn’t feel the same way, It is in our opinion a desecration – I wouldn’t want the remains of a loved one being used for a chandelier.
I understand the need in Paris to relocate the bodies. But like you I find nothing romantic about death. I think its macabre that some weird monk decides to use leg bones for wall support or to decorate with skulls.
I also find interesting the reaction of different cultures to ossuaries. We westerners seem to have a fascination for them. But I noticed, when I posting a few photos on our facebook page, that the Eastern cultures we very quiet with likes or comments. It said a lot.
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We did the catacombs this summer and were in line early and still had to wait hours! But it was well worth it!
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Wow, what a tour to do! Very interesting post, but you’re right it can be creepy, especially if your tour guide is having nightmares! Thanks for sharing!
Mary @ Green Global Travel recently posted..LOUISIANA: Charmed at the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum
I’m definitely doing this the next time I visit Paris.
Stephanie – The Travel Chica recently posted..My Top 11 Amsterdam
This is a place I absolutely want to visit during my next trip to Paris. I remember a fascinating article National Geographic published a few years ago about that place. They visited the tunnels with an unlicensed guide, just a guy from Paris who devoted his time to explore the underground of Paris.
Fortunately I’m usually not too frightened by closed space and underground passages but my imagination runs wild in that kind of places which can sometimes provoke panic or nightmares as well 😉
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I love visiting morbid places. The Catacombs in Paris were really fascinating. If you are into these things don’t miss to visit the catacombs under St.Michael Church in Vienna, Austria.
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