The Paris Catacombs (or Catacombes de Paris, as they’re called in French) are a maze of tunnels and crypts underneath the city streets where Parisians placed the bones of their dead for almost 30 years. Prior to the creation of the Catacombs in the mid-1700s, residents buried their dead in cemeteries near churches as is still customary in most places.
But as the city grew, the cemeteries quickly ran out of space. Additionally, improper burial techniques often led to ground water and land near cemeteries becoming contaminated and spreading disease to those living nearby, so city officials moved to condemn all the cemeteries within city limits and move the bodies in those cemeteries elsewhere.
The decision was made to use an underground section of quarries in Paris, and the bones from Paris’ city cemeteries were moved underground between 1786 and 1788. The process was conducted with reverence and discretion – the quarry space was blessed before any bones were moved there, bones were always moved in a quiet parade of carts accompanied by priests, and these movements always took place at night. The quarries continued to be used as the collection point for the bones from Paris’ cemeteries through 1814 and now contain the bodies of roughly 6-7 million Parisians.
What’s particularly surprising about the Catacombs of Paris isn’t that they’re a tourist attraction in modern-day Paris – what’s surprising is that they started attracting visitors even before the last bones were moved in 1814, and they were already a major attraction just over 50 years later. In fact, in the late 1800s the larger underground crypt areas were even used as mini-concert halls!
Even though people were touring the Catacombs starting in 1867, the historic significance of this network of tunnels wasn’t finished being written. They were used by members of the French Resistance during World War II as they hid from the Germans, and the Germans also used a portion of the tunnels during World War II as a bunker.
Any Parisian can tell you half a dozen ‘secret’ entrances into the Paris Catacombs—because there are simply hundreds of them. Exploring the dark underbelly of the City of Light has for years been a rite of passage and a favorite pastime for scores of Parisians from every walk of life.
I have a close friend who’s a French doctor—he also used to be a prolific cataphile. Sit him down in a cafe and the man could talk for hours about his underground adventures.
To say the Catacombs are positively ghostly is an understatement. The most mysterious mass ghost sighting was a group of 50 tourists lost underground in 1948. Someone (or something?) they mistook as their guide led them deep into the catacombs and everything seemed normal….until their guide simply disappeared in front of their eyes. The shaken group was found shivering and traumatized 17 hours later by the Paris Police.
The police—the Catacops—well that’s another story entirely. The French laws state they have to give you a €60 ticket if they catch you down there. Olivier says the name of the game is don’t get caught—and the cat and mouse game trespassers play with the law can be quite amusing. The cops seal entrances, the cataphiles break in (and improve the entrance leaving a sarcastic spray painted greeting); the stories are endless.
He said exploring the catacombs is like an addiction; even though he stopped doing it recently the wanderlust and desire is still there. It never goes away. The thrill of finding a completely new passage or area far outweighs the obvious risks.
The Catacops aren’t immune either: Olivier said one time he turned a corner and ran into a police officer with two absolutely gorgeous French girls in tow. He had been giving his two lovely companions an all-access tour and had even brought a bottle of wine. He then proceeded to tell Olivier he shouldn’t be down there, winked, and kissed one of the girls…oh la la! Love among the bones.
I’ve enjoyed hearing these stories over the years. Perhaps one day I’ll talk him into taking me into Paris’ dark shadow world that he knows and loves. For now, I have to be content just hearing about them. I’m visiting again in November so wish me luck.
men are so afraid of confident girls and its so funny
friend: did you smoke without me?