Journey to the Centre of the Earth

Tootlafrance.ie editor Conor Power goes far beneath the surface of Paris to find out that the mystery of the City of Light is not just skin-deep

Underneath the most densely-populated capital of Europe, there are electric cables, drains, water pipes and sewers. Underneath that again, there’s the metro system, carrying millions of people every day around Paris.
Well below that is a level that a lot of people don’t get to see. Located some 20 metres below ground level of the City of Light are the catacombs. They’re home to the remains of about 6 million people.

Say 'Cheese'! A tourist photographs a small section of the catacombs' bones

Say ‘Cheese’! A tourist photographs a small section of the catacombs’ bones

The entrance to the catacombs is very subtle. Unless you were looking for it and the familiar little brown heritage signposts directing you to it, you would hardly notice it at all. Emerging from the Denfert-Rochereau metro station, the catacombs entrance is just across the road. The only detail that gives some hint to what lies beneath is the presence of a queue forming from the small old-fashioned little office alongside a small public park.

The adult entrance fee is €8. For an additional €3, you can have an audio-guide to bring you through the catacombs, but the best way to see them is in a group with a tour guide.

They began as a solution to the overcrowding of a cemetery in the area now known as Les Halles. In 1785, the cemetery La Cimitière des Innocents was deemed to be overcrowded and a source of constant infection to the local people in the area. This area was at that time outside the Paris city limits and the solution was to clear out the cemetery by disinterring the remains and putting the bones deep underground in a large crypt. The practice continued for the next 80 years or so.

The tour starts with a seemingly never-ending staircase. 130 steps bring you down to catacomb level. The first part of the tour is largely historical. You make your way along narrow passages that were dug out over 200 years ago. Every so often, there are markings on the wall that tell you which local authority team carried out the excavation work and in what year, with some of them bearing the dates in the confusing (but short-lived) French Revolutionary Calendar.

The passages get even more elaborate as you go on, with various chambers dug out of the calcareous rock. There’s even a section with tall columns to it and some stunning artwork from one particular worker who spent so much time underground that he took to recreating buildings and natural features by carving them out of the rock. His model of the fortress of Port-Mahon on Minorca (where he had spent time imprisoned by the British) is an impressive an unexpected sight.

Then you come to a large open chamber with a doorway in the middle. Over it, a sign says “Arrete: C’est ici l’Empire de la Mort!” (Stop! This is the Empire of the Dead!). At this point, you are warned about how you are not allowed to touch any of the human remains whatsoever. Despite this, our guide told us, at least one person tries to steal a bone or two every single day.

The scale of the bones is staggering. To see one or two human skulls is alarming enough, but to see countless numbers of them stretching on and on is an eerie and strangely absorbing feeling. The second thing that hits you as you walk through these walls of humans bones is how neatly they were arranged. Using the technique of traditional wall-building where you build a perfect outer wall and then fill in behind with more building material, the bones of several closed cemeteries ended up here, with the skulls and larger bones used for the outer layer and the smaller bones thrown in behind as filler. Each section is marked with a sign telling you which cemetery they came from. Sometimes, the arrangement was more creative than usual, with the strategic positioning of skulls forming an image or spelling out letters. In one chamber, there is a large “barrel” made of skulls.

Wheeling in the dead: a worker brings one of the last batches of bones into the Catacombs circa 1860

Wheeling in the dead: a worker brings one of the last batches of bones into the Catacombs circa 1860

People’s fascination with the catacombs seems to be never-ending. You’re made aware of the fact that you are walking in the footsteps of many famous people in history who have been down here, including Robespierre and Emperor Napoleon III, who brought his son down on a visit in 1860, shortly before it was decided to cease filling it up with disinterred bones.

Moreover, there are several regular attempts to tunnel into the catacombs every year, with some people going to extraordinary lengths to create their own private access to this alternative realm of the dead deep beneath the streets of Paris.

After your 1.7km walk underground, you climb another 83 steps and emerge back into a busy 21st-century city once more, after a fascinating journey of Paris’ 2,000-year-old history. A walk down by the Seine it is not, but a trip as macabre and wonderful as this is hard to come by.

Where Exactly?

For further information, see www.catacombes.paris.fr

Click the “play” button below to hear Conor Power talk on Dublin City FM on the 2nd of April 2014 about the Paris Catacombs!

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