As I mentioned in my previous post on Sacré-Coeur, one of the other places I didn’t get a chance to see when I was in Paris last summer was the catacombs so I wanted to be sure to fit in a visit this time around.
Long Queue vs Online Tickets
You can either wait in line to get in or buy tickets online for specific time slots to bypass the line. Wait times can be anywhere from 30 minutes to 3+ hours and in the summer time, it’s common to wait for hours. I definitely recommend buying a ticket online. Keep in mind that they have a limited number of tickets for each time slot, so don’t wait too long to buy or you may be stuck in that loooooong line. We got quite a few less-then-friendly looks from those in the line when we bypassed the entire queue and went right in. C’est la vie (insert Gallic shrug here).
For some inexplicable reason, the site says you must print your tickets if you buy them online. Given that most visitors to the catacombs are tourists with limited or no access to a printer, this seems particularly silly, but what can you do? Luckily, we were in a hotel with a small business center so we printed our tickets there.
Online tickets cost quite a bit more (27€ compared to 12€ for adults and 10€ for those age 26 or under). Totally worth it if that works with your budget. Online tickets also come with an audio guide. If you buy tickets at the door, the guide is an extra 5€.
It’s a nice cool 14°C (57°F) down there, a lovely break from the hot summer weather above. It is damp in places and the ground can be slippery so watch your step as you walk.
A City Beneath a City
We entered the catacombs after first learning about how they were excavated and the collapse of entire sections of the city due to the uncontrolled expansion of the underground chambers.
At that point, the city decided to map the entire underground necropolis and some poor souls had the job of exploring these endless caverns filled with the dead. The eventual result is a city map of sorts, complete with “street signs” like these:
We descended the 130 spiral steps and entered the catacombs 60 meters under the surface. We were also under the entire metro system and the sewer systems. It doesn’t bear thinking about the weight of what is over your head when you’re down there.
We were greeted by this gallows-humor bit of graffiti when we walked in:
And then we have this official “welcome” sign that says “Stop! This is the empire of the dead.”
The Empire of the Dead
Our audio guide took us through a tour of how these bones all came to rest here and as one would expect, it’s not a happy story. The catacombs got their start during Roman times as a quarry to produce stone for building. It wasn’t until centuries later that they were re-purposed as an ossuary.
The dead used to be buried on the outskirts of the city but over the years, as Christianity became more popular, people wanted to be buried in consecrated ground. This meant burial in a church yard, the most popular in Paris being the Cimetiere des Innocents. Over time, the cemeteries at the surface became over-crowded so they created charnel houses, structures along cemetery walls where you could deposit someone’s bones for their eternal rest.
In particular, the Cimetiere des Innocents was literally overflowing with decomposing bodies. Not only was the stench unbearable but the decomposing remains contaminated the drinking water and introduced disease.
So the solution was to dig up the remains from cemeteries all over the city in various states of decomposition and move them underground to the catacombs. I don’t even want to think about having that as my job.
The catacombs serve as the final resting place for more than six million people.
A tomb with a view
I know, that’s a terrible pun but I couldn’t resist. Once we entered the catacombs, we were surrounded on both sides with walls of bones – it’s as if the entire underground complex is constructed entirely of the remains of the dead.
It was very macabre to see the bones arranged artistically (note the rows of skulls embedded in the wall above or the heart arrangement in the photo below) and I wondered about the people whose job it was to make these walls and displays out of arm and leg bones and skulls. The rest of the bones were dumped in heaps behind these walls.
The catacombs have also hosted parties of sorts, including a secret soirée for Parisian aristocrats centuries ago in the chamber that this decorative column supports. Today people still have parties down there – some secret, some not. There was also a cinema discovered in 2004.
While we were on the way to the catacombs, I read a newspaper story of 2 teens who were lost for 3 days underground just before our visit. Talk about the stuff of nightmares! It’s not clear how they got lost but I will say that it’s pretty impossible to get lost unless you leave the marked path and enter off-limits areas.
Signs, Markers, and the Danse Macabre
Throughout the catacombs are plaques with bits of poetry and philosophical or inspirational sayings. The gist of many of them is the notion of the danse macabre (dance of death), which is a theme of death as an equalizer that gained popularity during Medieval times.
The danse macabre is a reminder that life is fleeting and earthly life is inglorious, a reminder that death doesn’t care how rich you are, what your title is, how old you are, or anything else about you. There is no sitting out on this dance – it eventually calls us all.
Here are a few examples. They are all in French so I translated as best as I could with some help from Google (please feel free to correct my rough translations with a comment).
There is also one actual tombstone here, although I believe that the audio guide said that the remains for this person have been lost.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this somewhat eerie post. I’ll wrap this post up with one final picture: