Walking past the entrance to the Paris Catacombs, you would never guess what lurked beneath.
The doorway itself is quite small. The steps that wind down are even smaller, and extremely narrow. Descending the spiral stairs, you briefly lose track of where you are—until the temperature drops and an underground dampness chills your skin.
At the base of the stairwell is a short tunnel, with flickering lamps as your only source of light. The air cools as you walk down the passageway. Finally, you reach the true entrance to the catacombs—a massive maze of bones right below the city of Paris.
The Paris Catacombs date back to November 9, 1785, when it was decided that the Holy Innocents’ Cemetery near Saint-Eustache needed to be emptied of its overcrowded remains to protect residents from rising health issues. City officials selected the network of abandoned quarries that snaked beneath their streets—old limestone mines that once fueled the construction of Paris—transforming the tunnels into a subterranean resting place.
Human remains were transported by the cartload, always at sundown, with black veils covering the bones and priests singing services for the dead. The transfer began in 1786 and continued until 1859 when the final interment occurred—at which point roughly six million souls had been laid to rest below.
The tunnel widens when you first step inside, but the ceiling remains extremely low. At certain points, your head nearly brushes the rough stone above, and the number six million truly sinks in.
Secondary tunnels extend in every direction and disappear into the darkness as you move down the established path. These passageways are closed to the public by iron gates, yet they illustrate just how far this ancient maze stretches beneath the city. In total, the catacombs cover about 11,000 square meters. Sometimes the bones are piled in tall heaps along these tunnels, other times they’re stacked into astonishing sculptures.
But it’s not just the macabre structures that catch your eye. It’s the untold number of skulls staring back at you from all sides. They vary wildly—some skulls are large and eerily clean, while others are tragically small, all stacked atop the other without demarcation. Notable souls lost within the tunnels include writer François Rabelais, sculptor François Girardon, and painter Simon Vouet. Fresh victims of the French Revolution were also carried down and dumped into the catacombs, including Georges Danton, Antoine Lavoisier, Maximilien de Robespierre.
After roughly 45 minutes you exit the maze, ascending a flight of stairs and returning to the land of the living. Though morbid to some, is an eye-opening way to spend your time in Paris, exploring the City of Lights from the darkness below.
Map of the Paris Catacombs via Wikimedia Commons; All photos courtesy of Olga Kirshenbaum