Underneath the city of Paris, you’ll find a honeycomb of tunnels. The French resistance used these tunnels during World War II, and rave parties flourished there during the 1990s. Victor Hugo used his knowledge about the tunnel system when he wrote Les Misérables. In 1871, communards killed a group of monarchists in one chamber. The tunnel system is a giant maze and no one knows quite how many tunnels or chambers there are out there. Paris is, after all, a very old city that has been built and rebuilt many times.
Yet in this maze of tunnels, you’ll find one part open to the public – the famous Catacombs of Paris. The Catacombs of Paris were created at the end of the 18th century. From the late seventeenth century, Paris’ largest cemetery, Les Innocents, became too filled with bodies, and neighbors began suffering from disease due to contamination caused by improper burials and open mass graves. Neither the cemetery, nor any of the others for that matter, could keep up with the population growth of Paris. After multiple complaints by residents, the Council of State in November 9, 1785 pronounced the removal and the evacuation of the cemetery.
The bones were removed from 1786 and continued until 1788. The bones were always moved at night to a ceremony made up of a procession of priests who sang along the way to the Catacombs.
Since the first day they were complete, the Catacombs have been an object of curiosity, even for royalty. In 1787, Lord of d’Artois, who became King Charles 10, went down there with the ladies from the Court. In 1814, François 1st, Emperor of Austria, went to visit and explore them while he was in Paris. In 1860, Napoleon III went there with his son. The catacomb walls are also covered in graffiti dating from the eighteenth century. Everyone has left their mark on this place. Towards the end of the 18th century, the catacombs became a tourist attraction and have been open to the public on a regular basis from 1867.
The Catacombs are eerie. They are quiet, dark, damp, and a bit downright depressing. There are lots of bones around and most of them are just stacked up on each other. You’ll never know who is who – that skull you are looking at could be someone who died from the plague or from a wealthy aristocrat. You never know.
To get to the Catacombs, you can take the subway and the RER to Denfert-Rochereau or use Bus 38 and 68. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day except Monday. Last admission is at 4 p.m. Visits are limited to 200 visitors in the site (entries can be stopped temporarily) and it costs 7 Euros. Check their website before you go because they are sometimes closed without warning or explanation.