Did I tell you about the time I visited the Paris Catacombs?
We stood in line for hours. No, that is not an exaggeration for dramatic effect. Literal hours. We made a bad choice.
Poor, patient Frenchman stood along with me, our feet dying (ready to be put out of their misery and left with the rest of the skeletons down below), wondering why in the world this strange American wanted to do this so badly. If only he knew then what kinds of crazy antics he’d be roped into for all eternity when he decided to marry me. #SaintFrenchman.
It’s not always like this, apparently. We just got very, very unlucky
The Paris Catacombs
The concept of the Les Catacombes is pretty creepy, just at face value. A labyrinth of underground tunnels walled with the scattered bones of millions of people? Shudder. I HAD TO SEE IT.
In effect, what happened is that after centuries and centuries of Paris being a hugely populated metropolis, the city’s cemeteries were filled to the brim. Like, bodies were piled up so badly that they started to wash up in heavy rains, since they could no longer be buried deep enough to stay buried. Seriously: In 1780, a “prolonged period of spring rain caused a wall around Les Innocents to collapse, spilling rotting corpses into a neighboring property.” 😨 Even in the 1700s the smell was, apparently, unbearable. Plus, the city could use some extra land that was otherwise occupied by people who really didn’t seem to be needing such prime real estate.
It was decided: the dead would have to be moved. There was already a warren of tunnels under the city dating from the 13th century, a perfect storage space. Les Innocents cemetery was the first to be emptied, soon followed by all others in the city. An estimated 6 or 7 million skeletons were moved to the new Catacombs. It took 12 years.
The fun part? They didn’t just toss them all in piles. They decorated. A far more dignified way to have your bones dug up and relocated, I suppose. The catacombs have intricately stacked and designed walls, with zillions of femurs all laying one way, toothless skulls all facing front or organized into crosses and patterns. It’s super weird.
Additional fun fact: starting with the French revolution, the deceased were moved directly to the ossuaries, without making a pit stop in a traditional cemetery. They didn’t stop adding bones to the Catacombs until 1860.
We finally, finally got to the front of the line to go down into the mysterious catacombs. We slowwwwly snaked around this little garden and around to the main entrance, which looks like a tiny house, painted black. Inside, your ticket is scanned to count the number of people inside (presumably to limit how many enter, as well as to make sure the same number also exits) and down you go!
First, you come to a little exhibit room. I feebly looked at the signs and descriptions on the walls but, after hours of waiting I was here for the main event!
“Arrête, c’est ici l’empire de la mort! / Stop! This is the empire of death! “
Really sets the mood! You enter through this doorway and immediately a weird sense of awe, fascination, and creepyness hits you. It’s chilly and damp. You are literally surrounded by skeletons. Underground.
It feels very strange to take photos down there. Almost… disrespectful? I mean, these are real people’s remains. But then you see other tourists touching the bones and making faces and taking selfies. The whole thing is unsettling.
The tunnels go on for what feels like forever. There’s a set path you have to follow, though you can clearly see that there are many more paths blocked off (the Catacombs actually extend for miles. The large majority is closed to the public and preserved). There are several monuments throughout the tunnels, and the ossuary is organized by the cemetery from which the bones were moved.
Finally, you come to the end and up, up you climb back to the light of day. A man with a clicker counts you as you exit. No new lost souls in the Catacombs this day.
Happy Halloween from Paris!
Straight from spooky Paris, Happy Halloween! One of my favorite sort-of holidays, this excuse for parties, costumes, and candy isn’t really celebrated in France. Some chocolateries and stores have started to get into the spirit, but it’s a far cry from pumpkin-flavored everything and trick-or-treating at home.
We do, however, celebrate All Saints Day tomorrow as a federal bank holiday! A mid-week day off almost trumps my need for jack-o-lanterns and candy overdoses.
What are you doing for Halloween? I want to see your cool costumes!