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Follow me for for two hours in the shallows of Paris, twenty metres below the surface, in a maze of dark tunnels. But don’t worry, we won’t get lost, as we follow the route of Marc, our trusty guide from My Private Paris. Sensitive souls please abstain.
IN THE BOWELS OF PARIS
For the record, the Catacombs were created at the end of the 18th century in an underground labyrinth of gypsum quarries, used to create the famous “plaster of Paris”. At the time, the cemeteries, located in the heart of the capital, were overburdened to the point of becoming unsanitary. The situation worsened until crisis point when The wall of a cellar adjacent to the « Cimetière des Innocents » cemetery collapsed under the pressure of thousands of corpses. It was the last straw that compelled the King to finally make a (rather novel) decision: the bones would find their new home in the old quarries of Paris.
AN AESTHETIC OF DEATH
The Catacombs are a real city beneath the city, as Victor Hugo remarked. Each location is thus signaled by an engraved plaque indicating the origin and date of transfer. What is striking is the care with which the bones have been arranged in sorts of romantic sculptures. In fact, the work is so meticulous that all the elements fit together without glue or plaster. So be careful not to touch anything! The unusual and so-called “romantic-macabre” aesthetic of the place attracted a crowd of visitors almost from the very beginning. Today it is the largest visited necropolis in the world! Our guide told us that in 1897, a clandestine concert even took place there. Nowadays, it still happens that cataphiles (yes, yes, the word and the concert -concept? exist) visit the place clandestinely. It is estimated that there are more than six million cadavers in the Catacombs and that famous personalities, from Nicolas Flamel to the great names of the French Revolution, can be found there. Moreover, our guide explained that “even in the Catacombs, after the Revolution, the flower ” fleurs-de-lys ” which is the symbol of royalty was removed. “
One enters the ossuary through a door with a warning: “Stop! This is the empire of death.” Our guide – Mark – told us that this refers to Roman mythology, and that these are the words of Charon, who guides the boat on the River Styx to the underworld. That sets the scene… A little further on, we discover the sculptures of Port-Mahon. They were built by one of the workers of the Catacombs, a sculptor in his spare time: Décure, or known by his nickname Beauséjour. He spent many hours there to perfect his artwork. He also died there, victim of a collapse. Not far away, we find the quarrymen’s foot bath, a small well containing a crystalline water. This is where the workers used to wash themselves after work. Near the exit of the ossuary, there is a vast room entirely surrounded by bones, known as the “Crypt of Passion” or “Tibias’ rotunda”. It is said that this is where the secret concert was held. The hall has a sculpture of bones in the shape of a barrel, exclusively made up of tibias, hence the name.
I close this article with one of the last sentences with which you will leave the Catacombs: “If you have seen a man die at times, always consider that the same fate awaits you. “It’s a gift 🙂
+ Musique : Phoebe Bridgers – Smoke Signals +
GOOD TO KNOW
See you at Place Denfert-Rochereau. There are 130 steps down and 83 going up so you have to be in shape, and the temperature in the Catacombs is of 14 degrees all year round. The visit lasts at least 45 minutes, and the space is obviously confined so it is better not to be claustrophobic. That said, there are only 200 visitors at any one time, which avoids jostling.
To book a private visit in small groups, go to My Private Paris. You will be able to bypass the queue (saving an average of 2 to 3 hours’ wait) by using your own entrance. You will also be able to access restricted areas, in rooms such as the « Chapelle du Crâne » or the underground masons’ museum, which are closed to the general public.
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