Before visiting, I didn’t realise that the story of the catacombs of Paris is so crazy pants. Having been, I would highly recommend it to anyone visiting Paris. Initially it wasn’t on our list of things to see and do in our time here. Svet and I had mentioned it at some point, but (clearly through lack of knowledge about it) we weren’t drawn to it enough to make the time.

Seven years ago we met a delightful Belgian family while they were living in Australia. Their two girls are within a few years range of our kids, and we hung out and holidayed with them in their two years in Melbourne.

Fun with Belgians!
Fun with Belgians!

They were awesome enough to make the long drive from the north of Belgium to Paris for a weekend to see us. Luckily for us they suggested the catacombs as something to do, so tickets were booked and off we went.

Inappropriate ossuary selfie!
Inappropriate ossuary selfie!

The backstory

Paris is know for its monumental limestone buildings. The stone to make these buildings is also what holds the city up; deep underground, huge seams of limestone make up the foundations of the now-sprawling metropolis. When the stone was first mined though, Paris was much smaller and mining was done outside the city limits. The mines were haphazard and as mining technology improved (such as being able to dig longer, deeper tunnels…) the mines expanded. Mines were used up and abandoned, and few records were kept.

Time has added a little 'je ne sais quoi' to the overall effect.
Time has added a little ‘je ne sais quoi’ to the overall effect.

Meanwhile, Paris was growing and expanding over the top of long forgotten mines. Forgotten, until some started to collapse bringing the street above with it. A new government bureaucracy was created to reinforce the tunnels that were known, and to find hidden tunnels that lay beneath the city. This new-found interest in and knowledge of the vast underground network came in handy in the 18th century.

In 1780, the overcrowded Les Innocents cemetery was full to the point of bursting. Literally. It burst into a neighbour’s basement, a situation of which the neighbour was not a massive fan. It prompted a Paris-wide ban on being buried within the city limits (it wasn’t just Les Innocents that was maxed out) and a plan hatched to empty out the cemeteries into an ossuary to be created in the newly reinforced mines.

Nothing says "I love you" like skulls in a heart shape.
Nothing says “I love you” like skulls in a heart shape.

In the cover of night, wagons full of bones escorted by priests rolled through the streets. For the next 25 years, remains were dumped down shafts indiscriminately. In 1810, Héncart de Thury, in charge of the quarries, decided to neaten it up and make it a museum – “The Empire of the Dead”. Bones were stacked and used to decorate columns and skulls formed into love hearts. Delightful! Additions were made as the great architect of modern Paris, Georges-Eugène Haussmann, cleared more cemeteries to realise his vision. Around 6 million Parisians now reside in the catacombs – more than double the number of people walking around alive 20m above.

Visiting the catacombs now

The catacombs, whilst no Eiffel Tower, are very popular and the number of people allowed in is strictly controlled. Booking ahead is a must unless you enjoy early mornings and long queues. Even in October when we went, the times available on weekends were limited (although the morning queues for people who hadn’t booked ahead seemed manageable).

Descending into the Empire of the Dead.
Descending into the Empire of the Dead.

The 4km of tunnels you can visit are dirt and stone but fairly flat. It’s a little moist underfoot occasionally, but nothing that normal footwear can’t handle. It is allegedly 14 degrees C but it felt much warmer than that. All up it is an easy walk that you can do as quickly or slowly as you want. We spent around an hour and a half there all up. There is heaps of information available, both up on walls at the start as well as in the excellent audioguide (a must for all ages in my opinion). It’s a macabre but enlightening experience.

An aside

While writing this, I found out that Melbourne has double the population of Paris and is almost 10 times the geographical area.  Largely unrelated to the catacombs, but I thought I’d share.