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The Parisian Underworld

Guest post sent by Lori Z from Paris | Published : 25/Dec/2006 17:20

No, not the Paris Mob. I’m talking about l’Empire de la Mort - The Catacombs!

The Catacombs span the entire city of Paris. The tunnels and passageways spiral in an incredible distance of 186 miles! Yet, the legal tourist area spans only about a mile. For a very low entrance fee (2.5€ 26 and under, 5€ 27+) you can explore the sectioned off tunnels for as long as you want. Just bring a jacket, it’s 11 degrees C in there year round.


When I visited, my friend and I began the descent on the endless spiral staircase leading us deeper and deeper underground, looking for the “tour group.” We kept wandering, looking for any semblance of a worker, or tourist...nothing.

The next thing I know, we’re in a room with a giant stone plaque engraved with “Arette! C’est ici l’empire de la mort!” (stop! this is the empire of the dead.) So, basically, there was no guide, no tour group, just us, alone, in the catacombs...surrounded by what seems like millions of bones. It’s so dark that in places I have to take a flash photo in order to read the stone markers. The ceiling is a constant drip! drip! drip! The walls are composed of stacked femurs, lengthwise, with rows of skulls adorning them, sometimes in patterns. I can’t say I wasn’t creeped out. Each “mound” of bones has a marker indicating the cemetery they were excavated from and the date of the excavation. Stone markers with French proverbs and poems about death and eternal life are in many of the rooms, and so are altars and defunct fountains and wells.

After a while, the amount of bones is incomprehensible. It just seems so surreal that there are THAT many skulls piled infront of you. Then suddenly you stumble into a room that is two stories high with an arch and you feel like you’re in an underground church. No more bones. Endless spiral staircase up - and you’re on a tiny quiet residential street. The building which houses the exit has no signs indicating you’ve just left The Catacombs. Just a row of homes. Talk about adding to the weirdness!

There are ways to illegally visit the other parts of The Catacombs, through secret entrances, sewers, or manhole covers. My Parisian friend told me about an underground movie theater the cops found in there in 2004, used for secret screenings. Apparently there are many pirate maps available on the internet and what not, but I wasn’t taking any chances. Aside from getting arrested if you’re caught, it is ridiculously easy to get lost. Some of the tunnels are labeled with the corresponding street above, but most are not, some are flooded and some dead ends. I’m adventurous, but not THAT adventurous.

Construction on The Catacombs began in the late 1700s, as the water in Paris was starting to become diseased due to poor burials. Some genius decided to dig up all the graves and dump them in the tunnels the Romans had dug under the city to mine limestone. They continued to dump bones here well into the 19th Century. Occasionally, part of a tunnel would collapse, and the people/street/buildings above would end up in The Catacombs!

Creepy as it was, it was one of my favorite parts of Paris. Paris is so beautiful and decadent, it was amazing to see what dark history looms below!

Take the metro to the Denfert-Rochereau stop.

Paris Catacombs
1 Place Denfert-Rochereau; 14th arr.
Paris, France