The Catacombs of Paris

Far below its decadent creperies, cafes, famous landmarks, and bustling city centre is a huge network of underground tunnels that were once used to bury the remains of millions of Parisians. The Catacombs of Paris remain mostly closed to the public, but one section in the Montparnasse District near the city centre is open for tourism, drawing many curious visitors to see the hallways of the dead.

I visited Paris for the first time recently, and the Catacombs were almost at the top of my list (only to be outdone by the wonderfully iconic Notre Dame). I arrived an hour early and waited in line, which was already rapidly growing. When I reached the entrance, I got a handheld phone for the audio tour and descended a long spiral staircase to the opening passage. For now, only the stone walls of the abandoned mine lay ahead. I loaded the first track from the tour and started walking down the dimly lit hallway.

It talked about how the ancient quarry tunnels under the city became a burial site on a mass scale in the late 1700s, long before a more effective burial infrastructure was developed. There was a literal excavation of overflowing remains from cemeteries to the catacombs below – a project that took the city twelve years to complete. Generations of more than a thousand years of the city’s rich history adorned the hallways. Famous artists, revolutionaries, common folk. They all joined in the same fate along the dark walls of the tunnel.

I reached the first corridor of neatly stacked bones – a pattern likely used to store the dead as efficiently as they were able. It went on for what must have been half a mile. It was all without a doubt very macabre and disturbing, yet there was a beauty and art to their work that I think any visitor can appreciate.

And this was only one section of the Catacombs, whose tunnel system is estimated at 200 miles of underground passageways. It remains open from Tuesday to Sunday of each week. If you get the chance, bring headphones, load up your favorite Carcass album, and check it out.

For more information:

Atlas Obscura
Official Website