Under the city of Paris, as in many other cities, is a huge winding system of tunnels, alleys and byways, and a whole population of the dead. On our five-day city-break last week, we decided to brave the three-hour queue to go in. Only two hundred people are allowed in at any one time, so the queue moves very slowly. Luckily we found ourselves in the line beside a delightful couple, (who laughed at all our jokes!) and the time went, if not quickly, in a pleasant way as we got to know each other.
I had a little sketch book with me and drew Dónall and a bit of the queue, to help pass the time.
The public tour takes about 45 minutes and you can hire an audio-guide. We didn't.
Paris's past is commemorated in its Catacombs as in the art galleries, statuary monuments and museums above ground. There are five storeys and 200 kilometres of tunnels, most closed to the public for obvious reasons. Google "Paris Catacombs stories" and you can read about some of them, in true and fictional tales.
In 1785, the overflowing populations of churchyards and monasteries and the huge cemeteries of Pére Lachaise, Montmartre and Montparnasse forced the city to begin to disinter and relocate the remains of their citizens from the ossuaries where they had been stored after the churchyards were full. The Revolution in 1788-1793 brought huge numbers of new corpses for disposal and a section of the catacombs is devoted just to those turbulent years of riots and mass executions and assassinations.
The last bones were stacked in the tunnels in 1859, by which time more care was being taken to show respect for these anonymous remains of Paris's citizens.
Inscriptions with quotations from the Bible and from poets (Desmartine, Dante and others) are in most of the tunnels, where the first consignments, from the churchyard of Les Innocents, had been unceremoniously dumped in 1785 and during the violent French Revolution years. Somewhere among these skulls and femurs are the leaders of the Revolution, Danton, Camille Desmoulins and Robespierre, who finally fell victims to it. Having just read Hilary Mantel's "A Place of Greater Safety" we felt very moved by the thought.
Oddly, we didn't find it very spooky to be surrounded by memento mori like this. After the first few tunnels, these stacks of skulls became curiosities, the most moving aspect of them how small and vulnerable our heads look, when flesh and jaw have gone and our differences are almost (but not quite) erased.
We didn't regret the time we queued. You have to see this once, we agreed.
The catacombs of Paris were founded in the quarries worked for centuries for building materials and limestone. The quarries fell into disuse and needed work to strengthen the roofs and prevent subsidence. They're very deep, the first gallery reached down 177 narrow spiral steps. If there was subsidence in a tunnel, a "bucket dome" would form, progressively piling rock above the point of the original fall until the surface at the top collapsed. There's a preserved example of a one of these, repaired, near the bottom of the 85 step exit staircase. Looking up at it makes rather a beautiful photo but was catastrophic in the street above. The white monument in the centre of the round chamber commemorates those who died in the subsidence.
The two relief sculptures below are by Décure, one of the first workers employed by the Quarry Inspectors. They are of a palace in his home city, Port Mahon in Menorca. He made them between 1777 and 1782, from memory: before coming to Paris he had been imprisoned in a gaol opposite the palace. He died in a rock-fall, not long after making them.
The nearest Metro station is Denfert-Rochereau on Line 2 - it's a short walk from there.