Unusual Paris Museums and Galleries: Catacombes
In spite of the somewhat forbidding sign over a stone portal to the ossuary which warns: “Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la mort” (“Stop! This is the empire of death”), the Catacombes is one of the very popular attractions in Paris. Each year thousands of visitors come to this interesting, if somewhat macabre, Paris museum 20 metres underground to see the of skulls and bones of some six million of the capital’s unfortunate inhabitants who were reburied here as things got crowded up top.
More than Just Skulls and Bones
Although many people visit the Catacombes just to see the bizarre symmetric displays of millions of skulls and bones, the Catacombes takes visitors on a timeless journey of geological evolution and explains how limestone deposits were formed millions of years ago. It was these limestones that were later quarried for use in the building of Paris during the Lutetian era and centuries after. Quarrying of stones originally took the form of open quarries but from the 13th century this was replaced by underground quarrying which explains the maze of tunnels and galleries that exist below the surface of Paris today.
The Catacombes is also a history of how Paris dealt with its unfortunate dead citizens. When church cemeteries became overcrowded and there were no longer room to expand, central mass burial pits were used from the 12th century to bury those not rich enough to afford a church burial.
The bones that were transferred to the Catacombes included the dead from all walks of life, including famous writers, painters, sculptors, architects, etc. La Fontaine, Rabelais and Charles Perrault are just some names to mention.
During the French Revolution, people were buried here directly, including the Swiss Guards who were killed storming the Tuileries and the victims of the guillotine. When you walk through the galleries, you’ll see some famous names like Danton, Desmoulins and Robespierre.
The final transfers of bones to the Catacombes occurred during Haussmann’s modernisation of Paris.
A Paris Attraction
In the early days, the Catacombes were just a bone repository. It was the work of Héricart de Thury, the Inspector of Quarries, who had the idea of arranging the bones and making the site accessible to visitors. The underground cemetery became a tourist attraction on a small scale from the early 19th century. The arrangement of the bones brings death to light and a number of texts taken from a variety of traditional Western sources provide food for thought. In spite of the number of dead people buried here, it does not feel eerie, but I probably wouldn’t enjoy being down there on my own.
Interesting Facts about the Catacombes
- After you buy your ticket you go through the gate and descend 130 steps down a tight spiral staircase, so be prepared. At the other end you climb up 83 steps to the exit on Rue Remy Dumoncel.
- The unique bone collection of 6 to 7 million people covers an area of 11,000 square metres and a distance of 2km, but this is only a tiny portion of the 300 km of old mine corridors.
- Galleries are an average of 2.30 metres high
- The temperature is a constant 14°C during summer and winter.
- A clandestine concert took place at the Crypt of the Passion on April 2, 1897. 100 prominent guests were invited and a 45-strong orchestra from the Paris Opera performed pieces like the Chopin’s Funeral March and Danse Macabre. It must have been a weird experience for those who were there. This well-orchestrated prank resulted in the two Catacombes attendants who allowed this to happen being fired!
Visiting the Catacombes
This unusual museum is very popular and for reasons of conservation, visitor numbers are limited to 200 at a time. The information poster at the Catacombes warns people that queueing time could be between 1 and 2 hours, but we’ve met people who had waited up to three hours. The last admission is 4 pm and if it does not appear that you will make it to the entrance on time, they will tell you to leave. So if visiting the Catacombes is a priority, it’s advisable to go there first thing in the morning.
The audioguides are worth getting as it provides excellent information about the different galleries. Although they say that the tour takes 45 minutes, you can spend a longer time down there if you’re interested in reading the literature.
If you don’t fancy standing in a queue for hours, you can join a personalized small group tour of the Catacombes.
In spite of the long queue, the Catacombes is certainly worth a visit. The entrance to the Catacombes de Paris is just across the street from the Denfert-Rochereau metro stop.
Catacombes de Paris
1, avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy (place Denfert-Rochereau)
Tél. : 01 43 22 47 63
Fax : 01 43 22 48 17
Métro and RER B : Denfert-Rochereau
Bus : 38, 68
Open: Tuesday – Sunday from 10 am to 8 pm (last entry 7:30 pm)
Entry: Check website for various options
Website: Catacombes de Paris
Next page : Musée Carnavalet