Beneath the feet of the living lies the empire of the dead; six million bodies filling the former Roman tunnels, seated beneath Paris, in desperation to stop the spread of disease. The official name given to this spectral realm is l’Ossuaire Municipal, and known to many simply as the catacombs.
The transfer of bones from surrounding cemeteries took place between the middle of the 18th century until the middle of the 19th. Eventually the caverns and tunnels were replete with pile upon pile of neatly stacked tibias, femurs and skulls, lining the walls from floor to ceiling.
The legendary figure of Philibert Aspairt, a door keeper to the Val de Grâce hospital, descended into the catacombs in November of 1793. Eleven years later he was discovered in skeletal form in the rue de l’Abbé de l’Epée, gnawed by rats, clutching his keys only a short distance from safety, yet unable to have seen his way. The dangers of the catacombs exist today, which is why unofficial escort has been illegal since the 1950’s, however they are often frequented by cataphiles. The cataphiles have a particular affinity with Paris’ underworld and gain access by unconventional means. They have to contend with the hidden dangers of the unstable catacombs, and should their lights fail, may await the same fait as Philibert Aspairt. The police also partrol parts of the labyrinth imposing fines on anybody caught.
Under my own district in the 16th arrondissement, cataphiles had gained access through a drain next to the Trocadero (nearby the Eiffel Tower), underneath the Palais de Chaillot. The group (claimed to be La Mexicaine de Perforation) set up an underground amphitheatre having installed electricity and phone lines. The story can be read here – In a secret Paris cavern, the real underground
For members of Joe Public with no desire to squeeze their way into the tunnels by unceremonious means, there is an official tourists’ entrance. The details in English can be found here – The Paris Catacombs.
I paid a visit there in 2005 just a few months after my journey to the ‘Church of Bones’ in the Czech republic.
You have to go down a number of steps before you reach the tunnel, and follow the path for about a mile before you resurface. A lady in front of me brought her young child down to this unearthly dominion, struggling to get the pushchair down the steps, and then carting the young toddler through the darkness with looming skulls and bones leering out at him from all around. I don’t imagine the visit was for the benefit of the child.
My prior visit to the Sedlec ossuary near Prague very much softened the effect of my catacomb visit, and as my thoughts often tend to our own mortality and short lived lives anyway, I don’t recall being philosophically challenged by my surroundings. I do however think it helped build upon my perspective of Paris not merely as a city above ground. Like the grandest of trees, Paris has deep cavernous roots.