Friday, October 30, 2020

With Halloween just around the corner, I am reminded of one of the spookier experiences from our travels in Europe.

In 2016, we had just moved to London and some friends wanted to meet in Paris for the weekend. Someone suggested seeing the Catacombs of Paris as a different activity to do. Now, this would not normally be my cup of tea as I get freaked out easily, but we agreed to go as a group.

The Catacombs are indeed creepy. Perhaps even morbid, but also oddly interesting.

Skulls in the Catacombs of Paris
Long row of bones Catacombs of Paris
The Catacombs of Paris were “created” at the end of the 18th century because, basically, the city had run out of room to bury its dead in the local cemeteries. In fact, in 1780, after a bad rainstorm, rotting corpses washed out into the street from the Les Innocents, the city’s oldest and largest cemetery. Can you imagine?

I shudder to think of anyone who lived even close to this cemetery in the 18th century! The city must have reeked of decomposing bodies!

So King Louis XVI issued an order to move the city’s dead. The first evacuations were made in 1785 to 1787 and started with the Les Innocents cemetery. The bones and skeletons were transported at night to the former Tombe-Issoire quarries under the plain of Montrouge, which at the time, was located outside the capital. The quarries date back to the 14th century and much of the limestone extracted from here was used to build Paris before the 18th century.

Tunnel view Catacombs of Paris

As you pass into the ossuary, you walk under a doorway with the haunting inscription above: 
Arrête, c'est ici l'empire de la mort!” (Stop! This is the empire of death!)

Did you know there are at least 320km/200 miles of tunnels from the old quarries under the City of Light?

And only a small portion, covering 1.5 km/about 1 mile, of the Catacombs is officially open to the public.

Map of the Catacombs of Paris
History plaque in Catacombs of Paris

Between the late 18th and mid-19th centuries, the bones of more than 6 million Parisians were transferred to the Catacombs. In April 1786, the site was consecrated as the “Paris Municipal Ossuary” – an ossuary is a place where human skeletons are stored. But the name “Les Catacombes de Paris” was introduced in reference to the Roman catacombs, and the name stuck.

In 1809, the Catacombs were opened to the public by appointment and became a tourist attraction. At first, the bones had just been dumped haphazardly into the old tunnels, but eventually, the city’s inspector was charged with organizing the bones.

Today, you’ll find the walls of the Catacombs lined with tibias and femurs punctuated with old skulls. This sight is enough to make anyone feel a bit creeped out.

Bones deposited 1787 Catacombs Paris
Line of skulls 1804 Catacombs of Paris

Bones deposited 1859 Catacombs Paris

More skulls and bones in Catacombs of Paris

Every now and then, you’ll see a blank niche in the aging wall, and you have to wonder if someone didn’t take a “souvenir” from the Catacombs.

Have you been to the Catacombs of Paris? Or would you go?

Huge display of bones in Catacombs of Paris
Layers of skulls and bones Catacombs of Paris

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Creepy skulls Catacombs of Paris

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