Cool Stuff in Paris. By Manning Leonard Krull.
Skulls forming a cross at the top of an altar of bones in the Paris Catacombs.
Skulls forming a cross at the top of an altar of bones in the Paris Catacombs.

Les Catacombes de Paris

1, Avenue Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, 75014 Paris (Map)
Métro: Denfert-Rochereau | Website

"Stop. This is the land of the dead."

That's the charming greeting that awaits you as you arrive at the ossuary of the Paris catacombs. Perhaps my number one favorite touristy thing in Paris, les catacombes are a series of long, winding tunnels stretching a couple kilometers under Paris, packed with millions of neatly stacked bones excavated from various Paris cemeteries during the 18th century. The largest portion of these bones came from a cemetery called Le Cimetière des Innocents, which was in the Les Halles neighborhood, and is now commemorated there with a fountain bearing its name. By the 18th century the cemetery had become extremely overcrowded — historians note stories of corpses popping up out of the ground here and there, open graves left rotting, etc. — and to the citizens of central Paris, the resulting stench proved to be an annoyance at best and a serious health problem at worst. So someone got the great idea to excavate all the bones and arrange them in these tunnels in the South part of the city, and over the years other groups of skeletons were added from other cemeteries in Paris, and even from a few battles. All of these groups are indicated on the walls of the catacombs as you wander through.

Here's me leaning over to keep my hair from touching the gross ceiling.
In the catacombs. Here's me leaning over to keep my hair from touching the gross ceiling.
Visitors to the catacombs can buy a ticket at the little office at the address above, descend 130 steps, and creep through tunnels walled with the bones of thousands of Parisians. You'll first walk through a long, narrow hallway with no bones, which is conspicuously normal enough to make a lot of guests wonder if they're in the right place, but don't worry, the good stuff is coming right up. The first tunnel already makes for a very spooky experience even before you enter the ossuary, — i.e. the resting place of the bones — and it just gets better once you do. I recommend visiting the catacombs as early in the day as possible, and on a weekday if you can, to avoid the crowds; it's a much better experience when there are fewer people down there, and best when you're all alone! There are generally few or no guards in the catacombs, and while it may be temping to touch the bones, this is against the rules, not to mention gross. (Although, a friend of mine has a great/disgusting photo of herself pretending to gnaw on a femur; a hell of a souvenir.) There's a guard at the exit who checks your bag, so don't try stealing anything! There's also a little table near the exit that usually has a few bones on it that were removed from tourists' bags. How the heck did they think they were going to get that through airport security?

Getting there

Finding the entrance to the catacombs' office can be a little tricky when you come up from the Métro, as there's no large sign outside. The ticket office is a small, dark green building, which looks very different from all the big gray stone buildings around it. (A Google image search for "paris catacombs entrance" got me a picture of it right away, so take a look if you plan on going soon!) You may see a line of people outside, which will help you spot it, but if it's early in the day you might miss it unless you know to look for the little green shack.

A few warnings (surprisingly not about angry skeletons)

Visitors should be advised that there are two long, narrow spiral stairways involved in descending into the catacombs (130 steps) and coming back up at the end (83 steps). Some parts of the tunnels of the catacombs have rather low ceilings, so very tall people may have to duck occasionally; watch your head!

One more piece of advice, don't wear your best shoes to the catacombs. Depending on the season and the weather, there are sometimes areas of the floor that are wet, and sometimes there are even a few shallow puddles, which are usually small enough that you can walk around them. During such humid weather you might even get a drop or two of cold water falling on your head while you're in there; creepy! And kind of gross. Try not to think about it.

Rejoining the land of the living

When you finish the tour and exit the catacombs, you'll find that you've walked so far underground that you're now in a different part of the neighborhood! The closest Métro station to the entrance of the catacombs is Denfert-Rochereau (), but the exit is closer to a station called Mouton-Duvernet (). You'll probably be a bit disoriented when you get outside, so here's how to get to the Mouton-Duvernet station: as you walk out the exit door of the catacombs, turn right. Walk a couple blocks 'til you reach the first big street, Avenue du General Leclerc, and turn right again. Very soon you'll see the entrance to Métro Mouton-Duvernet on the other side of the street. Look back to make sure no skeletons are following you, and be on your way.

Just the tip of the iceberg

The public part of the catacombs is actually just a small part of allegedly over a hundred kilometers of tunnels under the city, most of which haven't been used in decades. Now, I have no experience with this myself, but there are tons of stories about all kinds of interesting things going on in those other tunnels. Parisians, mostly teenagers, break in and explore these tunnels all the time, but it's very hard to get any information about how and where to get in. Of course, visiting these other tunnels is illegal, so if you do attempt it you risk being arrested, which is probably a very bad idea for a foreign tourist. Also, there are allegedly squatters and drug addicts living in some parts of the tunnels, and they possibly wouldn't be very happy to meet you. Various details I've overheard regarding what can be found in the tunnels involve things as mundane as graffiti and rats and garbage to things as wondrous as squatter villages with furniture and electricity, and artifacts from people hiding out during various wars! And be sure to check out this unbelievable article regarding a working movie theater discovered in the catacombs. Once again, let me stress that breaking into these tunnels is against the law, and quite possibly dangerous... but if you do happen to hear where one might be able to find one's way in...

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