When I think of Paris I think of glamour, charm and sophistication. A city often romanticised, adorned with sparkling lights and opulent buildings contributing to the allure of it all.
But have you ever stopped to wonder what lies deep down beneath the urban streets?
Every day, thousands of Parisians and tourists are unaware that they’re walking directly above a long series of underground tunnels that house 6 million skeletons (and a fascinating story as to how they got there). A dark history that often goes without notice as busy bodies commute to work going about their daily antics whilst a mysterious world exists below.
The tunnels are known as the Paris Catacombs, as I’m sure many of you reading this will know or have heard about. I was interested in seeing them for myself so I paid a trip there to learn more about the famous Catacombs.
We arrived in Paris on the Eurostar in the morning and had some work to get done in the daytime, so we booked the latest slot possible to enter the Catacombs - which is 6pm. There was a long queue - even on a rainy Tuesday evening - where people have been waiting for over an hour if not more. Luckily we booked ahead online and for €30 we were able to skip the queue. Something I definitely recommend doing - it will save you a lot of time and energy.
Upon entering, you make your way down a long spiral staircase (that seems never-ending) until you get right underground.
You’re now in the real hidden Paris. The largest underground necropolis in the world.
The whole experience is an independent tour where you walk through at your own speed which I quite liked. At first you make your way through a long series of tunnels, with sign posts and history boards telling you little more about what this place is about. About 8 minutes in, you reach the true Catacombs. Essentially an underground cemetery.
Skulls upon skulls upon skulls. Bones perfectly arranged by hand to form ongoing, never-ending walls made of skeleton pieces. I don't think I've actually ever seen real bones or skeletons in my 24 years. You can't help but think that these were once people and start imagining who they were and what they looked like. Every skull and bone looked the same.
If I could describe it in one word, it would be creepy.
While eerie and strange, I had a peculiar thought; ‘what a safe place to be if another war kicked off". Probably the safest place to be in the whole of Paris if something like that were to occur (if you can deal with skeletons as your roommates).
To me, it felt like a cross between a nightmare and a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean. Not somewhere that I would like to be trapped. And for a while you do feel quite trapped, as the tunnels seem to go on and on.
A man had stopped to take a ‘selfie’ with a skull. It didn’t feel right. These were once real people and they are real bones.
What’s truly shocking is how many bones have actually been deposited here. This may seem odd, but the whole experience became quite repetitive just due to the sheer volume of bones that never seemed to end.
A lot of questions were going through my head before even entering. How did the bones get there? Why are they there? Why have they been laid out and built like walls? Whose job was it to put them there?
SO WHERE DID THE BONES COME FROM?
Long story short, in the 18th century there was a serious overflow of dead bodies in Paris. One place in particular; the Cemetery of the Holy Innocents right in the heart of the city. Since the Middle Ages, remains of the majority of Parisians were buried here - so the constant cramming over time explains the mass congestion.
By the time of the French Revolution, overcrowding of dead bodies in the city became a severe problem in other cemeteries too.
The overflow became a health risk to the surrounding area - the bodies had to find a new home.
Paris’ abandoned underground quarries were forgotten about until the authorities decided to turn them into an ossuary in 1786 (which is now the Catacombs). The Cemetery of the Holy Innocents was the first cemetery to be emptied so all the bones were transferred to the Catacombs - the cemetery was subsequently closed due to sanitary reasons.
The quarries were strengthened to make them safe, and the millions of bones were carefully stacked over time from different cemeteries around Paris, which were also closed or knocked down once emptied.
From the very start, visitors were welcome creating a whole new concept of underground tourism.
FOOD AND DRINK POST-CATACOMBS
After those gruelling spiral steps for what seem to go on forever to get back up and out of the Catacombs, you’ll need a drink. Once out, I let out a sigh of relief. Those stairs are a killer and I decided I don't ever want to see another skeleton skull again. But I was glad I did this. And if you've read this far (thank you if you have), I would recommend it to anybody if you want to know about the other side of Paris - a darker side less talked about.
Quench your thirst across the road at Le Comptoir, a classic French cafe (where the staff also speak English). You’d think this place would be a classic example of a tourist trap being so close to the Catacombs - but it’s the exact opposite.
It was quiet on a Tuesday night, with a few locals relaxing and dining. I ordered a cheese board to share with my friend, and it was very enjoyable. The service was also fantastic. There are proper main meals on the menu too if you're feeling super hungry.
And while I was sitting there indulging in my wine and brie in the comfort of a lovely French cafe sheltered away from the rain, I stopped to think for a second, “Right below where I’m sitting lies millions of bones of dead people of France's past."
Then I took another sip of my Pinot Noir, forgot about it and I carried on having a lovely time. Just as everyone else forgets about it here, because what else can you do?