So you have seen Paris, its top monuments and attractions, the regular tourist sights and trails! Would you like to find out what it is like below ground, its secrets, and even see the ghosts of its past? Plunge into the bowels of the city, 20 metres below ground, for a unique tour … of the Catacombes.
An original place to visit
The small entrance to the Catacombes is situated in Place Denfert-Rochereau, a few steps from the metro. It is unassuming but well signposted. You are sure to see it: the little queue that extends along the Rol-Tanguy indicates the way and demonstrates the popularity of this tourist site which has been visited for two centuries. Because every year, more than 250,000 visitors have ventured down here.
Sporty types take note! To get to the galleries that are situated 20 metres below ground, you have to go down some 140 steps. Below, there is a temporary exhibition space that recounts the history of the Catacombes and the below ground of Paris, from prehistoric times when the site was immersed under the water.
This short introduction plunges visitors into the unusual world of the Catacombes. They are then ready for a tour! En route for a 2 kilometre itinerary along galleries full of history. The route is signed with numbered inscriptions that testify to the different periods of work carried out for centuries underground. In total, allow 45 minutes for the tour, but there is no need to worry as the passageway is wide, clean and well-lit with a high ceiling and signposting. The staff at the site guide visitors and answer their questions at any time.
Nevertheless, opt for walking shoes rather than high heels to get the most out of your visit!
Empire of the dead
After about a 20-minute walk, the inscription "Arrête ! C'est ici l'empire de la mort" (‘Stop ! Here is the empire of the dead’), engraved onto a lintel, marks the entrance to the ossuary of the Catacombes de Paris. The tone is set! This warning echoes the indications given before the tour: "déconseillé aux personnes sensibles et aux jeunes enfants", (‘not recommended for sensitive people and young children’). So, you have been warned … now it is time for shivers and a macabre world, because the Paris ossuary contains the ‘overflow’ from the remains of corpses from the city’s cemeteries that were emptied in the 18th century in order to accommodate new tombs.
For several hundreds of metres, bones lie in piles along the galleries. Skulls, tibias, femurs in lines, and classed by cemetery, provide a lugubrious spectacle to onlookers. And to think that previously, some of the most famous people of the time had jostled to visit this site. What’s more, the route through the ossuary is punctuated with gloomy messages by the greatest writers of the time, engraved in the stone.
A walk through the Catacombes – at least the small part open to the public – is more than an unusual visit; it is a veritable immersion into the heart of history. As you exit the site, you reflect on this disquieting and instructive experience that also requires a bit of physical effort, and you have the impression that you have travelled through several centuries in less than an hour.
It is worth noting that if you find the long summer days too hot, then this journey underground is a refreshing experience. With a temperature of 14°C and the humidity in the galleries, you will be glad to have a jacket with you. And for souvenir fans: take note, you are not allowed to pocket a bone!
Les Catacombes de Paris
1 avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, Paris 14th
Times: Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 8.30pm. Closed on monday and on 1 May. Last entrance at 7.30pm.
More info on: Les Catacombes de Paris