In the late 1700s, Paris’ developers were looking for more land to accommodate a rapidly growing city. Not expecting to hear any complaints from the tenants, they decided to build on the city’s oldest – and fullest – cemeteries. The only problem was relocating the millions of skeletons from their resting places.
Paris had been mined for ages for its limestone deposits until the city started caving in on itself and the public pleaded with King Louis XVI to end the excavation before Paris became the new Atlantis. Not wishing to be undermined (ha ha), Louis conceded and the mining was stopped. Later, when asked where to put the remnants of the dead Parisians, the king knew just the place. This is how the limestone quarries of Paris became its infamous Catacombs. The entrance stands where Paris’ “Gate of Hell” used to be at the southern wall of the ancient city at Place de Denfert Rochereau, in the 14th arrondissement.
Some details about visiting: It opens at 10AM so you should be in line by 9AM at the very latest to avoid a long wait. We arrived at 1015AM and waited for 2.5 hours. The line to get in circles around the small park that sits above the entrance to the Catacombs. By the time we reached the ticket window, the line had wrapped completely around the park and the wait from there I judged to be about 4 hours minimum. On a rainy day in Paris.
Rent the audioguide with your ticket. It’s 10 euros to enter, 5 euros for the audioguide and it is well worth it. The path through the Catacombs is marked by small numbered signs that correspond to tracks on the audioguide. Without the context and history provided by the audio, you’ll just be looking at a very big pile of old bones. Some informative panels appear in the beginning and at the end of the walk but they pale in scope compared to the audio.
It should take you 45 minutes to an hour to walk through the Catacombs and it is a 103-step flight down and 86 steps back up. I wouldn’t recommend it for the claustrophobic and the temperature is rather cool all year round so wear a sweater or jacket.
Walking past thousands upon thousands of bones – a small fraction of the six million skeletons moved to the ossuary – neatly stacked underneath the city of Paris, interspersed with maxims from French, Latin and Italian authors on the nature of life and death, well, it makes for an interesting experience. If you’re open to it, you may feel yourself wanting to seize the day, literally and figuratively. I wondered about the men who took the time to stack the bones and skulls so neatly and how often they got to see the blue sky…
It is a memorable experience and reminds me of the Latix maxim: memento mori, or, remember death! At the gift shop outside, I couldn’t help buying the mug that says “Keep Calm and Remember YOU WILL DIE.”