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    France | Paris The Catacombs – certainly not ghoulish but maybe a little macabre

    Paris Catacombs – certainly not ghoulish but maybe a little macabre

    Once considered a ghoulish destination, the catacombs in Paris have become a highlight on the ‘must visit list’, even for the locals!

    Understanding the history behind the Catacombs takes away the somewhat creepy overtones of such a place and adds a deeper, more fascinating slant to this curious place.

    Open to the public since 1809, the Paris Catacombs were allegedly created, in part, as a tourist attraction.  Sounds reasonable; there really weren’t a lot of options for entertainment way back in the 1800s except the theatre. A tourist attraction? This assumption could well be true as there is a definite sense of drama as you make your way through the tunnels.

    What are the catacombs? It’s an ossuary in abandoned, underground limestone quarries dating back to the 15th century. The first cemetery, located in the Les Halles district, was closed in 1780 due concerns for public safety. In fact, the cemeteries in the 1700s were full of above ground graves, so overpopulated, bodies were often easily unearthed. The stench from decomposing corpses lead to complaints to the Parisian authorities. The solution to this problem: the creation of the ossuary, the final resting place of human skeletal remains.

    The catacombs house the bones from central Paris cemeteries which were part of the urban development work carried out by Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann until the mid-1800s. Haussmann was a controversial urban planner who was appointed to oversee the renovation of Paris’s old and dirty, overcrowded working-class neighbourhoods. He is credited with transforming airless, dark medieval streets by widening them to create light-filled, expansive avenues.

    How do you access them? To access the galleries containing the remains of several millions of Parisians, you must climb down 130 steps, 20 metres underground. You walk along a narrow corridor until you reach the main ‘foyer’. A headstone reads “Arrête, c’est ici l’empire de la mort” which, translated, is “stop, this is death’s empire”. Dramatic indeed but take yourself back to the 1800s. Imagine seeing these words carved into a large stone block. No electricity, only candlelight. It would certainly send shivers up your spine.

    How long is it? You will walk about 1.3km. It will take about 45minutes in 14-degrees centigrade.

    Interesting snippets: Google the catacombs and you’ll find various writers commenting on myths and ghoulish tales. It’s also been said some cults used the Catacombs as hideouts in early 2000s.

    These stories may or may not have some foundation of truth in them, but it certainly adds mystery and a touch of the macabre to the catacombs experience.

    When you’re walking through the tunnels, you’ll notice street names (avenue de ….). This is because the tunnels have been named with the same names of the corresponding streets above them.

    The bones don’t belong solely to the poor (including the 1343 people guillotined during the French Revolution). Famous French ‘celebrities’ sharing the same resting place include Marat, Robespierre, Fouquet (Louis XIV’s superintendent of finance), Colbert, Rabelais, Hardouin-Mansart, Racine, Pascal, Maral, Lully, Danton, and Lavoisier.

    You will notice some of the skulls are transformed into massive heart shapes. Not a fanciful act; it was because of the limited space – they had to accommodate the bones of over six million bodies!

    Good to know:

    You enter the site from avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy. You leave at 21 bis. avenue René Coty.

    If you’re meeting friends after your tour of the Catacombs, make sure you give them the right address.

    Booking is essential. Only 200 people allowed through the catacombs at any given time.

    Catching the train: Metro and RER: Denfert-Rochereau stop

    Open 10am – 8.30pm except Mondays and some holidays.

    Cost 29 euro per person.

    If you have mobility issues but would like to see the catacombs, you can purchase an online visit for 3 euro.

    Postscript:

    The website suggests that you wear warm clothes; something to shield you from the chills ‘down under’. Monty and I visited early September this year. We took our jumpers but never used them. In fact, the temperature underground was very pleasant.

    Online there is an ‘official ticket // last minute catacombs’ option for 15 euro. We tried this option first as we were near the catacombs site; it wasn’t a good decision. We were met with disdain and told to go away and buy online. Despite this, we highly recommend visiting the Catacombs. Fascinating on many levels.

    The catacombs of Paris| Catacombs of Paris| Official website

    Where: 1 avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy (place Denfert-Rochereau)

    For further images please go to www.johnmontaguephotography.com

    Vicki Montague is a freelance writer with a predilection for travel, European fashion, architecture that oozes history and charm, and objects that tell a story. She and her partner John are empty nesters - their three adult children have left the comforts of home to carve out their own paths in life. Vicki’s professional background is in marketing and public relations.

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