The City Of Darkness Under The City Of Light
Saturday was cold and damp and gray — a typical winter day in what I affectionately call “Gray Paree. ” Yet, it couldn’t have been more perfect for a visit to the Catacombs.
For those of you who haven’t been, a “trip” to the Catacombs can be an almost hallucinogenic experience. It should be done at least once in your lifetime, which could easily be enough. (If you must choose between visiting “Les Egouts” [the sewers] and the Catacombs, there is no comparison. . . dump the sewage and go for the bones!) This was my second tour of the “bowels of Paris” that house 6 million bodies of bones, thanks to my visiting sister and niece, who provided the excuse to be a tourist once again.
The Catacombs occupy only a portion of the rock quarries that date back 1,000 to 2,000 years ago. In the 1786, part of these quarries was sectioned off to house the contents of several of the city’s cemeteries — the first and largest of these was the Cimetière des Innocents. Remains from the Cemetery of Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs and others followed. Also bodies from the riots in the Place de Greve, from the Hôtel de Brienne and from rue Meslée, were put in the Catacombs in 1788.
The cemeteries were emptied into the Catacombs because they were overcrowded, took up valuable space and posed a health risk due to recent plagues. The bones of six million people were exhumed and neatly re-stacked in rooms 65 meters below the city’s streets. Some of the cemeteries were about four hundred years old when they were emptied. One source has it that the Cimetière des Innocents was itself around 1,000 years old when it was emptied. The bones were arranged in stacks 5-6 feet high on either side of aisles that run more than 300 kilometers.
A walk through the Catacombs will take you 45 minutes and be prepared to manage winding stairs down and a return up (83 to be exact). The long walk through the narrow stone halls, dimly lit, helps prepare you for what is ahead…corridors of the remains of millions of Parisians, carefully stacked skull-upon-skull, bone upon bone and labeled by their year of burial.
At first, at least for me, there is always an initial shock of what lies before your eyes…but then the ability to become accustomed to the scene for just what it is takes over, to be seen as a work of art, as the order and design is so fantastic as to be incredulous. One of the first “arrangements” you come upon is a placement of skulls in the shape of a “heart!” How tender and loving that seems! There are many creative designs throughout the halls and each skull seems to have its own distinctive face and personality.
The entrance is at 1 Place Denfert-Rochereau in the 14th arrondissement, Métro Denfert-Rochereau. You exit at 36, rue Rémy Dumoncel. It’s open every day except Monday and holidays from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Phone 01.43 22.47.63 for more information. Tickets are 2.50 euros to 5 euros and don’t forget to bring your flashlight to really see best!
A la prochaine…
Editor, Parler Paris
E-mail: [email protected]
P. S. I took photos along the way — even though the signs say “no flash,” no one stopped me. My favorite, I worried would be too gruesome for you to stomach at the beginning of this newsletter, but if you want to see it, I’ve posted it on the site at /parlerparis/