Monday, March 4, 2013

The Dark Side of the City of Light

Yesterday I spent the day in Paris; this is the first of two posts about my adventures. One of the things I've been meaning to see in Paris are the Parisian Catacombs, but they were closed the last time I was in town. What are the catacombs? Well, back in the Middle Ages when the citizens of Paris began building more and more big buildings (like cathedrals) they needed more stone and began mining the stone below their feet. In order to get to the pretty white stone they so loved, they had to go down very deep, about 19 meters (or about 6 stories underground). There they turned the Parisian underground into swiss cheese, a maze of tunnels running about 300 km in total. Meanwhile, since France was a heavily Catholic country, they were burying their dead in churchyards around the city. You can imagine how quickly they filled up, without any room for expansion. In the early 1100s a large mass cemetery was opened for those unable to afford to bury their loved ones in a proper church cemetery. By the 1600s however even the Saints Innocents was filled to overflowing. There simply wasn't room for more bodies, but there wasn't anywhere else for them to go. On top of it, dangerous chemicals were leeching into the ground water, and since most of the city relied on well water, this was a serious health hazard. It wasn't until the late 1700s that the city officials found a good solution: the old abandoned quarries. They opened up three new cemeteries on what was then the outskirts of town to replace the old ones and began the process of clearing out all of Paris' dead. They cleaned up and prepared the space underground, and then brought in a small army of priests to consecrate what was now to be holy ground. Then each night a quiet parade of priests would escort black wagons of bones to their new home. Initially they were just sort of dumped in, but Louis-Etienne Hericart de Thury (what a name!) insisted on making it into a real mausoleum, complete with whatever cemetery decorations he could find, since most of them had been destroyed by the recent revolution. Today the catacombs are home to 6-7 million of Paris' dead, and are one of the creepiest places in the city.

If you would like to visit the catacombs, I assure you it is well worth checking out, but I must issue a few warnings. First, I would not recommend this for children. The rules of the museum stipulate that anyone under 14 must be accompanied by an adult, but there seemed to be quite a few parents in line with me who had ignored this well meant warning. This is not a good thing for kids. There a lot of great things around Paris for kids, this isn't one of them. Second, if you don't like caves, you are going to hate the catacombs. As I mentioned they are very deep underground, and they are very enclosed. If you don't like tight spaces this is not for you. You spend the first 3/4 mi walking down tight winding stone corridors that are dimly lit at best. It is dark, damp, and creepy as all get out. It's not crowded inside, and there were times when I was alone in my stretch of corridor. It's not for the faint of heart. Third, if you are not a patient person, this is not for you. Due to space limitations, they can only allow 200 people in at a time, so though the line is not terribly long, it moves very slowly. I waited about an hour, and this is the off season. Once in, it takes about 45 minutes to an hour to get through.

A carving done by a quarry man named Decure

Another of Decure's carvings, the fortress of Port-Mahon

A beautiful series of archways,
a nice relief from the low ceilings of the corridors

Entrance to the Ossuary
"Stop! Here lies the Empire of the Dead"
The bones line the walls

The bones are mostly arranged in this linear pattern
One of several subsidence cavities

A remark on the final photo: what you see is a (poorly lit) subsidence cavity. They were one of the greatest hazards to the mine workers. They form naturally, but they collapse naturally too. Eventually all subsidence cavities do collapse; it's just a matter of when. When the city 'renovated' the catacombs, they reinforced the cavities with cement to prevent their collapse. Still, the swiss cheese that is Paris' underground was one of the earliest reasons why tall buildings simply don't work in this city. When they were building the metro, one of their big concerns was the structural integrity not above the metro tunnels, but below them. Let us all be thankful for civil engineers. 


  1. wow that is so creepy! definitely kind of cool though

  2. oh yeah I definitely recommend it, but like I said, not for the faint of heart.