My sister VTer JumpingwithNorman was insistent that we visit the catacombs of Paris when we went in September 2009. I did not want to go because as a doctor, I have seen my share of human remains/bones – but there was no way I can persuade my sister to see other sites which I thought were more interesting and pleasant.
So, we made a deal that after we tour the area around Eiffel during the morning, we would head off at about 300PM to the catacombs by subway. We got off the Denfert-Rochereau Metro Station and as we walked out and crossed the street, we did go the wrong way and had to go back to see the line of people waiting to go into the catacombs.
It was already 330 PM and a guard was walking at the line, saying that there is a possibility we might not get in. Yikes! My sister was kinda worried herself but kept her cool (it was Sunday and the next day Monday, the catacombs and most museums were closed!)…and they only accept visitors in at 4 PM apparently…and at exactly 4 PM we were able to go in with the next batch of 10 people. I think another batch was able to go in after us…it amazed me to see the people still lining up at the slow line…and I am glad we did not leave because we were still able to get in.
It was great going through the tunnels and seeing the bones --- I did not expect the tunnels to be soooooo long and it was very dark in some places and in Sept 2009 – there was some vandalism (must have been after we visited) because I saw reports of the catacombs being closed (as I was doing my research online as I was doing this tip)…
You really don’t see the skeletons until after about 15-20 minutes of walking, a little cool and chilly inside, and there is that certain smell of old bones. The ceiling is not too high so it was hard to get a jumping picture, but I still did it. I think it took us about 45 minutes to walk the whole way (about 2 km and no bathrooms!)…the way the bones were stacked was very interesting. They were moved here from different cemeteries in the late 1700’s as an “infection control” and then visitors started seeing the catacombs during the late 1800’s and I heard it was even used for some concerts!.
The exit is at another location (different from where you came in) and there was a lady guard at the exit and we noticed bones on a table. It looks like some people tried to get bones out of the catacombs! Why?
Overall, a unique experience, and I am glad my sister persuaded me to see the catacombs.
Catacombs Visitors Entrance Location: 1 Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, Place Denfert Rochereau, 75014 Paris
How to Get to the Paris Catacombs: Paris Metro stop Denfert-Rochereau; Paris RER B stop Denfert-Rochereau; Paris bus lines 38 & 68 stop nearby; closest (pay) parking lot is at Saint-Jacques Boulevard
Open Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-5pm (last admission 4pm)
Admission Fee: €8 adult, €4 ages 14-26, €6 ages 60+, children under 13 free. Under age 14 must be with adult
UPDATE UPDATE UPDATE!
I love travelling with my Jumpingsister!
Here is our video during a trip to this great city:
JUMPINGNORMAN AND HIS SISTER IN PARIS!
My mother really wanted to visit this attraction, so we headed over to Denfert Rochereau, which is a good 15 minutes away by the metro (from Grand Boulevards where we were staying), and once we arrived we looked to join the usual tourist queue.
The entrance to the Catacombes is literally outside the station (whether you take the main line or RER) but what shocked us what just how long the queue was, literally went around the block almost reaching the entrance back again in a full circle.
We spent about 4 and a half hours in the queue, which moved at snail space, while scoffing on baugettes and macroons from Pauls across the road until it was our turn to enter. Down plenty of stairs (made me a bit dizzy) followed by a sort of gallery space explaining the history of the Catacombes, followed by long dark winding tunnels (really long) until you finally reach the entrance of the underground graveyard, where the very neat stacks of skulls and bones go on and on.
I did find it a fascinating experience and there was some interesting fossils from the limestone quarry. But my advice is to be prepared to walk alot in dimly lit tunnels ( almost 1 hour I think) and lots of stairs to climb down and back out again.
The souvenior shop (which I just must pop into) had some great skull shaped/printed merchandise.
On my last trip to Paris, I had worked out that I'd have a couple of spare hours after having visited Musee d'Orsay, and posted a question on the Travel Forum to solicit suggestions on how I could spend that time doing something slightly unusual. And, I have to thank Francesca (ForestQueenNYC) for her recommendation that I visit the catacombs: something that I didn't even know existed!
The catacombs beneath Paris started life as underground quarries to produce building stone. However, after a time, doctors began to recognise that there was a firm link between epidemic diseases and the juxtaposition of badly located, poor managed and overcrowded cemeteries with high density suburbs. Eventually the decision was made to relocate the cemeteries (no doubt with half an an eye on the redevelopment potential of the prime inner city land that this would free up), but the challenge was what to do with the bones. The obvious solution was to use these to backfill worked out sections of the underground quarries: removal of the remains of an estimated 6 million people began in 1786 and was completed two years later, which seems staggeringly efficient.
The catacombs were first opened to the public since the early nineteenth century, and have been accessible to the public on a regular basis since 1867. The macabre subject matter was particularly appealing to Victorian society, and the catacombs have featured in several novels, including works by Victor Hugo, Edgar Allen Poe and Umberto Eco.
The odd thing about walking through the catacombs is that the only bones you see are arm bones, leg bones and skulls, yet you know that the rest of the bones have to be somewhere. A fellow VTer subsequently informed me that when he visited, he saw a section that had partly collapsed, which confirmed that these larger, more uniform bones have been used to create 'retaining walls' with all the more randomly shaped bits and bobs being stacked behind.
Even though I visited in winter, there was still quite a queue to enter as only a few people are allowed in at a time. There is no guided tour, so visitors walk through the catacombs at their own pace - a distance of about 2km. The catacombs are relatively dry and well lit, and are accessible to anyone who is moderately mobile (the most challenging sections are the 130 stairs on the way in and 83 steps on the way out). Note that the exit is over a kilometre from the entrance, so plan accordingly.
I was extremely relieved when Ed (kaspian) said that the Catacombs were creepy, I'd be a little worried about someone who didn't find stacks of the skulls and bones of an estimated 6 million people, artfully arranged into endless walls, just a little eerie. Where did all these bones come from? The bones were relocated from cemeteries that were dug up and moved over the years starting with the Cimitiere des Innocents in 1786 when the decomposing bodies started oozing into the cellars at the nearby Les Halles market. Knowing this, it was a little disconcerting when you felt dripping from above, even if most of the dead bodies surely would have decomposed over the course of 200+ years, right? The dead are organized by cemetery, not by person, the bones stacked by type of bone. Prostitutes, beggars, doctors, farmers, shopkeepers literally rubbing shoulders with prominent Parisians such as author Charles Perrault, composer Jean Baptiste Lully, politician Jean-Baptiste Colbert, playwright Molière and figures from the French Revolution such as Robespierre and Danton.
There was a long line when we arrived but it went quickly, note that the last entrance is at 4pm as it closes at 5pm. Open Tuesday-Sunday from 10am-5pm, cost currently 8E. Wear good walking shoes, we were there for at least 45 minutes and some of the path is wet, my shoes were covered in mud. Don't think about taking a souvenir skull, they have attendants checking your bags at the exit, I think they even confiscated one the day we were there.
The catacombs is a very unique thing to see. It consists of a half hour walk through an underground limestone mine from the roman days. What makes it so interesting is that it is filled full of human bones from the 1700s, and the caves have so much history.
I do love Paris, in the spring or any time, I’ve seen most of the popular sites several times but it was when I was stood at the top of the Eiffel Tower I heard of a place I had missed... The Paris Catacombs.
The Catacombs are a somewhat off the beaten track place to visit, very low key and the entrance and exit gave no hint of the impact the interior would have on myself and family when we visited. First you encounter the 130 steps down to the catacombs themselves. It’s not for the faint hearted, those with breathing difficulties or a fear of enclosed spaces. If you are diabetic take something sweet with you as there is NOTHING down there but bones! There is no cloakroom and no toilets. The temperature is about 14 degrees with 2 km to walk which takes about 45 minutes, or longer if like us you linger over old inscriptions and interesting writing mostly in French or Latin. They only allow 200 visitors in at a time so spread over 2km its not crowded, and they will temporarily stop any further people entering when they have their maximum visitors. Do not take young children and children younger than 14 years of age must be accompanied by an adult.
When I first decided to share this amazing place with you, I was going to describe in detail the experiences that you would find there, but on reflection part of the pleasure was the surprise and the experience of discovering for yourself this really fascinating place. So I am giving nothing away... except to say, I felt very small and mortal in there, it’s interesting historically and is visually and emotionally mind blowing. All in all it’s REALLY worth the 130 steps down, with the good news being there are only 83 steps to get back up to the exit!
I shall never forget the feeling I got from walking back into the warmth and light of that summers day.
Catacombs of Paris
1, avenue of Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy
Tel.: 01 43 22 47 63
Fax: 01 43 22 48 17
Subway and the RER b: Denfert-Rochereau
Paying car park: Saint-Jacques boulevard
Schedules of opening
The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 17 p.m. every day except Monday (Last admission at 16 p.m.)
Deep underground Paree, for around 8 Euro, you can walk down cramped spiral staircases to see stacks of bones and skulls. No, it's not Dick Cheney's "Undisclosed Location;" it's the Catacombes. I won't bore you with the medical history of the place; I'll leave that to the obtuse tourists who will download it off the back of sugar packets. The Catacombes are indeed creepy! Especially toward the end of the tunnel, the ceilings really do drip water, making the damp pebbly floor all the more slippery and treacherous. And I recall that the whole "tour" took less than one hour, leaving me in delightful Montparnasse, a very Penny Lane-ish area of Paree. (February 2009)
It is a lot to view down under (80 feet)and the tour is worth it. Skulls everywhere. Napoleon first ordered the resurrection of bodies from on to of ground in cemeteries because they would float up with high water, or he may have just wanted to expand the city growth. Around 1785, they dug up over 40,000 bodies and since they were "cured" stacked them up. The caves were first used to dig out limestone for building, and many acres were carved out, but the trail showing the bones is only about 1 mile long, but that is a lot of bones
I can't tell you why but I really wanted to see the catacombs. Maybe it's because I used to love watching that "Cities of the Underworld" show on the History channel. Or maybe it's because I have a taste for the macabre. Along with the gargoyles, I think this was the most interesting thing I did in Paris.
After descending around 300 steps you enter a series of underground tunnels that go on for quite a while. It's dark and murky and damp. Some areas are closed off by gates which just adds to the intrigue. Along the way you'll also find sculptures in the wall of places around Paris.
Finally, you reach L'Empire de la Mort. Room after room after room of skeletal remains are stacked neatly along the wall, often with the skulls being used in a decorative manner. Is it morbid? Yes! Is it interesting? You bet!
I'll estimate that there are the remains of thousands of departed down there. Check it out!
During the era of late1700's, the cemeteries were filling up with cadavers (dead people) and it was decided to dig up and put in them in the caves. Eventually the theme took off so well, that nearly 30,000 were down under and stacked neatly in patterns and by parts. How beautiful. Save room for daddy. Then someone got the idea to make art of those skulls and bones, so you see them in various states of being stacked and presented for display to tourists. I think creamation would have eliminated this problem.
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