Despite its nickname as the City of Lights, Paris has a dark underbelly, lying just beneath its busy streets— the catacombs.
These subterranean tunnels wind for more than 180 miles, sixty feet below ground. The catacombs house the ancient bones of over 6 million Parisians, abandoned Nazi bunkers and underground art galleries.
Tours, both official and unofficial, offer visitors a chance to learn more about this mysterious underworld.
The first catacombs owe their existence to Roman-era workers, who excavated quarries while searching for limestone. They simply covered the quarries, creating the tunnels, when they finished, the Catacombs Museum reported on its website.
The quarrying continued over the next several hundred years, until the 18th century, when the government became concerned that the tunnels would collapse into sinkholes and destroy the buildings above them, according to the museum. The government created the Inspection Générale des Carrières (IGC) in 1777, which was responsible for making the catacombs
The bones that give the catacombs their creepy reputation did not appear until 1786. The cemeteries of Paris were overcrowded with 1,000 years worth of bodies. People living in the city’s center caught diseases from contaminated bodies in improperly maintained cemeteries.
After condemning the cemeteries within the city limits, the government needed a place to move the bodies, and their solution was to transfer them to the quarries, according to the official Web site of the Paris catacombs.
People were instantly curious about the massive grave, and many royals visited the rooms of bones, including Napoleon III with his son in 1860, according to the museum.
More than 250,000 people visit the official tour of the catacombs each year. It is not the typical tourist trap—no souvenir store offers snow globes with little bones in them at the end of the tour. But it is an informative and interesting experience for those not disturbed by the dead.
The official tour covers only a small portion of the catacombs, but it is the section that houses most of the bones.
The tour begins with a walk down a steep, spiral staircase and a long, dimly lit tunnel. The tunnels are dotted with informational signs, in French and English, which explain the history behind the tunnels.
A few steps into the main tomb, visitors find themselves staring into the empty sockets on an ancient skull.
As you pass through each room, you can see hundreds of thousands of bones meticulously placed throughout the tunnels. When workers were placing the bones they used their creative skills and artfully stacked skulls into images of crosses, hearts, and various patterns.
Visitors exit the tunnels in the same manner they entered, up a steep spiraling staircase. They exit on a completely different street, several blocks from the entrance. Visitors to the catacombs should be aware of this and carry a map to locate the nearest metro station.
If a guided tour with wide walkways, fellow tourists and clearly marked exits is too passé, tanother, more illicit way, to experience the catacombs is possible.
A large group of urban explorers, known as cataphiles, travel the restricted areas of the catacombs every night. It is an illegal activity, and if caught, trespassers could be fined or arrested.
But for the adventurous type, it’s the perfect mix of danger and excitement.
The first step is to find a reliable guide. This is very important because in the complex maze of tunnels, would-be cataphiles are totally dependent on their guides to get them back out safely.
Julien Belin, who works as a market poller by day, is a competent guide and cataphile.
Belin starts his tour by leading his visitors over a 4-foot high stone wall that gives every impression trespassing is not acceptable.
One steep slide down a rock and tree-laden embankment to abandoned train rails, and they begin to question whether this is a good idea. The answer is no, it is a terrible idea, but they’ve gone too far to turn back now.
They enter a dark, abandoned train tunnel and walk until they reach a 3-foot wide hole in the ground. This is one entrance into the catacombs.
The catacombs have several obvious perils: low ceilings that make it hard to comfortably walk and standing water that must be waded through. Belin reassures his new explorers that the danger is all part of the fun.
As visitors start the trip, they try to remember the path out, just in case they need to escape. But as they travel deeper into the catacombs, they cannot remember if they made four left turns and one right or if it was three left turns. Their freedom is now completely dependent on their guide’s ability to lead them back.
Novices may think the catacombs are just a bunch of tunnels, and they are right. But these tunnels are full of surprises, including interesting rock formations, abandoned Nazi bunkers and 200-year-old graffiti.
Belin’s cataphiles eventually come to an underground art gallery filled with mosaics and sculptures. He lights candles so that his group can take a break from their journey and enjoy the art.
The art gallery is not the only unusual room, Belin explained. People have parties and raves in some of the larger rooms. Several years ago police shut down an underground movie theater, complete with a bar and working bathroom.
After a mere three hours of exploration, it is time for Belin and his group to leave.
A great deal of intrigue has surrounded the catacombs since their creation. Tourists, kings and politicians have visited this underground world over the centuries. Even Victor Hugo refers to the catacombs in his masterpiece “Les Misérables.”
Whether you seek adventure or prefer a more structured tour, visiting the catacombs is an interesting experience that gives you a unique perspective of Paris.