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Climb into the Catacombs of Paris

01.15.2015
Topic European Travel

Climb into the Catacombs of Paris - Image

Paris tends to land at the top of travellers' lists of must-see destinations - and for good reason. It's one of the most iconic cities in the world, rich with history and beauty that's been documented in novels, films and photographs for centuries.

Any trip to the City of Love should include the top tourist attractions, from the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe to the Louvre and Notre Dame Cathedral. However, one of the best sites to visit is buried beneath the picturesque Parisian skyline - the Catacombs.

A brief history
About 20 metres below the city of Paris lies an intricate labyrinth of underground tunnels. The Catacombs is the only section that's open to the public for exploration, where the remains of more than 6 million Parisians are kept. But before it contained a makeshift tomb, this subterranean area was the source of the limestone for many iconic buildings.

According to the Catacombs website, layers of sediment gathered over time from the tropical ocean that covered present-day Paris until thick limestone deposits formed. The Gallo-Romans started building the city, which they called Lutetia, in first century AD, using the stone that was on the surface. As time passed, people started digging deeper into the deposits to construct parts of Paris as we know it, including the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Louvre.

Toward the end of the 18th century, Paris faced a grotesque and morbid problem - all of the cemeteries in the city were full. People were being buried on top of one another and left in open graves, which filled Paris with a rotting stench and infectious diseases. Although there wasn't space to keep the dead aboveground, the empty tunnels underneath the city created an alternate location to keep the remains. The largest graveyard in Paris, the cimetière des Innocents, was the first to be emptied. It took two years to move all of the bodies to one area of the tunnels, which became known as the Catacombs. All in all, remains were transferred to the Catacombs over a 12-year period. During the French Revolution, people were buried directly in the Catacombs. A few famous victims of the guillotine remain in the tunnels, including Madame Elisabeth and Maximilien de Robespierre. According to Smithsonian magazine, people haven't been buried in the Catacombs since 1860.

The bones are stacked and arranged in patterns that form walls throughout the winding tunnels. Rows of skulls are wedged between bones that belonged to millions of people. There are interesting poems, maxims and passages placed around the tour that offer even more insight into this period in Paris' history.

Visiting the Catacombs
While you plan your itinerary for the Parisian leg of your Europe travel adventure, make sure to schedule a few hours at the Catacombs. The site is open every day except Monday, but there's always a queue so it's best to get there early in the morning, especially because you can't buy tickets in advance. Only 200 people are allowed in the Catacombs at a time, which limits how quickly the line moves along. According to TripAdvisor, you should allow for about an hour of exploration once you enter, but the guided tour is roughly 45 minutes. Instead of going with a tour guide, you may rent an audio guide for a few Euros or venture on your own. However, those who've visited explained that the admission price is quite reasonable.

A 2 kilometre stretch is available for public viewing, but that area requires you to walk hundreds of steps. As a result, this isn't a good activity for people with limited mobility. Because it's a cramped and creepy environment, the Catacombs are also not recommended for family travel. Make sure to pack a jacket because the temperature stays at a steady 14 degrees, and wear shoes that can get dirty.