Date of visit: 13th August 2009
Where: Paris, France
More info: http://www.catacombes-de-paris.fr/
Be prepared for the horrors of the Paris catacombs: they close at 4pm, they have a 2 hour queue to get in and if you’re last in then you get herded out by the staff. If you can survive the queue and the 2 hour lesson in self restraint of having to remain polite while having to listen to tragic trendies (sun glasses in the dark catacombs!) and Americans inanely yak on then this is worth a visit. No offense to the American populace but some of your accents seem to carry really well both in the outdoors and the underground passages.
Anyway, it’s just before 2pm and we arrive from the nearest Metro stop which is Denfert Rochereau (either on line 4 or 6) in zone 1. You can see the entrance/ ticket hut for the catacombs as soon as you walk out pretty much. Oh and you can also see the long queue quite easily that snakes around the block for which we find its end and join, at that point we are then advised that they will close in 2 hours and the queue is also 2 hours long by the staff.
We decide to take the chance since we are British and can handle a queue and a lengthy wait that may end with disappointment. So we survive the 2 hours of inane babble – ‘oh my god I was like totally like this is like the best thing like…’ Such a waste and pointless over use of similies giving insult to languages the world over. Anyway, so we survive and get to the front and they are starting to close. They only let in 20 people at a time so its difficult to know if you’ll be in the last 20. We are. We get to go in looking back at the queue that is still going around the block.
After walking down 130 spiraling steps we lose the other 18 people in the group and ditch them, I think the catacombs should be viewed in some level of solitude so you can fully appreciate the experience – that means near silence and as few people as possible it also seems more respectful. We wait a little while and read the information about the tunnels at the start and how we are about to enter essentially what was a large anonymous open grave for many of Paris’s corpses.
The Catacombs of Paris, the municipal Ossuary, were created at the end of the 18th century. The cemetery of Innocent which is close to Saint-Eustace, in the district of the Halles, had been used for nearly ten centuries and had become the source of infection and disease for all the inhabitants of the area. After multiple complaints, the Council of State, by decision of November 9th 1785, pronounced the removal and the evacuation of the cemetery of the Innocent ones – around 6 million in total, old stone quarries were selected to deposit Parisian bones and the catacombs were created.
Having no identity the bones were laid out to form patterned walls which then concealed the rest of the bones behind them – due to volume of remains the workers needed to traverse the tunnels otherwise they would have probably just dumped the bodies down there.
We begin our journey down the dark, damp carved out tunnels, its about a 2km walk in total and half of that is just getting to the site. There’s a few things to read along the way and you can see foundations of the buildings above. Near the start there are a couple of carvings done into the tunnel walls, which are done in such good detail.
A bit more walking and we catch up to the group in the start of the catacombs, I found it funny to watch someone in sunglasses trying to look ‘cool’ staggering and triping over the uneven floors and as they have their photo taken next to a strangers skull you have to wonder why?…
There is no flash photography allowed in the site (obviously doesn’t apply to everyone), so to get any decent photos you either need to be able to hold a camera perfectly still, shoot in a high ISO setting or use a tripod and long exposure times, which is exactly what I did. The staff seem pretty helpful in shining torches at the skulls and patterns for you so that you could see in better detail but this is more a hinderance and annoyance when you’re taking photos and trying to get the right settings. I’d recommend a tripod and your own flashlight as that seemed acceptable to the staff, it also seems acceptable to be able to touch the remains as some people even pick up the bones.
And now we start to get herded as we’re the last group it’s not even 4.30pm and we get rushed through the remaining caverns and passage ways barely able to take in the surroundings and this is what really ruins the experience for us – we constantly have the staff marching forward to drive us out of the tunnels so they can go home at 5pm. Going in last didn’t work out for us as I had hoped for – I thought we would have got the place pretty much to ourselves and had more time to explore.
It’s still worth a visit though and the entrance price is fairly cheap, 8 Euros I think, but I would recommend going there at 9am to queue and get in there first, taking a tripod and flashlight with you if you want any decent photos. I would like to think that you would get enough time to see as much as you wanted.