The Catacombs of Paris is an evocative name that conjures up all manner of fantastic or frightening images in our imaginations. But what exactly is the allure of a place that is as disturbing as it is intriguing?
The rock foundations of Paris are a huge piece of Swiss cheese, threaded throughout with more than 300 kilometres of interconnecting subterranean tunnels. These winding passageways extend beneath the buildings and streets of the Left Bank, between Odeon and the Parc Montsouris, and below some neighbourhoods of the Right Bank, such as Belleville, Montmartre and Ménilmontant. They form an extensive maze in which it’s frighteningly easy to get lost if you are not a seasoned catacomb explorer, or ‘cataphile’, as these fearless souls are known. Even though only a small section of the tunnels are used as an ossuary, the entire network is referred to by Parisians as ‘the Catacombes de Paris’.
But what is the story behind this strange underground world? The answer is actually surprisingly simple and far less mysterious than the more extravagant flights of imagination. During the Gallo-Roman period, the inhabitants of Lutetia, the forerunner of present-day Paris, used the limestone peculiar to that area to construct their buildings. In later years this stone built much of the city. The mining utilised the technique of extracting horizontally along the vein, a process which left a honeycomb of tunnels as Paris grew.
Meanwhile, many cemeteries within the city limits had become filled to overflowing, resulting in unsanitary and unpleasant living conditions for those dwelling adjacent to them. The problem grew so acute that by 1786, these cemeteries were being emptied for reasons of public safety. With the remains of some six million people requiring reburial, the only location with sufficient room to inter them all was the former mine tunnels twenty metres beneath the city. Thus, the former limestone mines of Paris became a municipal ossuary referred to as the ‘catacombs’, as they bore a similarity to the subterranean necropolis of ancient Rome, even though the tunnels were not originally intended to serve as a tomb.
The ‘official’ section of the catacombs is situated in the 14th arrondissement of Paris. Extending over 1.7 km, twenty metres beneath the Parisian asphalt, this is the part that is open to the public, who can descend into this eerie underworld at the Place Denfert-Rochereau for a small admission fee. This is now a museum of the City of Paris (under the auspices of the Musée Carnavalet), which attracts about 300,000 visitors per year. Yet those who make the descent today are by no means the first seekers after subterranean mystery, as some of the great names of French history have made the same journey since the 18th century. In 1787, even Charles X and the ladies of his court ventured down there. In the following century it was Napoleon III and his son who walked amongst the dead. Today, the Catacombs of Denfert-Rochereau are open to everyone, but constitute only a tiny section of a vast underground labyrinth.
This labyrinth beneath the City of Light extends throughout several districts of the capital. The ‘unofficial’ part of the catacombs is extensive and holds more than its share of mysteries, offering a tempting challenge to many urban adventurers. Since the 1970s, many of these have ventured beyond the Place Denfert-Rochereau into perilous territory, finding various long lost or hidden entrances so they can indulge their passion for exploring the world below. They certainly must be passionate to risk rising water levels, collapsing tunnels, rats, leptospirosis and arrest... all at 20 metres down (lower than the sewers and the Metro) at a constant 14 degrees and in sacred silence. Suffice to say that navigating the Catacombs of Paris is certainly not for everyone.
Such urban explorers plunge into another world, where extraordinary places are found, such as the such as the tomb of Philibert Aspairt, a doorman of the Val-de-Grace hospital, who lost his way and died in the tunnels in 1793 after entering via stairs in the hospital courtyard. Then there’s the Romanesque-style vaulted hall, and a room scattered with sand and used as a kind of subterranean beach venue for cataphile parties. Finally, there’s the Salle du Château. Vandalised in the past, this chamber has since been restored to the delight of cataphiles, and contains various gargoyles, benches and a table. At the rear of the chamber can be found a picturesque recreation of a medieval castle.
Deep beneath Paris there are still places, unknown and inaccessible to the general public, whose mysteries yet remain unplumbed...