April 1, 2007
Ever since reading about the dark world beneath the city of lights in Infiltration some years ago, they have been digging away at the back of my head. The catacombs are a maze of 170 miles of Roman era tunnels – quarries, really – under one of the world’s most famous cities. Add in the bones of six million Parisians, war time occupation, artists, and illegal cinemas, and I fail to see how one cannot be fascinated.
On our trip to Paris, I knew the place I wanted to visit first. Much of the interesting bits of the system are blocked to casual visitors. You need to be ready for spelunking, avoiding getting lost in the labyrinth, and paying a fine if you get caught in the system. I wasn’t. So we did the next best thing, the walk through tour at Place Denfert-Rochereau.
The tour starts at an unassuming building where you pay your entrance fee and climb down about 100 stairs. After zipping your jacket up – it is about 14 C and wet – you walk a ways before you reach some museum style information signs on the people you are about to see. The path winds through a maze of stacked femur walls inlayed with skulls. These femur walls act as a dam wall to hold back an ocean of smaller bones. Most walls are about five feet high, with three to five feet of smaller bones piled behind them. Plaques and tablets state the year and cemetery where the bones are from. Occasionally they also dabble in the classification – good, bad, or innocent.
I walked slowly at first, soaking up all the details and straining my highschool french to decipher the old plaques. But after a kilometer of bones, one becomes a bit overwhelmed. Near the end, it was more of a stroll through a macabre park than a careful exploration. But our peek at the Paris underworld well worth it. One comes out feeling a bit more awed about the efforts that went into the city bellow ground, as well as above.
The UE folks would say we took the Disneyland tour of the Catacombs. I highly recommend checking out these other sources for a better look: