The Catacombs

26 Jul

skull and bones

There’s nothing more ghoulish then spending an afternoon with the dead. Somehow, Paris has turned its previous residents into tourist attractions, like the Père Lachaise Cemetery and the Catacombs. It’s creepy, but also fascinating.

I wanted to visit the Catacombs from my first day in Paris. Me being the epic procrastinator that I am, it took me nearly ten months before I even got in line. The Catacombs (not to be confused with the Crypt, which is the remnants of Roman Paris near Notre Dame) are part of Paris’ ancient quarry system that were put to use in holding the contents of the city’s overflowing cemeteries.

Some six million skeletons are buried down there, skulls and femurs cemented together to create a retaining wall for the less easily stacked bones.

 catacombs skullsSkulls. Photo by Sasha Kedzie

The Catacombs staff is very particular about only allowing 200 visitors into the two kilometer long underground walk at any given time, so the line for the ossuary wraps completely around the Square de l’Abbé Migne for an average wait time of two hours. On our particular visit, we spent over three hours hanging around. The only thing that made it worth it was a quick trip to Monoprix for a little picnic lunch. It was delicious and everyone else in line was very jealous.

wine and cheese partyA nice lunch of white wine, bread, and goat cheese. We’re so classy, you guys.

Eventually, we finally made it inside and descended into what might be the weirdest thing I’ve personally ever seen done with the dead. (And I studied anthropology.) The re-purposed quarry had considerably low ceilings – maybe six feet in some places. But occasionally it would open up into high vaulted ceilings, like the one below.

catacombs ceilingA vaulted ceiling inside the Catacombs. Photo by Sasha Kedzie.

Mostly though, it was quiet, damp, and dark. The lights are kept very dim and flash photography is explicitly not allowed. You walk through speaking barely above a whisper and the air presses in on you. It’s hauntingly beautiful. The workers who built the Catacombs arranged the skulls in patterns, making cross patterns with the remains.

catacombs crossA small cross. Photo by Sasha Kedzie.

It only takes an hour to walk through the tunnels, but the Catacombs stays with you even after you return to the surface. We kept marvelling at the idea that six million people were quietly resting below the busy city streets, but the past is like that. History, especially in old cities like Paris, is all around you.

Memento Mori.

 memento mori “If you’ve seen a man die, always consider that the same fate awaits you.” Photo by Sasha Kedzie.

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