Apologies for the long absence! While Art has been keeping busy in my absence, I promise to be more regular now…
Contrary to what you might think, on seeing the title of this post, I am not talking about the Parisian Metro Rail. Rather, this post is about a strange attraction in Paris, spooky and sombre, which nevertheless seems to have its fair share of visitors. This is the Catacombs of Paris, subterranean tunnels, which once served as quarries, but have now become the home of long dead Parisians, or rather, their skulls and bones. An interesting skeleton in the closet, isn’t it!
We landed in Paris from London, on the Eurostar Channel Train, and the next morning, the first thing that we popped out to see, was not the Eiffel Tower, or the Arc de Triomphe, or any other of these famous monuments. Instead we decided to give ourselves a good dose of horror and popped over to see the Catacombs instead. These underground tunnels are a large network of almost 300km running under the city, and not all parts are open to the public officially. (Catacomb lovers, known as cataphiles apparently do know of unofficial entry points that lead to other, officially closed parts of the network).
How and Why did these bones end up underground? Well, the quarries themselves are much older, but eventually they ran out of limestone. In the 18th century, there was an outbreak of infectious diseases in some areas of Paris, related to contamination from certain graveyards, where the dead had not been buried properly. Hence, the movement of remains from a large number of graveyards to a safer underground location.
To enter the Catacombs, one has to first walk down a series of flights to quite a distance. (The catacombs are around 25 metres below ground). Then, you enter a small chamber that tells you a bit about the history of the place, and then the entrance to the ossuaries, the chambers where the bones have been stored. Here is the realm of the dead, the sign says, splendid isn’t it!
To reach the ossuaries, we further walked down long dark passages. Now, the authorities don’t let in more than 200 people into the tunnels at any point of time. I assume this is for reasons of safety. Even then, 200 people seems to be a good number. We were surprised then, to find that while we were walking down this really long dark passage, we could not see anyone before or after us. The ceiling is just about high enough for a 6 foot tall person to walk through. Sounds carry very poorly and the lighting is low. All the time we knew that we were in a guarded place, run by the authorities, safe enough. Yet. Irrationally, the mind does panic a little and all sorts of unsavoury thoughts go through one’s head. What if I am left in here forever!
Ofcourse, forever as it does seem, the passage does come to an end and then the ossuaries begin. Chamber after chamber of neatly piled up skulls and bones, with narrow passages in between for visitors to walk through. The bones are within touching distance and there are no barricades, though respectfully, none of the visitors venture too close. Signboards list the cemeteries from which they were taken and occasionally there are small round chambers with high walls that end in a dome shaped cup. I believe these do serve some purpose in terms of keeping the tunnel architecture stable. But besides that, they give one the feeling of a sacred space, perhaps something to do with the state of mind after passing through tunnels of human remains. A good reminder of the end of all life.
While the visible portion of the ossuaries take about a half hour to go through, at many places we noticed barred off tunnels leading to other parts, giving one the impression of how large the tunnels really are. And all along the ceiling, we noticed dark gree or brown lines drawn continuously. It emerged that prior to the electrification of the tunnels, these were drawn to help miners, and later those who brought down the remains, maintain their bearings in this dark place.
We emerged into sunlight again climbing up a very steep spiral staircase. The Catacombs are obviously no pleasure grounds. Still, they are an interesting relic of the city and offer a very different experience.
Other useful information
Nearest Metro station : Denfert-Rochereau
Not suitable for those with kids, or for the really faint hearted, or those prone to shock.
Fairly strenous climbing, may be tough for the elderly.