Honestly, I am completely embarrassed that it has taken me 3+ years to make it to the Catacombs of Paris, deep in the 14th arrondisment. This was not due to a lack of effort – in fact, today marked my third attempt to gain entry, the first two blocked due to poor timing (we almost made it in time) and an electricity outage (now that I have been deep down there, I can only imagine how terrifying that must have been).
After a long wait in line (about an hour, in scattered rainshowers), we finally made it into the tiny vestibule where tickets are bought and one starts their initial descent. Both my visitor and I commented on how stark everything was and moreover, if this was the US there would be eerie organ music and an introduction voiced-over by Morgan Freeman looping the background. To say that I am thankful for the lack of crass commercial manipulation in France would be an understatement.
The self-guided tour started off with a not-so-quick history lesson. Apparently long, long ago, the land we think of Paris today was submerged under a land-locked sea. Following massive tectonic movement, continental drift, human evolution, settlement and civilization (yes, this was covered in one info-graphic), the locals began to excavate massive amounts of limestone from under the city to build the monuments we all gawk at today. Following a massive outbreak of water-borne disease (traced back to contamination of the city’s water supply by an excess of shallowly buried, decomposing bodies – eeew), the government ordered the above-ground cemeteries emptied and all remains thrown the unused quarry tunnels. In 1809 a very astute business man (whose name is currently lost in the tunnels of my mind), decided that the display of those remains would rake in the Francs, so he initiated the massive undertaking of reorganizing, stabilizing and opening the ossuary for public viewing. That is forward thinking.
After being prepped for what we were about to see, we descended further into the quarry. Long, damp tunnels were haphazardly lit and we could see initials and dates of individual workers carved into the stones around each new corner.
The first decorative item we came across was this stunning castle, carved into the stone wall. According to the signage (everything in English! Bravo!), this was carved by an excavator who had been imprisoned in the south for many years, with this castle as the only view from his cell.
Again, more info-graphics. Not only did the quarries provide a perfect final resting place for 6 million (!!!) Parisian remains, but they also play a critical role in our current understanding of the geological time scale of the European continent. A core taken from deep within the quarry now represents the international standard of the different layers of rock and sediment from the major geological periods of the past. The hole from which the core was taken is now an extremely deep well.
After educating us all about French history, geology and paleontology (there were fossils!), we finally got to the bones. SO. MANY. BONES. You have been waiting for them as well – here you go (please forgive the focus issues, it was *dark* down there):
There really are not words to describe this place. It was eerie and overwhelming. It was claustrophobic, yet peaceful. It was a collection of so many lives and so much history that it was impossible to truly take it all in. I cannot recommend it enough – worth every wet minute in that line and more. I cannot wait to take another round of visitors back and absorb the melancholy and the sacred all over again.