In 17th century, the city of Paris had a problem with people dying. So much so that the cemetery’s were large pits where masses of bodies would be laid to rest, often with no coffin. The huge amount of decaying bodies located all throughout the city started leaking into the groundwater, the primary source of water for the city and contaminating it.
In 1786 the city officials started the monumental task of digging up all the bodies within the city limits and placing them underground in long abandoned stone quarries just outside of town. For the next 23 years the bones of the deceased were just thrown in, but in 1810 the new Inspector General of the Quarries decided to do more. His idea was to create an attraction rivaling museums, and he had the bones placed as we seem them now. Over the next 200 years the city of Paris would grow over top of the catacombs, and it’s now well within city limits – conveniently next to a metro station. I wonder what the workers were thinking while digging that tunnel?
Be warned if you go in the summer though, the line was so long I wondered if Steve would stick around and wait, and 2 hours later I was surprised he was still there! Thanks to the iPod and creepy skulls I suppose!
Walking through the dark passageways is a bit creepy, with up to millions skulls looking at you. The arrangements are from standard femur and skull structures to patterns of skulls in different symbols to mini rooms with models carved out of stone by the previous miners in dedication to ones who lost their lives. It takes quite a long time to walk through the catacombs, as the distance with the opened passages is 1.7km long. There are many gated off passages, many of these are said to be un-renovated or too un-navigable for regular tours.
Oddly enough at the end of the line there was a security checkpoint asking us to empty our bags. As he had a tazer we let him look through but then asked him why? He looked over to the filing cabinet with 5 skulls on top, said those were from his shift today only. I guess stealing skulls is a pastime in Paris!
We just saw that as of September 2009 the catacombs are now closed due to vandalism. It has to be the fact that so many people were stealing skulls and bones which perhaps degrades the structural integrity of 400,000 bones piled up. Nobody wants a landslide of femurs and skulls to landslide onto someone, and the authorities aren’t saying exactly what sort of vandalism. People are stupid I guess and I hope they get chased down by the ghost of a 300 year old pissed off Parisian.