Paris is not all romantic, in fact the Catacombs are quite nerve chilling! A labyrinth of dimly lit tunnels, a tour of the Parisian ossuary is not recommended for the faint hearted. This underground space holds some six million bones of the deceased after cemeteries in Paris became saturated. Make sure you are in sturdy footwear since the tunnel path is gravel laden, uneven and even slippery at times. One of the most popular places of attraction in Paris, an early morning visit is recommended to avoid queues. The catacomb's pathways are maze-like and hence a guide is essential. You would not want to get lost here!
What exactly happened?
Mining activities under the city of Paris were outlawed in 1813. But why? The reason is a decree executed on 9 November 1785 by Louis XV banning the burial of dead bodies in cemeteries within the city. 1786 onwards, the process of shifting the bodies from the cemeteries to the underground tunnels began. This had to be done because the rate of expansion of the city was not able to keep up with the rise in population. Cemeteries began to get so overcrowded that graves were too shallow. Bio-fluids started oozing onto the surface and the rotting smell of decomposing flesh became prevalent all over the neighbourhood. Naturally, this created obvious health concerns and finally, when the land collapsed due to the overload of corpses at one cemetery, the decision was taken to transfer all the bones to the tunnels beneath Paris, now known famously as the Paris catacombs.
Burying Bodies in the Catacombs
Initially, the human remains were just randomly dumped into the tunnels. Later, however, in 1810, they were arranged and stacked in a creative and orderly manner. Femurs and such were also smartly used to disguise support columns for the tunnels. This had to be done because sometime the tunnels would cave in creating sinkholes above collapsing buildings and structures. And that is when mining was outlawed. Burial of remains directly into the catacombs began soon after the French Revolution.
What you can see at the Catacombs
Today, a very small section of the Catacombs is open to tourists and is as much a major attraction in Paris as its biggest museums. The scenery is enticing and the air, not as stuffy as you'd expect. Spooky walls of bones and skull galore stacked high and arranged oh so densely showcase the artistic abilities of 18th century France. Surprisingly, the tour only stretches barely 2 km but not so surprisingly, getting in and out is a journey in itself. With more than 110 steps downward and 80 steps upward, the catacombs are not for the fainthearted or, the severely claustrophobic (though it isn't as tight in there as you'd expect). However, if you can make it, it is worth visiting. Just to see the millions of stacked bones from floor to (almost) ceiling.
The entrance to the catacombs is on Place Denfert-Rochereau and can be identified quite easily, due to the long queue on the street. The first series of rooms you come across after your trip down the long spiral staircase is an exhibition of sorts. Here, one can learn more about the history and background of the catacombs. From there, you have to navigate through several long and narrow corridors, most of which look exactly like they did when quarrying was going on. The walls have several markings which during the early days helped in orientation of the maze. However, you don't need to worry about getting lost now since the concourse is fixed and all interconnecting gates to the rest of the catacomb are locked. There are two interesting points in the passageway. The first, model of the Port-Mahon castle/fortress of Minorca sculpted by quarrymen who had once been imprisoned there, and the well. The well looks just like a wishing well because a lot of people have thrown in coins for luck but it was actually dug up by the quarrymen to access clean water for mixing cement.
Then, you reach the entrance of the ossuary. The entrance is commonly used as space for temporary exhibitions about other catacombs in the world. Finally, you get to what you came for in the first place, the ossuary above whose gate there's an inscription 'stop' this is the empire of death?. There are a lot of such quotes set in and around the ossuary on the stones, skulls and femurs in 'good' spirit to human morality.
The arrangement of the several million skeletons in the ossuary has been done very creatively. For almost a kilometre, you'll pass neatly stacked bones which start from the floor and extend all the way up to the ceiling. You'll see clean stacks of femurs strategically arranged very close to each other to form a wall, with often rows of skulls running across horizontally on the femur wall. At other instances you'll come across bones arranged to form patterns; such as a cross (obviously). After you take in the other various little points of interest that the ossuary has on offer, you exit it past a heavily graffiti-ed green wall. Then you again walk across the long winding passageways to finally lead yourself out of the catacomb via a shorter spiral stairway of just 80 steps. The exit is at a location different from the entrance and it's not a round-trip.
The street across from where you come out has a souvenir shop selling all kinds of spooky stuff from wax-skulls to skull adorned bottles. The catacomb in Paris is unmatched by any other in the world and there's none that rival the grimness of the Parisian ossuary. It's a must visit if you're Paris and you'll love to find out why.
The Illegal Stuff
Even though only two kilometres of the catacomb is open to the general public/tourists. There are ways to explore other parts of the 300 km long catacomb, although they are, obviously illegal. A group of people called the Cataphiles have been around since the late 70s exploring various sections of the Parisian catacomb taking turns. They maintain a strict code of secrecy and have some unspoken rules by which they abide within the community even though there might be competition between two factions or political unrest within the Cataphile community. It's been estimated that around 300 Cataphiles enter the catacomb each week. The entrances are usually manholes, sewers, metros or train tunnels. Even though there's a dedicated police force to keep out intruders from the catacomb, they are rumoured to be highly ineffective and just nominal in number. There are some really wild stories on the internet about the adventures of these Cataphiles some of which include building a full-fledged amphitheatre alongside a fully functional restaurant and live bar within the catacomb. A few Cataphiles have also practised various forms of art on the stone walls of the catacomb. Perhaps the thing which attracts the Cataphiles most would be the escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. Even though what they do might be exciting, thrilling and immensely satisfying, one must keep in mind that at the end of the day, it is illegal.