Paris at night
There is a place where the glittering lights of the Eiffel Tower and the neon lights of the Moulin Rouge don’t reach it. Grab a torch and forget about “the city of light”.
“Stop! This is the empire of the dead” warns a sign at the entrance. But the only way to discover the other face of Paris is by entering into its depths: at 20 metres underground. There lie the bones of over six million Parisians and hundreds of stories and secrets, many yet to be revealed.
The Catacombs of Paris (‘Les Catacombes’) are 300 kilometres of galleries without light and narrow tunnels where everything is reminiscent of death. Skeletons and skulls decorate the walls, giving this underground labyrinth an even gloomier air. These are bones moved to this location due to the closure of cemeteries in the 18th and 19th century. In the beginning, these tunnels were dug to search for limestone to build most of the monuments and buildings that you can now visit in Paris. They were given the name of Les Carrières de Paris (The Quarries of Paris). When the Les Innocents cemetery in the Halles became the focus of infection, it was decided to move remains to this location. This was done at night, with a procession of priests singing the ‘hymn for the dead’ behind the carriages that transported the bones covered by a black veil. At first, the bones were simply thrown into the tunnels. Later, they started to arrange them in a “decorative” way on the walls. Until 1814 this was the place where the bodies of all Parisians were sent.
An inspiring place
At least for the French writer and politician Victor Hugo, who immortalised the Catacombs of Paris in his 1862 novella ‘Les Miserables’.
The decoration of the walls is fascinating (and unsettling). Sculptures such as Port Mahon (Minorca), created by a quarryman who was imprisoned there for several years or various inscriptions commemorating events of the French Revolution, such as the attack on the Palace of Tuileries in August 1792 give us an idea of the full story that these tunnels hide. Or the Crypt of Passion, a pillar covered in skulls and shinbones in the shape of a tube constructed during a secret concert – including hints of a macabre party – organised by members of the bourgeoisie and artists in 1897. During the Second World War the tunnels were also used by both the French Resistance and German soldiers. And currently “cataphiles” (illegal explorers) are its main inhabitants.
Access to the Catacombs is restricted: only two kilometres are open to the public in a closed route that lasts approximately 45 minutes. On a tour, you’ll visit the main rooms and discover some of the secrets that these walls of bones are witness to. The authorities prohibited access when they discovered that rituals such as black masses were being held inside. It’s also quite dangerous to walk along its labyrinthine tunnels without any kind of lighting or ventilation. However, there are secret entrances throughout the entire city and there are people who dare to enter. Cataphiles organise entrances, although these are open to the risk of being fined by the police…but it’s not easy to resist the temptation of discovering the dark side of Paris.