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Catacombs (Paris, France)

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      19.07.2009 16:07
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      A creepy underground look at Paris that's worth the 8 Euros

      I just happened to chance on this category and saw the words "There are no reviews for this product yet". Not really surprising, seeing as 'catacombs' is such a generalised heading and rather a strange thing to have added to the Dooyoo catalogue....but I recognise the picture; it's the catacombs beneath Paris and I've been there. "Be the first to write a premium review for this product"? I should probably oblige.

      The catacombs are not the easiest tourist attraction to find in Paris and The Boyfriend and I had to ask directions from the locals outside the Denfert Rochereau metro station. They turned out to be directly opposite the station, with no markings other than a faded green façade set into a typical Paris stone building. We queued up and paid at the door and without further ceremony we could take the steps down beneath the streets.

      The Paris Catacombs are not easy access; they are down steep cold passages with endless narrow stairs and wet floors. They are difficult underfoot and more than a little claustrophobic, with people walking in front of you and behind. The first bits weren't too exciting. We saw a map of the catacombs on the wall, a straggly long black line leading across Paris, with dead ends branching off here and there. People slowed in the dimly lit passages to read about how the stone was cut and used to build the apartment blocks and palaces above the surface, while photos showed the work of the masons. The Boyfriend yawned at this and we moved ahead of the crowd.

      Ambling down the corridors, we noticed that the blocks of engraved stone set into the walls carried street names and apparently the layout mirrors the streets above ground. I reflected that I would always think twice about buying property in central Paris, knowing that some of the most desirable streets are balanced on a riddle of excavations. Living in southeast England with clay soil, you can't ever rid yourself of the fear of subsidence, even when the houses here are built on stone.

      The tunnels progressed to a larger cavern, where things started to get interesting. An elaborate set of buildings are cut into the rock, in memory of a stone mason who died excavating the stone from here. It's a pleasant monument, the delicacy of which takes you by surprise. It's also an unnerving reminder of cave-ins and just how far you are below the surface.

      We carried on into a wider area. By now, we'd gone a little ahead of the rest of the wanderers and the caves and corridors had become a dusty floor with upright supports set into the walls. The next doorway was a gaping black rectangle with words engraved above:

      "Arrete! C'est Ici L'Empire De La Mort".

      We peered in, but couldn't see anything as we entered. Our eyes became accustomed to the dark and a pile with a scattering of skulls was visible.... We looked closely at the bones and wondered if this was the highlight of the trip. Nevermind, we wandered on expecting an exit at any moment. There was nothing but the sound of our footsteps and the occasional drip of water and we'd walked for a few minutes, when The Boyfriend pointed out that the walls were in fact piles of stacked bones. I looked again and saw that the bones had been fitted tightly together, making a solid surface from floor to ceiling. As we walked further, arrangements of skulls picked out patterns, a heart here, skull and crossbones there.

      As we turned down the corridors of bone, we reflected on the raves that had been held down here in more recent years - imagine dancing among the remains of all these people, being drunk or out of it in some other way and face to face with these creepy reminders of mortality?

      The corridors were labelled with the names of the cemeteries, which the bodies had been exhumed from. After more than ten centuries of use, the Cemetery of The Innocents in Les Halles had become a cause of disease; decomposing bodies and open graves had poisoned the locals and in 1785 the solution was to stack the bones neatly below ground in the quarries. This practice carried on for some time and over many cemeteries. You can't quite imagine just how many bodies are down there, though the estimate is over six million.

      We walked on amongst the bones and the mould growing over them. And walked and walked. After half an hour of walking amongst them, I was a little desperate to get out and we quickened our pace. Two of the staff were just ahead with a flashlight and I listened in to their conversation, this was mostly about how soon they could get out of work and I didn't blame them at all. The lengthy bone corridors are only broken up by the occasional novel arrangement of bones; a vase shape of tibias here or an archway of skulls there and the feeling that you could be lost or locked in here is overpowering.

      There are a few famous people anonymously buried down here, but I don't think you'll want to poke about looking for them. When we reached the last cavern, we hiked it up the steps pretty quickly to the daylight and the fresh air. It's worth noting that when you leave, you are quite some distance from the point where you entered and it's about twenty minutes walk back to Denfert Rochereau. We stopped for a coke in a pavement café before we wandered on to Montparnasse, pleased to be back in the sunshine.

      The catacombs are not necessarily a must-see for a first time visitor to Paris; if however you're already familiar with the city and interested in it's history, they're worth a look. Due to their underground and morbid nature, they're not really suitable for children, anyone claustrophobic or those who are uneasy around burial sites. Tall visitors have to slouch a little in the corridors and the damp and mould might affect those with asthma too. Oh yes, and if you don't like stairs - forget it! For a good idea of how many stairs you'll be facing, think of Covent Garden underground when the lifts are out of action.

      If you still want to go, then as catacombs go, these are artistic and foreboding. The signs are clear and mostly translated to English if you don't speak French, the tour is unguided and it's a different side to the city - four stars from me!

      Full adult price is 8 Euros, but there are concessions.

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