Mining of the limestone deposits underneath Paris started as early as the Middle Ages to provide foundations for cathedrals and castles such as Notre Dame and Versailles, eventually resulting in over 200 miles of tunnels. At the end of the 18th century, rampant disease originating from overused graveyards (most notably the Cimetière des Innocents) resulted in complete exhumation. For two years priests transfered corpses from the suspected cemeteries to the Catacombs, and the high death rate during the French Revolution had bodies deposited there directly. A few decades and nearly six million remains later, the ossuary in the Catacombs started gaining popularity as a tourist attraction.
I have done the organized tour twice, and the juxtaposition between fascination and fear of death present in the ossuary intrigues me. People walk past the bones-filled rows while laughing and sneaking pictures, the anonymity, antiquity and multitude of the disassembled skeletons making it easy to ignore that some day we’ll all meet a similar fate.
But the ossuary accounts for only a small part of the Catacombs’ available space. The rest accommodate graffiti over bones and rebellious Parisians rather than tourists. Catacomb frequenters, known as Cataphiles, consist mostly of adventurous students and grungy individuals coming to explore, party or enjoy the solitude available only twenty meters below the ground.
Entrances to the catacombs are usually kept secret to prevent discovery and overuse by other Cataphiles, but I will say that our entry involved climbing (rather ungracefully on my part) over a locked gate and walking in darkness for about ten minutes before reaching an indiscreet hole in the bottom of the wall. After a tight squeeze through and crawling for a few minutes in mud, we came to a proper path, complete with a street name carved into the wall.
Vegetation-less, rodent-less, noise-less, light-less and scattered with discards from drunken debauchery, the Catacombs feel like living inside a science fiction film or a post-apocalyptic society. Centuries worth of graffiti covered the walls, melted candles decorated wall nooks, and forms such as castles and gargoyles were carved into the limestone. One small chamber flaunted a garden of plastic plants, another displayed an array of stolen property (street signs, post office boxes and even Velib bicycles). Rainwater flooded several sections, but we trudged through waist-high water regardless. Our headlamps illuminated the tight corridors, but when we stopped in various chambers to hang out, we drank beer and nibbled on our cakes by candle light.
We encountered others along the way: two guys hoping to explore an unmapped area, a group celebrating a man’s 45th birthday, a trio of Cataphiles with a makeshift lantern and a boom box blaring punk music. A certain camaraderie existed automatically between us; we’d chat, share our snacks and trade tips before parting ways to continue our anonymous lives.
We spent six hours in the Catacombs, though by the end I couldn’t say if it had been thirty minutes or ten hours. The timelessness was comforting. We were lucky enough to be enclosed in the veins of Paris, breathing her tumultuous history and feeling the steadiness of her pulse. Needless to say, it puts things into perspective.