Over the last few years, the Paris Catacombs have exploded in popularity. Since you’ll be going down into the labyrinth of tunnels, be prepared to explore their mystery and darkness. We love exploring these underground sites, so here are the top things to see and do in the Paris Catacombs.
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Top Things You’ll See in the Catacombs of Paris
The Paris Catacombs have long been a mysterious and spooky place for tourists to explore, which is why tours of the Paris Catacombs are so popular. But if you’re not sure exactly what to expect, then keep reading to learn what you’ll see when you head underground.
6. “Stop, This is Death’s Empire”
Surprisingly, the Paris Catacombs have been open to the general public since 1809 and were created pretty much from the get-go as a tourist destination. So, you’ll notice a sense of theatricality as you walk through.
Before you enter the main area where you begin to see the bones, you’ll immediately see a sign that reads, “Arrête, c’est ici l’empire de la mort.” This translates to: “Stop, this is death’s empire.”
Today, we have the internet and are exposed to many sights, but imagine back in the 19th century. You would have had the option of either going to the theater or coming here. One other thing to keep in mind is that there was no electricity back then, so when visitors would come down to view the catacombs, they would be walking through these dark tunnels with just a candle. All of that would have added to the theater-like experience.
Before we go on, let me tell you one of the scariest cataphile stories. One day a group of cataphiles happened upon a video camera on the ground. To their surprise, the camera had footage on it. As the group watched the footage, they heard disturbing noises.
It became apparent that the man holding the video camera was lost, and had no idea how to escape. In the video, the audience can clearly see that the man is going mad inside the underground network of tunnels.
The video ends abruptly, with the man dropping his camera to the ground. To this day, no one knows who this man was or if he came out alive. Many believe that the movie “As Above, So Below” was inspired by this tragedy.
5. Copy of Paris
Once underground, you’ll notice the street signs as you walk through the tunnels. You might even recognize some of the names of these streets. That’s because when they built the catacombs, they decided to name the tunnels with the corresponding street above. The only difference is that you are 60 feet ( 20 meters) below.
An interesting fact is that some of the street names are now outdated, which shows you just how old the catacombs really are. Some of the galleries are filled up with bones that are so narrow you have to crawl to fit in.
The people buried in the Paris Catacombs are the same people who were buried in the overstuffed grave sites. Among those who were moved into the catacombs lie Jean-Paul Marat and Maximilien de Robespierre. It took 12 years to move all of the bodies and bones to their final resting place.
A famous Paris Catacombs legend says that a mystifying thing occurs within the burial site after midnight. The legend says that if you’re inside the Paris Catacombs after midnight, the walls begin to speak. Disembodied voices will try to persuade you to venture deeper and deeper into the catacombs until you can’t find your way out.
4. The Well
At a certain point, you’ll come across a winding staircase that ends at a small well. This was the first geological drilling done in Paris. They originally dug the hole to see the various geological layers of the city of Paris. This is one of the more funny things to see in the Paris Catacombs because of what we’ll call “Quarryman Humor.”
You’ll also see a white light shining onto the back wall with the words, “Bain de pieds des Carriers”. This translates to “foot bath of the quarrymen” and comes from a quarrymen joke.
The water is so clear it’s invisible. The new quarrymen would be sent down the staircase and when they got to the bottom they would get their feet soaking wet. As weird as this sounds, I have seen it with my own eyes and can attest that if you don’t know to look for the water, you’d have no idea it was there.
This is not the only well, however. Close to the Barrel of Passion (see below), there’s another well they used to drop the bones down. As the bones were dropped down the well, the narrowness caused some pieces to get stuck. The priests would then drop a long metal chain down the center of the well and attach it to the bottom in order to shake the bones free.
There are other wells as deep as 45 feet inside the catacombs. Once, a girl fell into one of them. She couldn’t climb out because the well is flared at the top (like a funnel). Her friends managed to tie some ropes and clothes to lift her out. The well has been renamed Miss Plouf—for the sound you hear when something (or someone) falls into the water.
3. Rendering of Citadel de Mahon
We have to remember that the catacombs were designed for tourists, so you’ll find some exhibitions throughout. One of the most fascinating ones was created by a mysterious fellow called Decuré.
He was a veteran of the French army and after spending time in Menorca, he was able to perfectly carve the Citadel of Mahon from memory along with other buildings in the area. Imagine the kind of memory you’d need to do that! It’s definitely a must-see in the Paris Catacombs.
As beautiful as the sculptures are, this story has a tragic ending. Once he finished the sculptures, he started building a staircase so that visitors could easily access his masterpiece. During the construction, the part above him collapsed and it killed him. While they say he haunts the catacombs, he is not the only ghost here.
Lost in the Darkness of the Catacombs
During the French revolution, a man named Philibert Apsairt was a doorman at the Val-de-Grâce hospital. On a mission to fetch a certain liqueur from a cellar, Philibert actually ended up entering the Paris Catacombs instead.
Walking around the pitch-black catacombs alone with just a single candle, Philibert became incredibly lost and confused. Many believe he may have been intoxicated at the time as well. Philibert’s candle blew out, turning everything black.
At this point, it was virtually impossible for him to escape the profound darkness of the catacombs. His body was not found until 11 years later when a group of cataphiles uncovered it.
They identified him by the hospital key ring hanging from his belt. Aspairt is buried in the catacombs in the exact same place where he died with a tombstone describing his death. Cataphiles and Catacombs folklore tellers say that each November 3rd, Philibert’s ghost haunts the labyrinth of the catacombs.
Tours are one of the best ways to get to know the true history and secrets of major cities and attractions. Why? Local tour guides share a wealth of stories that will make your experience more memorable—often with skip-the-line access!
Not ready to book a tour? Find out if a Paris Catacombs tour is worth it.
2. Cross-Roads With the Lower Catacombs
It’s possible to cross from the upper Catacombs to the lower Catacombs via a support ramp. This is a great example to show you the inner workings of how the underground city was organized.
Generally, the quarries were dug out on one level. However, the quarrymen sometimes exploited the stone on two different levels. In the suburbs of Paris, it is actually possible to see underground quarries with five different levels. So, you can imagine at that point how complicated it is to read.
Underneath the alleys of the cemetery of Montparnasse (where Serge Gainsbourg is buried) a lot of the galleries are still running. The cemetery decided to relocate the contents of the mass graves down there, as former Parisian cemeteries did. Unlike in a museum, however, the bones are just lying on the ground. Cataphiles tell us that when visiting this section, they are simply walking on the bones.
1. The Barrel of Passion
At the center of all the bones, skulls, skeletons, and all things resembling death is the Barrel of Passion. In an area of the Catacombs called the Crypt of Passion, you’ll see a barrel-shaped structure made of bones and skulls. It was meant to be shaped like Obelix from the cartoon Asterix and Obelisk and is the top thing to see in the Paris Catacombs.
This eerie yet impressive display was made famous in 1897 when an illegal concert was held in the crypt. The concert included 45 musicians and over 100 guests! The concert featured Chopin’s “Funeral March” and the “Danse Macabre” by Camille Saint-Saens in the middle of the night.
The two men who organized the concert were quarrymen working on the catacombs and were eventually fired for holding the illegal event. It is said that they were hired back afterward, so all’s well that ends well.
Strange Catacombs Discoveries
In 2004, a group of police officers was exploring a part of the Paris Catacombs restricted from public access. They began to uncover very strange things. First, they found a PA system with pre-recorded guard dog barking noises playing. Then, they found 3,000 square feet of galleries, wired for phones using pirated electricity.
The officers found a bar, living area, workshop, lounge, and even a cinema with room to seat 20 people. The cinema seats had been carved into the stone of the catacombs. The creepiest part, though, was they discovered cameras on the ceilings recording them.
The police squad went back to the area a few days later with a larger team to further investigate. Everything they had discovered, from the phone lines to the Paris Catacombs cinema, had vanished. The only thing they found? A note that read: “Ne Cherchez pas,” meaning, “don’t search.”
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