Next time you take a stroll through the French capital, remember this: below you run many miles of tunnels, filled with the remains of six million people – the haunted Catacombs of Paris.
This is an eerie and unusual place to see in Paris, perfect if you're keen on the city's history, or if you're looking for something to do in Paris when it's raining, or searching for something off the beaten path
Only a tiny portion of the underground is open to the public, but they are well worth the visit, as long as you don't mind the dark, dank and macabre.
The catacombs weren't always a refuge for human bones: in Roman times, open-air quarries existed throughout the region, well beyond the city limits of what the Romans called Lutetia, long before it became the French capital. People helped themselves to the stone, first for their humble dwellings, but once the Middle Ages rolled in, for their huge cathedrals as well.
After all, why transport stone from far away when so much limestone could be found so easily just beneath their feet?
As the city spread, it found itself right above the quarries, but constant excavations would weaken the ground, creating an unregulated underground labyrinth that threatened to collapse. Sometimes, it did, like an infamous 1777 collapse on the Rue d'Enfer, which swallowed up an entire house.
Worried about the ground under Paris, authorities set up a General Inspectorate of Quarries (it still exists) to check on the stability of the quarries and to prevent anyone from digging new ones.
Meantime, the cemeteries of Paris were filling up. The city was expanding, population was growing, and the city's 200 graveyards could no longer keep up with the demand for space. Each time a new grave was dug, bones would be found underneath. The sheer weight of all these bodies was straining the grave walls until finally, in 1780, an entire chunk of the Cimetière des Innocents, the largest in Paris, gave way, right into the basement of a local restaurant.
Collapse was not the only danger.
The entire setup was utterly insalubrious, the many mass graves becoming sources of infection and illness, smelling of putrefaction and polluting the wells from which people got their drinking water. As the citizenry howled, Paris finally did something about the overflowing cemetery: it moved the buried remains to the former quarries of Tombe-Issoire, in what is now the 14th arrondissement. And that's how it all began.
The bones were carried in the dead of night to avoid scaring the city's respectable burghers. One can only imagine such a death procession, with priestly robes floating past by torchlight, accompanied by the squeal of heaving carts and the whispered blessings of the clergy as the cortège moved forward.
The first bones were moved in April 1786, and more would be added over time, as other cemeteries filled up. By 1814, when the quarries finally closed, the tunnels would be home to six million Parisian souls.
They came to be known as the "catacombs", in reference to the underground necropoles in Rome, although in Paris they were ossuaries rather than places of burial. (Eventually, excavations during the 1960s would yield even more remains, which would also find their way here.)
The Paris Catacombs were opened to the public on 1 July 1809 with great fanfare, creating a stir among the glitterati who visited − these included such contemporary luminaries as Napoleon III and the Emperor of Austria.
The section that's open to the public is called the Ossuary of Denfert-Rochereau, across the street from the metro station of the same name (Denfert-Rochereau, by the way, was a military leader who led the heroic resistance of the city of Belfort in 1871 during the Franco-Prussian War). There's no question this is one of the more unusual places to see in Paris.
It's a simple journey, beginning with a corkscrew stairway that plunges you 20 meters underground. There's no avoiding this – there are no elevators.
After looking around a well-lit room filled with information and displays, the hush begins. A pseudo-grand entrance leads you into the Catacombs with these words: "STOP: This is the Empire of Death."
Not discouraging, but not quite welcoming, either. They're not called the haunted Catacombs of Paris for nothing.
Know that you'll be walking through lengthy tunnels of humid earth for quite a while before reaching the actual ossuary, so claustrophobes should abstain, as should those who have difficulty breathing.
As you advance, any noise will become more muted and muffled, enveloping you in the silence of the earth beneath. The path forward is relatively well marked, but don't wander off because there is no phone signal down here and if you get lost...
There is a famous story about a certain Philibert Aspairt who wandered into the depths of the Catacombs in 1793 but never found his way out (you can read more about him below). Who knows if his ghost isn't still wandering around...
You'll see plenty of astonishing things: bones built up into unusual shapes and structures, signs with names of the streets above, small rooms with vaults...
Rather than the grim and gory scenes you might expect, the bones have been positioned to please, a decision made long ago by the then General Inspector of the Quarries, Héricart de Thury. He set up the bones as museum, with spectacular architectural structures such as doric columns, plaques, altars – and unusually shaped structures, many of which are considered works of art.
Had he been at work today, some of the more whimsical constructions would not have been considered good taste by 21st century sensitivities.
While much of what there is to see is made up of bones, there are several unexpected sculptures as you wander through the tunnels, most of them dating to between 1777 and 1782 and hewn by a certain Décure, a quarry worker with the General Inspectorate.
A former army veteran, he had fought for the liberation (from the English) of Minorca, in the Balearic Islands, and imprisoned at Port Mahon, the island's capital.
While working in the quarry, he discovered a cavern that had opened after a rockfall. At lunchtime, while his colleagues returned above ground for lunch, he would enter "his" cavern and chip away at the rock. For five years, he fashioned buildings underground that reminded him of those of Mahon.
Sadly, some of the sculptures were damaged during the French Revolution, which would break out shortly after his death, and, in later years, by nature and people, although much has been restored.
What a legacy!
Long before the catacombs became commercialized, electrically lit and properly mapped, people wandered down here, to explore. Those who kept coming back are called cataphiles, passionate visitors of the forbidden underground, owners of the Parisian netherworld.
There are many Paris Catacombs stories, and with only a small portion of the tunnels open to the public, it is inevitable that adventurers would want to explore the rest and uncover their hidden stories.
People have been visiting the tunnels for centuries but wandering off unaccompanied (by officials) has been illegal since 1955.
Cataphiles as we know them became particularly active during the May 1968 street revolts, when students used the Catacombs to circumvent police barricades. By the 1980s, being a cataphile was often a lifestyle choice, with manholes almost turning into revolving doors, and some underground chambers so crowded their party music clashed with that of neighbouring tunnels.
Enough was enough, and authorities eventually sealed off most of the entrances. The number of cataphiles dwindled, and only the most passionate remained.
That said, the arrival of Covid-19 had an unexpected effect on the Catacombs: it encouraged illegal gatherings, where young people could get together away from prying eyes − and from the curfews imposed because of the epidemic.
There's no question security is an issue.
The possibility of getting lost exists, of course, and there's no phone signal down there. But that's not all.
There be rats. Of course there are: we're underground! Rats carry diseases, like leptospirosis, and these days, we know how dangerous that can be.
There are other possible dangers. The tunnels could flood – some are already half-full of water, or could cave in, because not all the tunnels have been reinforced. And you can't assume all cataphiles are friendly. In fact, some are downright sinister and muggings underground are not unknown.
Undeterred? Still want to go?
To many cataphiles, tourists who simply want to experience the forbidden Catacombs as a bucket list item are cause for disdain.
But that doesn't mean you won't find someone to guide you.
Since this is an illegal endeavour, cataphiles willing to guide don't advertise. Fines have become stiffer and motion sensors make a visit riskier, so a cataphile might not necessarily be overjoyed to have some stranger tagging along.
You'll have to build a relationship first: they're guarded about their underground travels and a simple request for a guide might be ignored. Plus, they don't know you. You could be a serial killer and who wants that kind of company deep underground, where not even text messages reach?
That said, there are plenty of sites dedicated to exploring the Catacombs, but they're all in French, so if you do speak the language, you'll probably find someone if you try. You can browse through the Twitter #cataphiles hashtags. There are forums (here's one) where you can talk to real cataphiles and, who knows, maybe convince one to take you down. There's also this listings page.
If you get that far and actually connect with someone willing to take you down, you'll be instructed on what to wear (waterproof shoes, a flashlight, drinking water, food, a map if you can find one, candles...), where to meet, how to behave. Here's a brief survival guide, again, if you read French.
If you're curious about what's down there, this short YouTube video will give you a glimpse (and you might just change your mind).
That's right! It's not what they're called but since 1980 a special police brigade has been patrolling the Catacombs, looking for... cataphiles, of course.
Several times a week, they head into the tunnels, hoping to dislodge a few insistent cataphiles in what often turns into an unofficial game of hide and seek.
They look for clues (they are police, after all) – these could be cigarette or marijuana butts, the smell of fresh paint from tags or wall art, the sound of distant music from an underground party, an empty can or bottle... and often, they find people and parties. One night, they stumbled upon an entire discotheque with 300 guests. They also seal off new entrances when they find them, and rescue the occasional lost soul who wandered down, thinking it would "be fun".
The fines can range from €60 into the thousands but the lowest fine is usually applied when no damage has been done. That said, patience is eroding and fines are creeping up.
It's a frustrating job because it's dangerous, it's wet and smelly, and spending hours of the night under those conditions may be fun for cataphiles, but the police aren't amused. Not to mention the menacing tags they sometimes find scrawled on the walls about an unwelcome police presence.
Even the police don't know their way around it all: in 2004, they discovered a motion-sensor recording of dogs barking, designed to keep people away, along with a huge cavern equipped as a cinema, with a bar and restaurant next door (along with phone and electrical installations). When they returned a few days later with electricians, everything had been disconnected and a note left behind: "Do not try to find us."
And while their primary job is finding illegal visitors, they have another job: they check on the tunnels themselves, to make sure nothing has shifted or is in danger of collapse, a quick spot-check brigade whose eye can help spot trouble before it happens.
Let's leave the cataphiles and focus on the cats.
Many Paris catacomb legends may be true, or not, but the story of the cats' skulls is guaranteed to give you chills. It is to be found in a book about underground Paris, which revealed an 1896 discovery of hundreds of skulls in the tunnels. Cat skulls.
It seems the catacombs shared a well with a nearby restaurant, undoubtedly run by an unscrupulous manager who passed off felines as rabbits, their taste apparently resembling one another.
This being an unacceptable practice, disposing of cat carcasses in the well isn't, well, inconceivable. Yet another of the creepy stories are told about the Catacombs...
As cataphiles became familiar with the tunnels, they often returned to the same rooms and eventually made themselves at home, decorating walls, bringing down furniture, adding street art to the walls and naming their secret rooms according to purpose or decor − La Plage (the beach), Le Cellier (the cellar) or La Salle du Chateau (the castle room).
The high-ceilinged "Room Z" may have been a gathering place for a right-wing splinter group in the 1930s, and was the scene of massive parties in the 1980s.
The catacombs have been used to grow mushrooms, to meet for illicit sex, or even as nuclear shelters. During World War II, the Germans built a bunker down there, complete with electricity, reinforced doors and toilets. And until the 1970s, a mass was celebrated down here each year for the Day of the Dead.
While cataphiles may know their way around, the same cannot be said of others who don't drop by often.
Sadly, the Catacombs are not immune to vandalism and regular clean-ups are needed to get rid of the worst messes. A few years ago, vandals caused much destruction several months were needed for repairs.
The Catacombs are an ossuary, an underground cemetery, built inside tunnels beneath the streets of Paris.
The Catacombs are former quarries, which were transformed into ossuaries when the city's cemeteries became too full.
The quarries have been here for centuries, but were used to house human remains beginning in 1786, when the first bones were moved here.
The quarries date back to Gallo-Roman times, but the actual Catacombs were developed by the French government in the late 18th century.
The Catacombs are located 20 meters / 65 feet underground.
While the tunnels as a whole are about 250-300 km (155-186 miles) long, the actual Catacombs are only 1.7 km (1 mile) long.
The Catacombs house the remains of six million Parisians.
Let me put it this way: six million bodies are stored here. If you believe in such things, that must also mean six million souls... surely a few of them are still wandering around the tunnels?
Certainly not. They are huge, some areas are impassable, and there is no real original map of the Paris Catacombs.
Not at all, at least not the "official" Catacombs, those open to the public. The only difficulties are the spiral entrance stairway, and the long, dark hallways, which could be difficult for people who have problems with small spaces.