Why visit the Catacombs of Paris?

Why visit the Catacombs of Paris?

The Paris Catacombs, a true subterranean labyrinth at the heart of the City of Light, are one of the most mysterious and captivating sites in the French capital. Attractive to visitors from around the world, these ancient galleries, which were once limestone quarries, now hold the remains of millions of Parisians. Nestled deep within the city, they represent a unique aspect of Parisian history and heritage, blending historical narratives, urban legends, and a distinctive architectural legacy.

Catacombs of Paris

From 29 € (or £24.70)

From £24.70 (or 29 €)

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In this article, we will embark on a journey through this underground world, where each corridor and each bone tells a story. We will explore the twists and turns of its unusual architecture, its centuries-old sculptures and inscriptions, and reveal the secrets of its creation. Finally, we will share practical tips and tricks for modern explorers eager to discover this extraordinary monument, to ensure an experience that is as enriching as it is unforgettable.

History of the Paris Catacombs

Let's dive into the rich and complex history of the Paris Catacombs, a journey through time that reveals how this underground network became one of the most fascinating sites in the capital. This section details the origins and transformations of the Catacombs, highlighting the events and decisions that shaped this extraordinary place, now an emblem of Parisian history.

Birth of a unique ossuary

The origins of the Catacombs of Paris date back to the 18th century, a pivotal time for the City of Light, faced with significant public health challenges. Due to the overcrowding of cemeteries, particularly the Saints-Innocents cemetery, notorious for its unsanitary conditions and overpopulation, Parisian authorities undertook a bold project. They decided to transfer the mortal remains to the vast and abandoned quarries of Tombe-Issoire, located beneath the Montrouge plain.

This operation, which began in 1785, led to the creation of the world's largest ossuary (11,000 m2), and one of the only underground ones, housing the remains of several million Parisians.

From municipal ossuary to public attraction

Designated the "Municipal Ossuary of Paris" on April 7, 1786, the site was inspired by the Catacombs of Rome, giving rise to its mythical name. It wasn't until 1809, under the direction of inspector Héricart de Thury, who transformed the space according to a museographic and monumental vision, that the Catacombs opened to the public, initially reserved for a wealthy and curious elite, and then gradually to a broader audience, captivated by this unique and dark slice of Parisian history.

This transformation included the meticulous organization of the bones, previously left in heaps, into walls following the model of quarrymen's "hagues." The facades are composed of alternating rows of tibias and skulls, behind which the more fragmented bones are piled up. De Thury also created masonry monuments in the style of ancient and Egyptian architecture, such as Doric pillars, altars, cippi, and tombs, as well as cabinets in the tradition of cabinets of curiosities, one dedicated to mineralogy, the other to pathology. This latter room displays specimens reflecting the diseases and deformations of bones according to the research of Dr. Michel-Augustin Thouret in 1789.

Ossuary of the Catacombs of Paris

In addition to this artistic and educational arrangement, the ossuary is adorned with quotes and symbols that prompt reflection on death. Among these inscriptions, there are fragments of poetry centered on death by poets like Alphonse de Lamartine and Antoine-Marin Lemierre. These texts, scattered throughout the galleries, add a poetic and philosophical dimension to the experience, encouraging visitors to introspection and meditation on mortality. For example, the inscription "Stop, this is the empire of death" welcomes visitors at the entrance of the ossuary, underscoring the unique and contemplative atmosphere of the place.

This opening marked the beginning of a fascination that continues to this day, transforming these underground galleries into a unique testimony to the history and culture of Paris.

Architecture and layout

The architecture and layout of the Catacombs of Paris reflect the complexity and ingenuity of this historical site. In this section, we will explore the unique structure of the Catacombs, from the quarries transformed into an ossuary to the modern adaptations for visitors. The architectural interventions and developments over the centuries reveal not only a technical expertise, but also a particular facet of Parisian history.

A subterranean labyrinth

The Paris Catacombs are characterized by a complex and fascinating underground architecture. This labyrinth of tunnels, which extends under a large part of the city, was originally composed of limestone quarries, used to build many Parisian buildings. Transformed into an ossuary in the 18th century, these quarries have become a network of galleries housing the remains of millions of Parisians.

Ingeniousness and stability

The work of Charles-Axel Guillaumot (1730-1807), architect and First General Controller of the King's Buildings, played a crucial role in stabilizing these underground spaces. He became the first inspector of the quarries of Paris and worked tirelessly, despite a tumultuous historical period, to support the city beneath the surface, creating a sort of underground "double" of the Paris of the Age of Enlightenment.

His expertise ensured the safety and longevity of the Catacombs, notably through the installation of pillars and supporting walls. His work was essential in preventing a general collapse of the capital, which began to manifest dramatically at the end of the 18th century.

This underground engineering, still visible today, testifies to his architectural and technical ingenuity.

Modern adaptations

Over time, the Catacombs have undergone modifications to accommodate the needs of modern visitors. The installation of electricity in 1987 was a major turning point, allowing for more comfortable and secure visits. Previously, visits were conducted by candlelight, creating a mysterious and somewhat solemn atmosphere, but less practical. These improvements have made the Catacombs accessible to a wider audience, while preserving their historical character and unique ambiance.

Notable attractions

Beyond their fascinating history, the Catacombs of Paris are filled with areas and features that are particularly noteworthy. This section highlights the most notable attractions of the site, each carrying its own unique story and contributing to the mysterious aura of the Catacombs. From sculptural art to historical markings, these points of interest greatly enrich the visit.

Catacombs of Paris

From 29 € (or £24.70)

From £24.70 (or 29 €)

The negative of Paris

The section known as "The negative of Paris" in the Catacombs is truly one of their most fascinating features. As visitors walk through these underground passages, they marvel at the names of Parisian streets carefully engraved on the vaults above their heads. These inscriptions offer a unique perspective, as if the city streets were reflected in an underground world. This architectural curiosity creates a striking visual and conceptual link between the bustling city above and its quiet underground counterpart.

This section, often described as the dark reflection of the City of Light, is a poignant reminder of Paris's tumultuous history. It symbolizes the intimate interconnection between the city and its catacombs, a living metaphor of the relationship between life and death, light and darkness. The engraved names act as a bridge between the two worlds, inviting visitors to deep reflection on the history and soul of Paris. Walking through this part of the Catacombs, one cannot help but feel a connection with the past, an experience that is both educational and emotionally charged, highlighting the hidden dimensions of the French capital.

The Ledoux Pavilion

The Ledoux Pavilion is an important historical witness to the architecture of the Ancien Régime. Designed by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, this pavilion was part of the so-called "Enfer" barrier, a tax checkpoint at the entrance to Paris. Its design, dating back to 1785, included two symmetrical pavilions, inspired by Greek propylaea, and served as a symbol of state power. The pavilions feature four levels, each with distinct architectural details, such as Tuscan columns and a serliana.

Symbols of royal power and tax inequalities, the barriers were among the first targets during the revolutionary uprisings of 1789. After being looted and burned, the Enfer barrier was restored and renamed "barrière Égalité". Later, in 1867, the West pavilion was used by the Public Highway Service of the City of Paris and the General Inspection of Quarries, while the East pavilion served as a barracks.

In 1907, following preservation efforts by the Commission of Old Paris, the former Enfer barrier, along with other historical barriers, were classified as historical monuments.

The medieval workshop

The workshop of the Catacombs of Paris, a living testimony of the medieval era, is a true history lesson on the ancient technique of quarry construction. This method, called "hagues et bourrages", was crucial for the construction of underground tunnels.

In this section, visitors can observe two types of pillars that testify to the evolution of construction techniques over the centuries. The first type, the turned pillar, typical of the Middle Ages, involved leaving a part of the limestone rock in place to support the ceiling. Although functional, this process resulted in a significant loss of construction materials. In response, at the end of the 15th century, the pillar with arms was introduced. This innovative method used roughly hewn blocks of rock manually stacked, offering a more efficient use of raw material. Completed by hagues, walls of stones that held back the quarry fill and debris, these robust pillars and rustic architecture offer visitors a fascinating glimpse into medieval construction methods, highlighting the antiquity and complexity of the Catacombs of Paris.

The sculptures of Décure

The sculptures by Décure in the Catacombs of Paris represent a fascinating convergence of history, art, and personal memory. François Décure, a former soldier in the army of Louis XVI, became a quarryman in the Catacombs in 1777 to help consolidate the quarries.

Between 1777 and 1782, Décure, nicknamed Beauséjour, carved the limestone walls of the Port-Mahon gallery, named after his main work, during his lunch breaks. His most remarkable work is a representation of the fortress of Port-Mahon in Minorca, where he had been a prisoner of the English. Incredibly, he created these sculptures from memory, using primitive tools of the time. Décure called this place his "salon," where he also carved a table and benches into the stone. This personal and artistic area even attracted the attention of personalities such as the Count of Artois, brother-in-law of Marie-Antoinette and future King Charles X of France, who visited the salon in 1787.

Tragically, Décure's passion for his art led to his premature death. While attempting to construct a staircase to facilitate access to his sculptures, he was the victim of a landslide and died shortly after.

These sculptures, beyond their artistic value, bear witness to human resilience and creativity in the face of adversity. They offer visitors an intimate and moving glimpse into the life of a man who transformed his underground work environment into a space for personal and artistic expression.

The ossuary: the heart of the Catacombs

Finally, the ossuary, the centerpiece of the Catacombs, offers a spectacle that is both macabre and fascinating. The walls lined with bones, accompanied by engraved quotes and symbols, reflect a time when death was a daily presence in the lives of Parisians.

Beyond its macabre aspect, the ossuary of the Catacombs of Paris, which evokes human fragility and the passage of time, is a place of profound reflection on life, death, and human transience, enriched by a remarkable artistic and educational arrangement.

Celebrities and legends

The Paris Catacombs are not only a burial place for the anonymous, but also a resting place for famous historical figures and the cradle of numerous legends. This section delves into the stories of the illustrious personalities who rest here and the myths that surround this mystical site, adding a layer of depth and mystery to the Catacombs experience.

Resting place of historical figures

The Catacombs of Paris serve as the final resting place for millions of anonymous Parisians as well as significant historical personalities. Figures such as Maximilien de Robespierre, Jean-Paul Marat, Charles Perrault, Jean de La Fontaine, and Nicolas Fouquet lie in this underground sanctuary. Their presence bestows the Catacombs with a special status, blending historical grandeur with collective memory.

Victims of the Terror

In a poignant manner, the Catacombs also house the remains of numerous guillotine victims during the Reign of Terror, including those of King Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. This section of the Catacombs serves as a silent reminder of the turbulence and drastic changes in French history.

Legends and mysteries

Finally, the Catacombs are steeped in legends and mysteries. Among the most famous is the tale of the ghost of Marie-Antoinette haunting the dark corridors, adding a layer of mysticism and intrigue to the visit of these historically charged places.

Corridor of the Catacombs of Paris

Practical information for visitors

For a peaceful and organized visit to the Catacombs of Paris, it is essential to know certain practical information. From booking tickets to planning your route, these details are crucial to ensure an enjoyable and hassle-free experience. This section will provide you with everything you need to know before diving into the depths of this historic monument.

Planning and restrictions

A visit to the Catacombs of Paris requires careful planning, especially due to capacity restrictions. With a limit of 200 visitors inside at a time, it is advisable to book in advance, particularly during peak tourist seasons. This measure not only ensures the safety of visitors but also a better visiting experience.

Opening hours

The Catacombs of Paris are open all year round, from Tuesday to Sunday, from 9:45 am to 8:30 pm (last entry at 7:30 pm).

The Catacombs are closed on Mondays, January 1st, May 1st, and December 25th.

They remain open on Ascension Thursdays, as well as on July 14th, August 15th, November 1st, and November 11th, unless these days fall on a Monday.

Pricing and options

Catacombs of Paris

From 29 € (or £24.70)

From £24.70 (or 29 €)

In 2024, the ticket prices are as follows:

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  • Full price (audioguide included): 29€
  • Reduced price* (audioguide included): 23€
  • Child rate (5 to 17 years old): 10€ (without audioguide)
  • Audioguide: an additional 5€

The audioguide, available in several languages, provides an informative and immersive complement to the visit.

* Holders of the "Paris Pass Familles" or "Famille nombreuse" card, active teachers, young people aged 18 to 26, students, technical teachers of the judicial youth protection, holders of the "Pass Paris Seniors" or "Pass Paris Access'" card (former Navigo Emeraude Améthyste), members of the French Art History Society, the National Society of French Antiquaries, the French Art Preservation Society, and the French Archaeological Society.

A guided tour in French "Discovery of the Catacombs" is offered every Tuesday (at 6 pm) and Thursday (at 1 pm).

Entry is free for children under 5 years old. Children under 14 must be accompanied by an adult.

Visit route

The tour route, extending over 1.5 km and located 20 meters underground, begins with a spiral staircase of 131 steps. This initiatory path leads to a series of informative panels on the history of the Catacombs. The visit, which is in one direction, offers an immersive experience in the history of Paris, and the exit is at a different location from the entrance (112 steps to climb up), thus allowing the discovery of new facets of the neighborhood.

Address and access

Located at 1, avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy (Place Denfert-Rochereau) in Paris, with a different exit at 21 bis, avenue René-Coty, the Paris Catacombs are easily accessible by public transport, with the Denfert-Rochereau stop being the closest.

For those traveling by car, a paid parking is available at 83 bd Saint-Jacques.

Restrooms are available for visitors at the entrance and exit of the Catacombs.

Tips and tricks for an enjoyable visit

To ensure a memorable and comfortable experience during your visit to the Catacombs of Paris, it is important to follow some practical tips. Whether it's in terms of booking, dress code, or health and accessibility considerations, these recommendations will help you fully enjoy your exploration of this unique historical site.

  • Preparing for the visit: it is highly recommended to book your tickets in advance, especially during the peak tourist season. This precaution will allow you to avoid long queues and ensure your entry.
  • Appropriate attire: the temperature in the Catacombs is constant, around 14°C. It is recommended to wear a sweater or a light jacket, even in summer, to stay comfortable throughout the visit.
  • Duration of the visit: the visit generally lasts from 45 minutes to 1 hour. This duration can vary depending on your walking pace and your interest in the historical and architectural details along the route.
  • Photography: taking photos is allowed in the Catacombs, but without the use of flash. This helps to preserve the unique atmosphere of the place and respects the tranquility of other visitors.

It is forbidden to touch the artworks, bones, and decor.

Health and accessibility

The site is not accessible to people in wheelchairs or those using walkers due to access conditions. It is also not recommended for people with reduced mobility, those suffering from claustrophobia, heart or respiratory insufficiency, or those who may be disturbed by the place.

Visually impaired and blind people must be accompanied at all times.

Guide dogs for the blind are allowed.

Visitors must be aware of the uneven and slippery floors, narrow spaces, and low lighting.

 

The Paris Catacombs offer much more than just a tourist visit: they invite you on a journey through time, culture, and the mysteries of the French capital. This site unique in its kind, blending history, art, and architecture, remains a poignant testimony to the complex relationship between Paris and its past. Whether for history buffs, architecture enthusiasts, or simply the curious, a visit to the Catacombs promises an unforgettable experience, leaving a lasting impression long after returning to the surface of the City of Light.

Near the Paris Catacombs

The discovery of the Catacombs of Paris is a fascinating and unique experience, immersing visitors in the historical depths of the city. However, the adventure doesn't stop at the gates of this mythical place, the surroundings of the Catacombs are full of other cultural and historical treasures:

  • Lion de Belfort: this emblematic monument at Place Denfert-Rochereau features a lion sculpture, symbolizing the resistance of the city of Belfort during the Franco-Prussian War.
  • Musée de la Libération de Paris - musée du Général Leclerc - musée Jean Moulin: this museum dedicated to the history of the Liberation of Paris during World War II and to the emblematic figures of General Leclerc and Jean Moulin is a must-visit for history enthusiasts.
  • Rue Daguerre: Rue Daguerre is known for its traditional Parisian market atmosphere, offering an authentic experience of daily life in Paris.
  • Fromagerie Vacroux: this traditional cheese shop, also located on Rue Daguerre just 3 minutes from the Catacombs, is perfect for discovering and tasting French cheeses.
  • Église Saint-Dominique: this church is a beautiful example of Parisian religious architecture, offering a moment of tranquility and spirituality.
  • Observatoire de Paris: the Paris Observatory is not only an important scientific center but also a historic building offering impressive views of the city.
  • Institut Giacometti: this institute is dedicated to the work of Alberto Giacometti, a famous Swiss artist known for his unique sculptures.
  • Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain: this foundation is a space dedicated to contemporary art, presenting varied and innovative exhibitions.
  • Cimetière Montparnasse: you can visit this famous cemetery where many personalities rest, such as Serge Gainsbourg and Simone de Beauvoir.

These sites offer a variety of cultural and historical experiences, enriching the visit to the Catacombs with diverse perspectives on history, art, and daily life in Paris.