The Catacombs of Paris: Underneath the city of light lies a chamber of darkness and death

Meet the family: some of the residents of the Paris catacombs. Image: AFP/Getty.

In the ground beneath Paris, hundreds of miles of tunnels run like arteries. Underneath the streets lie spaces of all kinds: canals and reservoirs, prisons, crypts and bank vaults, wine cellars transformed into nightclubs and galleries. None are as creepy as the infamous Catacombs.

At a depth of 20 metres, equivalent to the size of a five storey building, the catacombs lie deeper than the Metro and sewer systems. These 200 miles of old caves, quarries and tunnels are full to bursting with the bones of deceased Parisians from centuries past. The history of the Catacombs is one of gory necessity: the story of a city which could no longer contain its dead.

The catacombs have existed since the13th century, when the mining of limestone quarries to provide bricks for the city’s buildings created as a side effect an entire underground city: the carrières de Paris, an intricate web of tunnels, lying mostly under the southern part of the metropolis.


Parisians had taken material from the ground to build upwards – but later they found that they needed to reuse the spaces they'd created below. By the 18th century, the cemeteries had started overflowing.

In Les Halles, near Paris' biggest cemetery, Les Innocents, the stench was unbearable. Perfume stores complained that they couldn't do business: the air was so thick with the smell of rotten flesh that no scent could penetrate the odour. In 1763, Louis XV banned any further burials inside the capital, but the Church didn't want cemeteries disturbed or moved, and so nothing else was done.

Then, in 1780, there was a prolonged period of spring rain. That May, the weight of damp ground full of bodies caused the wall of a restaurant cellar in the Rue de la Lingerie to collapse. Rotting bodies and old bones flooded the property; outbreaks of disease followed.

Some of the tunnels. Image: AFP/Getty.

At the same time, by (un)happy coincidence, the walls of the local quarries were beginning to cave in. The solution to both problems seemed obvious. In 1786, the city authorities began to empty the cemeteries, and move human remains to the abandoned quarry tunnels.

It took the residents of several cemeteries to fill each catacomb. In order not to disturb the locals, the bodies were transferred in the dead of night, hidden under dark cloth on the back of carts. As they passed through the darkened streets, priests would chant for the morbid cargo.  By the end of the process, over 6m late Parisians had been moved to the as the ossuaries, their bones covering the walls from head to toe.

During the Revolution, the dead were buried directly in the catacombs. The new arrivals in this period included both Jean-Paul Marat and Maximilien de Robespierre. But after 1860, as other facilities became available, no fresh bodies were added to the tunnels.

The catacombs of Paris are not unique: in medieval Europe, it was quite common to dig up bones and store them in charnel houses and ossuaries, in order to make space in cemeteries for more corpses.

You can find such piles of bones in the Wamba ossuary in northern Spain's Church of Santa Maria, Valladolid, or the ossuary of St Leonard's in the Kent town of Hythe. In the 16th century Cappela dos Ossos, in the Portuguese town of Evora, near Lisbon, 5,000 individuals, thought to be war and plague victims, are embedded decoratively into the chapel walls.

Some of the catacombs' older residents. Image: DJTox/Wikimedia Commons.

The tunnels beneath Paris have had other uses, too. The quarries were mined up until the 18th century, and used by farmers to grow mushrooms after that. During World War II, French Resistance fighters used some as hide-outs; the Germans built bunkers in others.

Nowadays there are groups that like to explore the passages under Paris their own way. These “cataphiles” are mostly young rebellious folk, undeterred by the fact that is has been illegal to enter the Catacombs without official guidance since 1955. They spend their time exploring, attracted by the idea of being underground both literally and metaphorically


Until the late 1980's it was possible to enter the tunnels from a number of points, including some doorways in schools and other buildings. Today, though, many are closed off, and the cataphiles have to be more cunning, both when gaining access (this often involves ropes) and when avoiding the police unit who patrol the passageways. It isn’t a hobby for those with claustrophobia or a nervous disposition.

Today just over a mile of these meandering tunnels are open to the public. The entrance is located in Paris' 14th arrondissement, at 1 Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy. Paying visitors walk under a doorway, with a haunting inscription above it: "Arrête, c'est ici l'empire de la mort!" (“Stop! This is the empire of death!”) Never have truer words been spoken.

 
 
 
 

A helpful and informative guide to London, for the benefit of the New York Times editorial board

The sun rises over quaint old London town. Image: Getty.

It’s like with family members you hate: it’s fine for you to slag them off, but if anyone else has, you’re up in muted, backhanded arms about it.

Yesterday, the world’s number one London fan the New York Times tweeted a request for experiences of petty crime in the city. This was met by a deluge of predictably on-brand snark, like “Sometimes people scuff my leg and only apologise once”, and “Dicks who stand on the left-hand-side of tube escalators”. This served the dual purpose of uniting a divided London, and proving to the NYT that we are exactly the kind of chippy bastards who deserve to constantly lose their phones and wallets to petty crime.

By way of thanks for that brief endorphin rush, and in hopes of leading things in a more positive direction, I’d like to offer the Times this uplifting guide to London, by me, a Londoner.

I take my London like I take my coffee: on foot. If you are with someone special, or like me, like to reimagine your life in the format of Netflix dramady as you walk alone on Sundays, I can highly recommend the Thames Path as a place to start.

Kick things off next to Westminster, where we keep our national mace in the House of Commons. Useful though the mace might prove in instances of street theft, it is critical that it is never moved from the House. It acts as a power source for our elected representatives, who, if the mace is moved, become trapped in endless cycles of pointless and excruciatingly slow voting.

Cross Westminster Bridge to the Southbank, where in the manner of a spoiled 2018 Oliver Twist, you can beg for a hot chocolate or cup of chestnuts at the Christmas market for less that £8. Remember to hold your nose, the mutton vats are pungent. Doff your cap to the porridge vendor. (LOL, as if we make muttons in vats anymore. Box your own ears for your foolishness.) Then buy some hemp milk porridge, sprinkle with frankincense and myrrh, and throw it at the pigeons. There are thousands.

In the spring, head a little further south through Waterloo station. If you pass through the other side without getting ABBA stuck in your head, Napoleon’s ghost will appear to grant you three wishes.

Proceed to the Vaults, which is like the rabbit warrens in Watership Down, but for actors and comedians. No-one knows the correct way in, so expect to spend at least 45 minutes negotiating a series of increasingly neon graffiti tunnels. Regret not going to art school, and reward yourself upon your eventual entry with a drink at the bar. Browse the unintelligible show programme, and in no circumstances speak to any actors or comedians.

When you emerge from the Vaults three days later, turn back towards the river and head east. Enjoy the lights along the Thames while you pick at the spray paint stains on your coat. 


After about 20 minutes, you will reach the Tate Modern, which stands opposite St Paul’s Cathedral. Close to sunset, the sky, water, and cathedral might turn a warm peach colour. The Tate remains grey, coldly confident that for all its brutalist outline, it was still fantastically expensive to build. Feel grateful for that loose knit jumper you stole from the Vaults, and go inside.

Spend two minutes absorbing the largest and most accessible art, which is in the turbine hall, then a further hour in the museum shop, which is next to it. Buy three postcards featuring the upstairs art you skipped, and place them in your bag. They will never see the light of day again.

Head further east by way of Borough Market. Measure your strength of character by seeing how many free samples you are prepared to take from the stalls without buying anything. Leave disappointed. Continue east.

At Tower Bridge, pause and take 6,000 photos of the Tower of London and the view west towards parliament, so that people know. Your phone is snatched! Tut, resolve to take the embarrassment with you to your grave rather than shame Her Majesty's capital, and cross the river.

On the other side of the Bridge, you could opt to head north and slightly east to Shoreditch/Brick Lane/Whitechapel, where you can pay to enjoy walking tours describing how some pervert murdered innocent women over a century ago.

Don’t do that.

Instead, head west and north. through the City, until you reach Postman’s Park, which is a little north of St Paul’s, next to St Bartholomew's hospital. Go in, and find the wall at the far end. The wall is covered in plaques commemorating acts of extraordinary and selfless bravery by the city’s inhabitants. Read all of them and fail to hold back tears.

Then tweet about it.