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.

 
 
 
 

Here’s a fantasy metro network for Birmingham & the West Midlands

Birmingham New Street. Image: Getty.

Another reader writes in with their fantasy transport plans for their city. This week, we’re off to Birmingham…

I’ve read with interest CityMetric’s previous discussion on Birmingham’s poor commuter service frequency and desire for a “Crossrail” (here and here). So I thought I’d get involved, but from a different angle.

There’s a whole range of local issues to throw into the mix before getting the fantasy metro crayons out. Birmingham New Street is shooting up the passenger usage rankings, but sadly its performance isn’t, with nearly half of trains in the evening rush hour between 5pm and 8pm five minutes or more late or even cancelled. This makes connecting through New Street a hit and, mainly, miss affair, which anyone who values their commuting sanity will avoid completely. No wonder us Brummies drive everywhere.


There are seven local station reopening on the cards, which have been given a helping hand by a pro-rail mayor. But while these are super on their own, each one alone struggles to get enough traffic to justify a frequent service (which is key for commuters); or the wider investment needed elsewhere to free up more timetable slots, which is why the forgotten cousin of freight gets pushed even deeper into the night, in turn giving engineering work nowhere to go at all.

Suburban rail is the less exciting cousin of cross country rail. But at present there’s nobody to “mind the gap” between regional cross-country focussed rail strategy , and the bus/tram orientated planning of individual councils. (Incidentally, the next Midland Metro extension, from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill, is expected to cost £450m for just 11km of tram. Ouch.)

So given all that, I decided to go down a less glamorous angle than a Birmingham Crossrail, and design a Birmingham  & Black Country Overground. Like the London Overground, I’ve tried to join up what we’ve already got into a more coherent service and make a distinct “line” out of it.

Click to expand. 

With our industrial heritage there are a selection of old alignments to run down, which would bring a suburban service right into the heart of the communities it needs to serve, rather than creating a whole string of “park & rides” on the periphery. Throw in another 24km of completely new line to close up the gaps and I’ve run a complete ring of railway all the way around Birmingham and the Black Country, joining up with HS2 & the airport for good measure – without too much carnage by the way of development to work around/through/over/under.

Click to expand. 

While going around with a big circle on the outside, I found a smaller circle inside the city where the tracks already exist, and by re-creating a number of old stations I managed to get within 800m of two major hospitals. The route also runs right under the Birmingham Arena (formerly the NIA), fixing the stunning late 1980s planning error of building a 16,000 capacity arena right in the heart of a city centre, over the railway line, but without a station. (It does have two big car parks instead: lovely at 10pm when a concert kicks out, gridlocks really nicely.)

From that redraw the local network map and ended up with...

Click to expand. 

Compare this with the current broadly hub-and-spoke network, and suddenly you’ve opened up a lot more local journey possibilities which you’d have otherwise have had to go through New Street to make. (Or, in reality, drive.) Yours for a mere snip at £3bn.

If you want to read more, there are detailed plans and discussion here (signup required).