Much of Paris was constructed with limestone blocks quarried from ancient mines located below the streets of the current city. Many of those mines were illegal and poorly constructed. Following a series of cave-ins throughout the city during 1774, as well as a developing crisis of overflowing cemeteries, the city council decided to shore up the network of tunnels and to use them as repositories for over six million bodies. It took them two years (1786 to 1788) of nightly processions to move all of those bones into the tunnels. In 1810, the Paris Mine Inspection Service began renovations to this network of tunnels that included the stacking of skulls and femurs into the patterns we see today. Finally, "The World's Largest Grave" was opened to the public in 1874. During World War II, the French Resistence used the tunnels as their headquarters and to store weapons. The Nazis never found the headquarters. In 2004, police discovered a fully equipped movie theater, bar, and restaurant in one portion of the network. . Airbnb paid 350,000 Euros in a 2015 publicity stunt offering overnight accommodations in the catacombs. It took us a bit of time to find the entrance to this attraction, as it is in a rather non-descript dark green building in La Place Denfert-Rochereau (no wonder the Nazis had a hard time finding it). The Catacombs are such a popular tourist attraction, that we had to wait four hours just to purchase tickets. We later learned that tickets could be purchased on-line, allowing for immediate access to the ossuary (that really would not have been much help to us anyway, as we had no way of printing them out). We have been to the catacombs in Rome but they were nothing like this. The Paris Catacombs are amazing and worth a visit.
This is how the entrance looks before all the crowds showed up. It is so non-descript that we could easily see why the Nazis never found it.
The network of tunnels were part of mines in which limestone blocks were quarried for the construction of the city. Since many of these tunnels were illegal and poorly constructed, the city experienced a series of devastating cave-ins during the early 1770's. Today, only a small portion is open to the public.
The Paris Mine Inspection Service had to reinforce most of the tunnels to prevent further cave-ins.
As the mines were inspected and inventoried, the tunnels were labeled with street signs.
The segment of the mines devoted to those buried beneath Paris' city streets is designated by this portal sign; "Stop! This is the Empire of the Dead."
As cemeteries experienced serious overcrowding (Des Innocents being the worst), a solution had to be found. The network of tunnels was the answer.
Each cemetery from which bones were taken has its own designated location.
In 1810, the Mine Inspection Service carried out renovations that included the stacking of skulls and femurs into patterns that still exist today.
Some of those patterns were creatively done.
...even using skulls to create a heart shape.
In various places throughout the tunnels are bits of poetry.
While the patterns on display utilize skulls and femurs, one would wonder where the other bones are?
Perhaps those other bones are piled up behind what is presented to the public.
While the tunnels and the catacombs available for public access are a little over a mile in length, the whole complex is much, much bigger.
This whole complex , we felt, was gracefully presented and a thoughtful tribute to those buried here.
Carl and Lorraine Aveni are two retirees planning on traveling through Europe for at least one year.