Underground Paris: Exploring the Catacombs

A sign warning those who enter the Paris catacombs. Photo by Clare Radcliffe Thorne
A sign warning those who enter the Paris catacombs. Photo by Clare Radcliffe Thorne
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The Unseen Paris 

It’s a chilly Tuesday morning and we stand, tickets in hand, near the front of a long line of people in an area of Paris I’ve never been.

I’m here against my better judgment, dragged out of bed at six in the morning so we could grab a cab and get here early enough to be close to the front of the line.

I’m cold, not sufficiently caffeinated and dreading this tour. I don’t want to see dead people.

Even now I’m not exactly sure how I got here, other than having agreed the night before we left to my teenage daughter’s request.

At the time, I was up to my elbows with all the last minute details: packing, double-checking passport expiration dates and making arrangements for the cat.

Trip to France 

I told her what I’d planned for our trip to France: going to the top of the Eiffel Tower, visiting Notre Dame Cathedral and lunch somewhere special on the Champs Elysees.

Her response was she didn’t really need to see the Eiffel Tower.

I suggested she find a place she wanted to explore in Paris, thinking I was safe, that any place she chose would be fine by me (it was Paris after all, fool-proof!).

But I should have known, left to her own devices she would find something. She discovered a world beneath the city — a world I didn’t even know existed.

I was going to be dragged underground to the Paris Catacombs.

The Beautiful Morning Light 

Streaks of morning light try to brighten the sky, beneath which a long line of people, dressed in jackets and scarfs, shuffle their feet to keep warm, sip coffee out of paper cups and chatter in French, English and languages I can’t even identify.

With the efficiency of an assembly line we inch forward as guides periodically appear to escort small groups through a black door which I assume is the entrance.

Meeting with My Guide

Bonjour.” I look up to see a smiling young man, probably in his early twenties, thin and wearing black-framed glasses.

Bonjour,” I respond in my best French, though I’m decades out of practice.

His brown eyes narrow, almost imperceptibly, as he immediately pegs me as an American and, without missing a beat, continues in perfect English as if effortlessly shifting a gear on a bike.

“I’m Philip. Your guide. How many in your group?” he asks. “I need at least six.”

Before I can get the words out of my mouth, Emily jumps in.

“There’s just two of us,” she says loudly, over my shoulder. My left ear rings with her enthusiasm.

“OK . . . wait here,” he instructs us before moving down the line searching for other English-speaking ticket holders.

Early in the Morning 

When Emily woke me this morning in our Paris rental apartment, she was dressed and ready to go, complaining we’d be late, an unexpected role reversal of our usual morning routine.

I wasn’t used to her being motivated, especially in the morning. The a.m. hours usually made her grumpy and uncommunicative, barely able to manage civility, so I was surprised by the abrupt transformation.

I gulped down half a cup of coffee and threw on some clothes, all the while listening to her complain about how hard these tickets had been to get and that we were going to miss it.

I caught up with her as she was turning the doorknob, not entirely sure she wouldn’t leave without me.

Philip returns with a family from Manhattan Beach, California — mom and dad, a couple in their late forties and their twin teenage boys, William and Trevor, who look like identical blonde surfers.

The twins are distinguishable only by the red and blue jackets they have on over their jeans, and based on the way their hair is trying to defy gravity, may have just rolled out of bed.

Starting Down the Stairs 

After cursory introductions are made, Philip shuffles us towards the entrance. He wants to get started.

Paris catacombs. Traffic on the Champs-Elysee.
Traffic on the Champs-Elysee.

“We’ll be walking down 130 steps, so please be careful,” he says, starting down the stairs before looking over his shoulder, as if remembering something. Does anyone have claustrophobia?” he asks.

Everyone shakes their heads no, so I don’t want to own up to the fact that I might. Besides, I’m already on the second step right behind Emily who is stalking Philip, as if she’s velcroed to his back.

My hand clutches the black railing as we go round and round spiral stone stairs, a vertical tunnel with rock on all sides. The lower we go, the cooler the air becomes and I can feel the dampness invade my pores.

I tell myself this won’t be so bad but after several revolutions vertigo sets in.

When my feet finally touch the bottom, I struggle to regain my balance before looking around; the ceiling is uncomfortably low and lanterns on the wall feebly attempt to penetrate the darkness.

Philip gives us a minute to acclimate. I hear water in the distance . . . drip . . . drip . . .drip . . . a steady, insistent rhythm like the ticking of an eternal clock. The tunnel’s mouth opens ahead of us anticipating its next victims.

I’m glaring at Emily right now, trying to get her attention.

I silently relay my ‘are you kidding me’ expression, while everyone tries to squeeze into the tight landing at the base of the stairs, but she’s too busy looking around, eyes wide with excitement to pay any attention to me.

Our Group 

The group who left before us is ahead in the tunnel, not visible, but their muffled voices echo in the distance before evaporating into the darkness.

“Everyone ok?” Philip asks, his eyes dart from face to face. Everyone, except me, gives him a reassuring nod. He looks at me a moment longer. I finally nod.

“All right, let’s begin,” the official tone of his voice compels us to pay attention and the six of us obediently form a semi-circle in front of him.

“Paris is built out of limestone,” he says. “Notre Dame, the Louvre, all the famous landmarks are made out of it, dug from the quarries where we now stand.”

His lanky frame is silhouetted against the lantern on the wall behind him accentuating his thinness.

“Quarrymen dug here for centuries . . . creating tunnels . . . carving out limestone. We’re now underneath the subways which are underneath Paris.”

I feel slightly sick as this fact sinks in and look around quickly, but no one appears to share my reaction. The California couple stare at Philip, listening attentively, and the twins stand next to their parents.

I’m not sure if they’ve woken up yet or they’ve just managed to perfect that teenage look of perpetual boredom. I don’t need to look at Emily.

“There are over 200 miles of tunnels, a maze of helter-skelter pathways waiting to be explored by . . . ,” Philip is cut off mid-sentence by voices and shoes scraping the stone steps.

The next group is coming down the stairs, forcing us into the tunnel.

Loose dirt rolls under my shoes as we follow Philip. The monotony of the tunnel is broken only by trickles of water running down its walls. I try not to think about how deep in the ground we are or the weight of the rock above our heads.

We reach a cavity the size of a large room that has several tunnels heading in different directions; another group is already here, I recognize faces who were in the line ahead of us.

Philip finds a spot in the corner with enough room for us to gather around him.

“Lots of people have come down here, lost their way and never been found. One man, Phillbert Aspairt, disappeared and was found 11 years later, his corpse clutching his keys, just feet from the exit he couldn’t find in the dark.”

There is a communal, involuntary intake of breath like a simultaneous sucking sound as everyone absorbs the horror of his story. Philip is amused. Emily’s eyes dance as she tries to hide a smile.

The catacombs are an integral part of the history of Paris.
The catacombs are an integral part of the history of Paris.

“Does anyone know what cataphiles are?” he asks.

“Cat -a – what?

“C-A-T-A-P-H-I-L-E-S.” He pronounces it slowly, emphasizing each letter.

“People who like cats?” Trevor, the twin in the blue jacket, says, more as a joke than a serious guess; his twin snickers. His father shoots him a sidelong glance like a warning shot across his bow.

I’ve never heard the word and have no idea.

“I do,” Emily says, “the catacombs are closed to the public except for the one mile of this tour.”

How does she know that, I wonder.

“Cataphiles are Parisians who sneak into the tunnels illegally. They throw parties, show movies, do graffiti.”

Philip smiles, pleased to have a fellow enthusiast in the group.

“But how do they get in?” Trevor asks.

Emily has a pained expression on her face as she turns to him, “They come in through the sewers,” she says matter of factly, like it’s SO OBVIOUS and he’s a moron for not figuring it out.

“What . . . like rats?” his mother asks. Everyone looks at Philip for confirmation; he nods his head.

“A network of people come down here all the time,” Philip says, like it’s the most natural thing in the world.

“But, why?” Trevor asks.

“They get away from their lives and change their identities down here.”

My God, a subterranean playground filled with people pretending to be someone else . . .

“Anarchy is the attraction.” Philip says, looking at the group as if he has a bunch of dim-wits on his hands.

“No rules . . . no one telling you what to do,” Emily says, echoing his thoughts, but the entire family looks bewildered.

Pont Alexandre in Paris. Paris Catacombs
Pont Alexandre in Paris.

Philip shrugs, he’s given up and moves the group onwards. Emily sticks close behind him.

I’ve had enough. Crazy notions start running through my mind: is there enough oxygen down here for all of us?

Do the lights ever go out? Then what do we do? As we walk along those thoughts morph into: why did I listen to her? Didn’t I know something like this would happen?

Doesn’t this ALWAYS happen? We only have four days in Paris. WHY ARE WE WASTING TIME DOWN HERE?

I just want to find the exit and get out of here, but instead, Philip leads us to a doorway with an inscription carved into the stone above it: “Arrete, c’est ici l’empire de la mort!”

I took enough college French to figure out what it says: STOP, THIS IS THE EMPIRE OF DEATH.

I take a deep breath. Everyone digs into backpacks pulling out cameras and iPhones as if they’re going to a special exhibit of some endangered species.

Philip waits until he has everyone’s attention.

“This is the part of the quarries that are now the catacombs created when Paris ran out of space to bury its dead. Cemeteries were overflowing so they had to find a place to put the…remains.”

How did she ever find out about this place?

She leans towards me, dropping her voice to a whisper, “Are you ok, Mom?”

“Fine,” I say.

“It took decades to do it,” he continues, lowering his voice for effect, “wagons weighed down with bones rolled through the streets at night and were dumped down wells into the quarries.”

He’s standing in front of the door, intent on finishing his introduction before letting us enter. “Six million former residents are down here, so many they’re still stacking bones today.

I come on weekends to help,” he says as he stands to the side and the group surges forward like a swarm of locust.

The minute we pass through the opening, we’re surrounded by the dead. Entire chambers filled with bones stacked like firewood.

Densely-packed piles from floor to ceiling — femurs, tibias, skulls — grouped by the cemetery from which they came, their only means of identification.

Paris Catacombs A skull missing the jaw bone. Photo by Clare Radcliffe Thorne
A skull missing the jaw bone. Photo by Clare Radcliffe Thorne

Parchment-colored skulls are positioned ear to ear on an endless stack of femurs stretching down a long corridor; some missing jaws, other pock-marked, others turned away.

As I walk along I feel innumerable eye sockets staring at me, taking my measure. Silent and watchful and unblinking. Emily is beside me fidgeting with her iPhone.

“Stacking bones, what a neat summer job that would be,” she says.

I stand motionless. She wants to stack bones here but can’t be bothered to see the Eiffel Tower.

For some reason, at this moment it hits me — how little common ground we share…and that realization leads to another — no matter how many tunnels I try to crawl through…I still don’t want to be in the tunnel.

Emily stands several feet away taking a selfie with some of the pitted skulls. I watch her as she holds her iPhone up and bends her head in their direction.

Their jaws gape open as if smiling. She’ll be eager to post on Facebook. Her trip to Paris memorialized by all the skull pictures.

If You Go to the Paris Catacombs

The Catacombs are located in Paris’ 14th arrondissement. The Denfert-Rochereau metro route puts you right by the entrance on Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy.

Catacomb Tours vary depending on the group size and tour of choice.

Where to Stay in Paris:

Find a Rental Apartment in Paris with TripAdvisor Rentals 

Stay at a Hilton Hotel in Paris
$50 daily credit per nights at Hilton Hotels & Resorts. Use your on-property credit for dining, shopping, relaxing, and more!

Discount Paris hotels on Booking.com

Train Travel in France

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Rail Europe – A Single Stop for European Rail Travel

Sixt Car Rental – Prepay and Save up to 25%

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Author Bio: Clare Radcliffe Thorne is an attorney whose passion for travel has inspired stories like “Going Underground To The Paris Catacombs.” Her work has appeared in Litro and Coldnoon International Journal of Travel Writing. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

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