Underground Paris: Exploring the Catacombs

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?

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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.

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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.