Sunday, 20 November 2016

Subterranean Paris

Underground Paris resembles a Swiss cheese with hundreds of kilometers of tunnels built during Roman times lying far below the elegant Parisian boulevards and metro.
However, only a small section is actually accessible to the general public.


That is, apart from a faceless, covert, underworld group of people, known as "Cataphiles". They enter the vast network of tunnels that criss cross the city illegally by way of secret entrances. It is estimated that at least 300 Cataphiles visit this dark labyrinth every week crawling along the narrow, low passageways, dropping down or climbing up through small holes to different levels, and often encountering unexpected obstacles and hazards such as rock falls, flooding, and large pools of water. I can only assume that the dangers experienced in this dark, mysterious, unmapped, underground world excites them and is accompanied by an extreme adrenaline rush. 
The descent for the paying public is via a stone spiral stairway of 130 steps; including exploring the passages the whole visit lasts approximately one hour. I should say that it is not a good idea to go if you have any anxieties about being underground or find descending or ascending steps for a long distance difficult.
Between street level and the area where the Catacombs are located, the visitor travels back in geological time for nearly 45 million years. Descending through a succession of rock layers before reaching a limestone bank from the Lutetian period. The Roman name for Paris was Lutetia, and the limestone cut from that stage provides very high quality cut stone commonly referred to as "pierre de Paris" - Parisian stone. Notre Dame, The Louvre, and  most of Paris's principal buildings were built from this stone.
 This shell was more than one metre in length
Entrance to the Catacombs - "Stop, this is death's empire!"
 Thus begins the pathway that leads through the remains of more than six million Parisians.  

Overflowing cemeteries were a huge problem for 18th century Paris. Those living in the neighbourhood of Les Halles near Les Innocents, the city's oldest and largest cemetery, were amongst the first to complain. They reported that the cemetery exuded a strong smell of decomposing flesh. 
In 1763, Louis XV issued an edict banning all burials from occurring inside the capital. At that time the church was very powerful and chose to ignore the ruling as it did not want it's cemeteries disturbed or moved. However, in 1780 a prolonged period of spring rains caused walls around Les Innocents to collapse, spilling rotting corpses into the surrounding neighbourhood, this episode finally resulted in the removal of millions of bones from various city cemeteries into the quarry. The task took 12 years to complete with some of the oldest bones dating back more than 1,200 years.
The Inspector General of the Quarries, Héricart de Thury was responsible for developing the Ossuary. The long bones and skulls were arranged decoratively to form a back wall behind which other bones were piled. He also created signage indicating from which Parisian cemetery the bones originated.
The Catacombs became a great curiosity for the more privileged Parisians - the first known visitor of note was the Count of Artois, later France's King Charles X. 

 via
Public visits began during the beginning of the early 19th century but infrequently. As a result of the wave of increasing curiosity that attracted a growing number of visitors the government decided to allow monthly visits. Today the Catacombs are open every day apart from Mondays and some Public holidays throughout the year.
Crypt of the Passion: The Barrel
At midnight on the 2nd April 1897, a two hour clandestine concert was held around The Barrel attended by 100 members of Parisian "high society"  which featured Chopin's Funeral March, La Danse Macabre by Camille Saint-Saëns, and Marche Funèbre from Beethoven's Eroica.

70 comments:

  1. That would not be something for me to visit, underground and all those remains, it would rather upset me. But it is an interesting story how people handled the lack of space for the dead.

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    1. I understand how you feel Marianne, but I personally have an incurable curiosity.

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  2. I have heard about this strange place, and the people who illegally find their way in to explore the tunnels. However, this is the first time I have seen pictures of it. The Ossuary is particularly intriguing, but I don't think I'd have the constitution to see it!

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    1. Dear Patricia - my journey down was not difficult, but I don't know how people explore those dark, unmapped areas, you would think that they would be scared of being stuck in there forever.

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  3. Very interesting I must say...lovely pictures too!
    Have a beautiful sunday, take care...
    Titti

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  4. Mmm, not for me. I have been to a few ossuaries but they never grip my imagination. I once did a sewer tunnel tour of Vienna but the only really fun thing in that line that I have done was going down into the real working London sewers. Mainly because I was so scared I might lose my footing. Maybe that's the kind of adrenaline rush you were talking about! :)

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    1. Hello Jenny - I was thinking how scary it must be to be lost in a network of tunnels and wondering if you would ever see the light of day again. I think that Cataphiles must be rather like cavers or potholers, except that they often do it in secret and by themselves.

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  5. Fascinating, I had not heard of these tunnels before. I have feeling I might find a bit creepy if I visited there.

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    1. It doesn't really feel creepy but it might unsettle some to be confronted by death.

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  6. It seems that many of bigger cities in Europe have the catacombs. When I was in college (here in the US), I was an exchange student in Vienna (1994) and remember visiting the catacombs there. I think it's fascinating history. But those catacombs were not as artistically and creatively arranged! I was actually born in Poland and came to the US at almost 7 years old. There is very little history here in the US. I love Europe!

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    1. This subterranean network in Paris is somewhere that I have wanted to visit for a long time, but previously I was unaware of just how it came about.

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  7. Thanks for this very interesting post. I didn't realise how patterns had been created with the bones-rather beautiful but weird all the same. Exeter has a cemetery and catacombs which can be visited-but no bones on display, and also underground tunnels built for water carrying which has become a visitor attraction.

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    1. Thanks Suzie - I am off to Exeter soon, and didn't know about the catacombs or the underground water carrying tunnels there. Depending on time, we might pay it a visit.

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  8. Dear Rosemary, this is one time I wish that you photography was not so excellent. I have always wanted to go to all of the places you have visited. I can omit this one from my wish list.
    I do appreciate the story behind the scenes and the time you have spent in bringing it to us.

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    1. Dear Gina - I realise that this post is not for everyone, but for me I suffer from an insatiable curiosity. Hopefully you might like my next post better♡

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  9. Thanks for sharing this post. It made me to get interest to know many things as i kept on reading your post:)

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    1. Thank you - I am pleased that you found it of interest and felt that you wanted to know more.

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  10. Interesting, but not for me, don't like enclosed areas like that and all those bones would be creepy.

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    1. Yes, you are right it is definitely not for everyone.

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  11. Hello Rosemary, Lucky you to have this fascinating experience. My sister was just in Paris and also insisted upon seeing the catacombs, but I'll have to wait until next summer to see the photos. The Sedlec Ossuary in Czechoslovakia was commemorated by Jan Savnmajer's short film, The Ossuary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VpD8zPZXhOc

    England also has its ossuaries. I have a 19th century photo of the one at St. Leonard's Church in Hythe.
    --Jim

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    1. Hello Jim - I think that you are the first to say that you would find this a fascinating experience too.
      You are right, there are quite a number of ossuaries in England but many have fallen into neglect. They regularly discover more under London which also has a labyrinth beneath it, and especially since they have been building the new cross rail link in London.
      I will take a look at your youtube recommendation - thank you

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  12. Thank you for a very interesting post. I have of course heard about most of this. Just not the part about people finding their own way in through secret entrances.

    That would not be something I would ever want to try. I would be scared I might just become puzzle pieces for more bone art.

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    1. That is something that I would never consider doing either Catherine - I think that Cataphiles are mainly young, thrill seeking, adventurous young men.

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  13. You always take us to so many interesting places! I had never heard of them before. They have displayed the bones so beautifully, but it's not somewhere that I would want to linger! Sarah x

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    1. I have been visiting Paris since I was a teenager, so I am pleased that at last I finally got around to visiting the catacombs. It is too chilly to linger, although on that particular day it was actually warmer down below than outside!!!

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  14. So you visited the Catacombs of Paris. I have been several times to Paris but not into the Catacombs. About 5 years ago I was in Paris with my daughter, she wanted to visit the Catacombs. I definitely did not want to go there, so the time she spent in the Catacombs I spent in the Jardins des Tuileries, the weather was beautiful and reading a book on one of those famous chairs was for me much better than in the dark underground.

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    1. November is a much better time to visit - it was warmer in the Catacombs than it was outside. I have been to Paris so many times that it seemed right to try and fit it in whilst I could still negotiate the long climb down and back.

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  15. Well I'll make no bones about it (couldn't resist that!), I had no idea as to what was hidden under the beautiful streets of Paris, and apparently London also. Not sure I would do the tour but I certainly have enjoyed the history and your amazing photos - thanks Rosemary.

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    1. Although I have known about this underground labyrinth I had no idea that it was so vast and that most of it is an unmapped unknown area. I read a piece written by someone who had visited with a Cataphile, and it sounds a really scary place to go - a journey into the dark unknown where getting lost is a frequent happening.

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  16. My goodness Rosemary, it looks rather inviting down there. Amazing what is below some cities.

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    1. There are areas like this in many European cities dating back to antiquity Margaret.

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  17. Welcome back, Rosemary. I’ve heard that there is a huge labyrinth tunnel under the city of Paris, but had imagined it was for strategic purpose for the enemy invasion. Death and decay is inevitable. Every country have had its burial customs and Catacomb is so interesting. But like some other people, it’s not the place for me to visit. Thanks for this post, as it is an educational experience to me. I like your comparison with the Swiss cheese.

    Yoko

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    1. Dear Yoko - I realise that this post would not be for everyone, but it is somewhere that I have been intending to visit for many years as it has long held a fascination for me.

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  18. I'm fascinated by this; what interesting history subterranean Paris has. Once I would have like to seen underground, but not anymore and I would never have been keen on exploring like the Cataphiles do. Now when I visit the city I will think about what's under my feet. It must have been terrible when the bodies surfaced in the 1700s and rearranging the bones is not a job I'd volunteer for either!

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    1. To visit like the Cataphiles do is extremely risky and also very scary - I do wonder if people have been lost and actually died down there over the hundreds of years.

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  19. I think it would be interesting to visit the Catacombs and see the Ossuary so long as they are well lit as I can see that is the case from your photos. Wandering underground in a dark, confined space would scare me. I will never forget walking along the water course in Hezekiah's Tunnel under the City of David in Jerusalem. It's narrow, low in places and the visitor has to walk through water. There's no turning back as you have to go single file with others behind you wanting to move forward. An awareness of the history of such a place was the best aspect of the experience. I can just imagine people working on the ossuaries by candlelight.

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    1. I remember feeling very apprehensive when we visited a subterranean city in Cappadocia, Turkey, but all was well and we found the experience very intriguing too. This visit was a piece of cake in comparision, but I am pleased that I have seen it.

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  20. Wow, I had no idea. Now on my 'to see' list.

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    1. Good - hope you do get to visit some day - the main problem is the wait to get in as no more than 200 people are allowed down at a time.

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  21. Very impressive with all the skulls and bones displayed so artfully . I think I would feel somewhat claustrophobic down there .

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    1. I didn't find it clautrophobic Jane as the passageways are well lit and quite high.

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  22. Fascinating but gruesome and also rather beautiful!

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    1. Yes, you are right Elaine it is a mix of all those emotions. I think that some people would find being confronted by death off putting, but it doesn't bother me.

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  23. Oh dear - that's not for me, definitely! I'll go to Paris in spring (just met French friends this weekend) and IF we remember those bones we will drink a Pastis and laugh it off into oblivion...

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    1. Dear Britta - I promise you that I will do a pretty post for you next time.

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    2. Oh Thank you - I enjoyed your post, Rosemary - and saw similar bone heaps in Austria... It is just so that I also only enter a graveyard (visits of them are a hobby of my friend Anne) if I must - though the English graveyards are often very, very lovely. Interesting: I have/like to watch crime TV so very often! :-)

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  24. Thank you for your very interesting post. I think I would feel too anxious in such a confined area and also a little creeped out with all the human remains. However, pleased to view it from afar!

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    1. Thank you Lynne - I think that you have expressed the feelings of many.

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  25. I,m jealous. I've always loved exploring abandoned places and going underground via man-made tunnels or natural caves and that's one of the best.

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    1. It sounds as if this would be far too tame for you Bob - you would probably enjoy the secret Cataphiles routes much more!!!

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  26. Excelente trabalho desta Paris desconhecida e muito bem fotografado, gostei.
    Um abraço e boa semana.
    Andarilhar

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    1. Obrigado pelo seu tipo de comentário - Estou satisfeito por ter gostado de o ver

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  27. What a fascinating post, Rosemary. This past summer we visited the archaeological crypt under the square in front of Notre Dame and found the history of the city very interesting. Paris has been inhabited for such a long time. Your visit shows a much different view of the city's origins. I can't help thinking of those who worked arranging the bones so artistically. Did they enjoy their work or were they forced to do it? We'll likely never know.

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    1. Hello Lorrie - I have been travelling regularly to Paris since I was a teenager so seen much of what Paris has to offer. Now I am endeavouring to visit several of the places that I have have been keeping on the backburner.

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  28. Certainly, it is an interesting place, but I would not go there. It is underground, narrow corridors and many human bones and skulls. I guess I was terrified. Regards.

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    1. I do understand your feelings Giga - they are shared by most of the comments I have received on this post.

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  29. I was aware of this, but I have not been down there. I did do the sewer tour though.

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    1. Thanks Regine - glad you enjoyed it.

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  31. It is a great post. Never know that there is something like this underground of Paris...

    Please visit: http://from-a-girls-mind.blogspot.com

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    1. Thank you for your visit Krishna - blogging is great for discovery new things isn't it?

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  32. Fantastic reports of Paris catacombs. I've read about these, but (of course) never seen. Your photos are so lovely that it is almost I myself be there. Thanks for sharing.

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  33. So interesting! Scary and strange too :)
    Have a lovely weekend Rosemary...
    Titti

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  34. The story behind those catacombs really is amazing, let alone the place itself, no? Great shots!

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    1. I found out so much more about this place than I realised - the Cataphiles must have nerves of steel.

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