Catacombs of Paris: Do I See Dead People?

This post is Part 2 of a series about Alternative Paris. If you haven’t read part 1 yet, click to read “Heading to Paris? Pack your Post-it notes“. Then hurry back here to read about Paris underground.

Standing outside the entrance to the Paris Catacombs, I had second thoughts. Reluctant about going into any place resembling a cave or tunnel, the claustrophobe side of me squeaked, “But the air here on the surface is so breathable! What if the lights go out? What if I get lost down there?” Tunnels were not on my top-ten list of pursuits in Paris. Or anywhere, for that matter. But then, while traveling I am often attracted to the offbeat, the unconventional the well, that’s not what I expected to do here-type stuff.

This is the empire of the dead.

That is why I’ve chosen activities like taking a bus up to explore what remains of Khe Sanh combat base in Vietnam, 30 years after the war’s end, where I ran a hand over the abandoned American battle tanks and discovered M16 and AK-47 bullets strewn among the weeds. And ventures such as hitching a ride on a scaled down steamship packed with locals out of Siem Reap, Cambodia, putt-putt-putting ever so slowly down the Tonle Sap river to where the capital city, Phnom Penh, rises from where the river flows into the mighty Mekong.

By good fortune, my ace traveling partner and all-around maverick, Brian, is always game for the unorthodox, too. Which means that, while we do enjoy the more customary foreigner’s methods to explore a place: wandering about in museums filled with glorious works of art, or staring up, rubbernecked and mouths agape, at the Gothic cathedral of Chartres as much as the next guy, we take a break from the every day tourist entertainment. The secret to gratifying travel is to leave ourselves open to whatever comes up.

©BGabriel, 1992

Chartes Cathedral’s flying buttresses

Adaptable travelers are seldom disappointed when they pick the path less trodden. The whole idea behind Steal Just One Day is about giving yourself permission to break away from the crowd’s pursuits and take a look at a place (and life) from a different perspective. More often than not, you will be delighted by your discoveries and have a killer story to tell when you return home.

Another example of the offbeat: Years ago, we spent an entire 13 months living in a Volkswagon van, traveling in Europe and North Africa. While in Paris, we camped for a couple of nights in a our van, outside the walls of Père Lachaise Cemetery. For free. Honestly, can you say you have really wrung the most from life if you have not showered in the streets of Paris before dawn? Well yeah, probably, but don’t judge me. Our budget was quite small then and our bodies much younger.

For all I know, showering in the streets of Paris before sunrise is not the story you are looking to bring back to friends and family. Fear not! There are other ways to get away from the tourist rabble that don’t involve publicly taking your clothes off in one of the world’s major cities. One way to achieve that is to look down rather than up. Begin your trip to Alternative Paris with the Catacombs and you will have a new travel slogan: Go subterranean or go home.

©BGabriel, 1999

In the shape of a heart- Paris Catacombs

For some, the underground museum that is Paris’s Catacombs is a sacred place of departed souls and memorial stacked upon memory. For others, the tunnel have been a place of honor—used by the French Resistance during World War II—and a secret rendezvous for illicit (and illegal) underground (and Underground) parties and films.

First, a little background. Subterranean Paris was the location for the limestone and gypsum used to create those distinguished museums and churches you have been tenaciously exploring. Eight centuries before Starbucks opened on the Champs-Élysées, stone-cutters were hard at work on the outskirts of of a much smaller Paris, hauling out stone and leaving behind…well, the stuff that stone-workers always leave behind. Leftover lunch, body odor, wineskins, and  mostly, tunnels. Miles and miles of tunnels. Abandoned and forgotten, by and by some of those tunnels caved in as the city expanded and increasingly larger structures were built aboveground. After a succession of tunnel collapses in the mid-1700s, the mines inspection service was formed; the tunnels were shored up and renovated.

Meanwhile, Paris had been burying her dead atop more dead in church cemeteries around the city. Traditionally, those cemeteries were located outside inhabited areas, but as the city expanded to engulf the burial sites, hundreds of years of war, pestilence, and poverty created an urgent situation in which disease was transmitted to the living and decay filled the air and the ground water.

©BGabriel, 2015

Catacomb burial date, Paris

A genius solution came in the form of the recently repaired tunnels. For two years, remains were carted in the dark of night from the worst of the offending cemeteries, Les Innocents, then delivered underground, escorted and blessed by priests. The tunnels were repurposed as an ossuary beneath Paris, housing the bones of 6 million people.

First placements of relocated bones in the tunnels were done somewhat haphazardly, but shortly afterward were rearranged to create a mausoleum incorporating design patterns of skulls and bones (one wall has skulls displayed in the shape of a heart), in addition to ornaments brought down from the cemeteries above. Stones engraved with the year and original location of the dead helped organize the move.

video by mairiedeparis

Early visitors to the Catacombs of Paris were the affluent and socially privileged who were interested in the off-beat. (See? There is a long history of folks with a  sense of curiosity and a penchant for the unexpected.) The Catacombs opened to the general public in the late 19th century, with visits by permission only. Today, the site is open daily (except Mondays), and limited to 200 visitors at a time. Though you won’t see the hordes of tourists you escaped from at the museums above ground, the Catacombs are the most-visited of Paris’ subterranean sites. My advice is go early in the day to avoid waiting.

©BGabriel, 1999

Catacomb tunnel, Paris

From the entrance, a stone staircase winds down to a long, but fairly spacious and straight tunnel which takes you to the ossuary. Carved in stone, a sign greets you and invites you to pause for reflection: Arrêtez! c’est ici l’empire des morts (Stop! This is the empire of the dead.) The tunnels are well sign-posted and decently illuminated, so there is no way to get lost. Since you will be walking through tunnels, be prepared for the occasional damp spot by leaving your flip-flops in your suitcase. Don’t worry; aside from a cavern-y odor, there is no scent to remind you that you are in a mausoleum. Despite my initial misgivings about going into a tunnel of any sort, once I descended those steps I was completely fascinated and never worried about being underground. In a relatively short period, I had been transported back in time, history, and place; isn’t that what you want travel to accomplish?

When you leave the Catacombs and emerge once again into the light of day, take a deep breath of 14th Arrondissement air, and congratulate yourself on stealing a day from conventional tourist pursuits. Find a café, enjoy an unhurried cup of au lait, and smile at the agitated travelers passing by on their way to yet another site chock full of tourists, knowing your post-it notes won’t be needed today.

Next stop in Alternative Paris: The Jewish Quarter.

Resources for visiting the Catacombs:

Barbara Gabriel

Writer. Day Stealer. Chronic Traveler. Raised along Highway 61 in Minnesota, I ran away to sea & messed about in boats. I curse like a sailor and love travel, food, most people, and a well-fitting pair of boots. I try to combine those any chance I can.


  1. Pingback: Heading to Paris? You May Want to Pack Your Post-its. – Steal Just One Day

  2. So cool, Barbara, so cool! I used to be a spelunker, so caves and subterranean stuff fascinate me. Favorite line: Adaptable travelers are seldom disappointed when they pick the path less trodden. Your motto!

  3. I’m not sure that I could be brave enough to travel underground (claustrophobic), but that was fascinating, Barbara! You really DO learn something new every day. 😀

    Happy Monday to ya!

    The Hedgehog x

  4. How well I remember that feeling afterwards: “take a deep breath of 14th Arrondissement air” and step back into the city, rejoicing in the fact that YOU are not entombed beneath. A great perspective on mortality and eternity.

  5. Pingback: Subterranean Paris: the Sewers Below the City of Light – Steal Just One Day

  6. Pingback: Falafel, History and Remembrance: Jewish Paris | Steal Just One Day

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