Top 10 Scary Facts about the Catacombs in Paris


 

While the Catacombs in Paris aren’t the most famous landmark in the City of Lights, it just may be the spookiest. If you’re unfamiliar, the Catacombs are a system of underground (and exposed) tombs. When you enter, be prepared for the hundreds of human bones that will meet you there. And, make sure not to get lost!

Intrigued yet? Keep reading to discover the top 10 scary facts about the Catacombs in Paris!

1. There are hundreds of miles of tunnels under Paris

The Catacombs of Paris

The Catacombs of Paris by Jorge Láscar – Flickr

It’s hard to believe that there’s an entire world sitting underneath Paris, but there is! I always tell visitors to make sure that they look up while exploring the French capital because there is so much to see everywhere that you look. The same goes for looking down – when talking about the Catacombs, of course.

The tunnels that would go on to make up the Catacombs weren’t originally meant to be used as a mass grave, they were, in fact, created by old quarry miners. We can only guess how many tunnels are under Paris, but some estimates come in at a whopping 200 miles!

2. In 18th century Paris, the cemeteries had become overcrowded

Paris in the 18th century

Paris in the 18th century by Étienne Jeaurat – WikiCommons

If you know anything about European history (or history in general, really) you know that our ancestors didn’t live as cleanly as we do. In their defense, they didn’t know any better! Streets were often made of mud and dirt, and people tended to throw their trash (including human waste, gross) out the window onto the roads. And, in times of major disease, even the dead were left on the side of the street until someone would bring them to a cemetery to be buried.

By the 18th century, the cemeteries in Paris had grown extremely overcrowded. Those who lived close to them complained of strong odors and even started to get sick themselves. Something needed to be done, and fast.

3. The original entrance to the Catacombs was in Montrouge

The Holy Innocents’ Cemetery

In response to the complaints and the arising health problems, the city of Paris decided to bring bodies out of the city. The solution? An abandoned quarry in Montrouge, a small town just outside of the capital. The quarry was made up of tunnels that led into Paris.

In 1785, the city began moving bodies out of Saints-Innocents, a long-closed cemetery in the center of Paris. The graves were moved during the night to avoid upsetting Parisians. Hundreds of bodies were transferred from 1785 up until the French Revolution.

4. When Paris got a makeover in the 19th century, so did the Catacombs

Charles Soulier, Panorama de Paris - Pris de la tour Saint Jacques, ca. 1865

Paris before Haussmann. Panorama de Paris – Pris de la tour Saint Jacques, ca. 1865 by Charles Soulier courtesy of The United States Library of Congress – WikiCommons

In 1840, Napoleon III, alongside the famous city planner Baron Haussmann, decided to give Paris a facelift. They completely remodeled much of the city (you can still find the parts of the old city in Le Marais), opening up crowded sections to introduce the wide boulevards that we see today.

The large-scale renovation involved moving more graves into the Catacombs. The site was officially named the “Paris Municipal Ossuary” in 1860 and was quickly dubbed the “Catacombs,” a nod to the recently discovered Roman Catacombs in Italy. There are over 6 million people now buried there.

5. The Catacombs were opened to the public in and Parisians loved the creepy landmark

Paris Catacombs

Paris Catacombs by Vlastul – WikiCommons

You technically could visit the Catacombs from 1809 on. In the early days, you were required to make an appointment to see them as the site was dangerous and unstable. In 1810, in an effort to make the area safe to visit, the Catacombs were temporarily closed and redesigned.

Today, you can visit a specific section of the Catacombs and you don’t need an appointment. You’re required to stay in the designated area, however, which means that much of the Catacombs remain closed to the public.

6. There are people known to break into the off-limits sections of the Catacombs

Hidden Catacombs

A hidden portion of the Catacombs by TheDigitalArtist- Needpix

The majority of the Paris population may be too scared to venture down to the off-limits sections of the Catacombs (there have been several stories and legends about people who went down never to come back up again!), but there is one brave group of explorers who don’t let the law get in the way of their fun.

Dubbed cataphiles for their interest in the Catacombs, these clandestine groups take advantage of the space under the city. People go swimming there, a secret movie theatre was once discovered, and the Paris police once found an all-out restaurant in the Catacombs.

7. Robbers once drilled through a wall in the Catacombs to rob a Parisian apartment

Map

Map of the visitable Catacombs, drawn by the IGC (Inspection Générale des Carrières) in 1858 – WikiCommons

More sinister characters have used the Catacombs to commit serious crimes. In 2017, a group of robbers broke into a Parisian apartment’s wine cellar through the underground tunnels. There were over 300 bottles of vintage wine taken, valued at close to 250,000 euros!

8. There are mushrooms growing in the Catacombs

The Catacombs of Paris

The Catacombs of Paris by Jorge Láscar – Flickr

In the 19th century, a man named Monsieur Chambery was exploring the Catacombs when he discovered a patch of mushrooms growing. He decided to start planting his own crops, and soon other people followed. These new mushroom growers were even recognized by the Horticultural Society of Paris!

9. During World War II, the French Resistance movement utilized the Catacombs

Catacombs of Paris

The entrance to a secret Nazi bunker called Le Bunker de Passy by 4.4.2 Explorations – Flickr

Paris was an occupied city during WWII, with Germany under control. The French Resistance has emerged at the beginning of the war as a way to save Jewish people and others who were stuck in the city. The movement would go on to play an important role in the Allies’ victory over Nazi Germany.

French Resistance fighters took advantage of the elaborate system of tunnels to outsmart the Germans on many occasions. Unfortunately, the Nazis were also aware of the Catacombs and also used them to their advantage.

 

10. Admire interesting art in the Catacombs, if you dare

Catacombs of Paris

The Barrel in Catacombs of Paris – WikiCommons

I’ve already mentioned that you can visit the Catacombs today! You’ll find hundreds, if not thousands of bones. Some have been arranged into patterns that line the walls, while others have been made into pieces of art.

One of the more famous structures is called the “Barrel,” which also acts as a support beam. As you can see above, it gets its name from its round shape.

There are other works to be seen such as the sculptures of the quarry miner François Décure. Knowing the conditions down in the Catacombs (damp, dark, creepy), they are impressive, to say the least!

Conclusion

If you’re in Paris and you’ve already seen landmarks like the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe, head to a lesser-known monument like the Catacombs. It’s a really unique experience but be warned that it’s not for the feign of heart. And, it’s also important to remember that the Catacombs are a grave first and foremost, and so you should be respectful.

If you don’t want to brave it alone, consider joining our Catacombs of Paris guided tour! Click here to learn more and make a booking.

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