The City of Light also has a dark side and never is this more evident than in the Paris Catacombs. Despite being one of Paris’ most abominable and ghastly sights, the Catacombs have proved to be a big hit with the tourists!
In the simpler Roman times, Paris would just bury his dead on the outskirts, leaving the city effectively corpse-free. But as Christianity gained prominence, things changed. They needed their dead to be buried near churches.
The solution? A 3000km tunnel network that runs under the city.
Originally the Paris catacombs were excavated to provide stone for building in Paris. However in 1785, a new use for the catacombs was found...
By the 10th century, the city had expanded. The population rose rapidly in the following centuries and so the cemeteries became more and more overcrowded. Soon only the most wealthy could afford church burials, which has highly unchristian. So it was decided to create a central burial ground for the lower classes.
This cemetery, named Saints Innocents Cemetery, was near Paris's central Les Halles district. People buried here could not afford coffins so by the 17th century the mound of decomposing bodies had built up and the sanitary conditions around Saints Innocents were questionable to say the least as they had started seeping into the cellars of the market at Les Halles, encouraging hordes of insatiable rats.
It wasn't until the late 18th century that an answer to the problem was found. Since 1777 the government had been reinforcing the long abandoned stone quarries in and around Paris, and it was the Police Lieutenant General, Alexandre Lenoir, who first had the bright idea of using the Paris catacombs as a burial site.
The former quarry provided the perfect solution to the hygiene and aesthetic problems of Paris’ brimming cemeteries so it was turned into a mass grave. Six million corpses (bones, rather) were transferred from overflowing burial pits into the maze of tunnels under the city.
During WWII the Paris catacombs' tunnels were also used by the Resistance to mount attacks against the occupying Germans.
These days visitors descend 130 steps (20m) from street level and are greeted by 1.7km of underground tunnels, lined with the skeletons of once alive Parisians stacked in the walls.
Quite unnervingly the legions of bones dumped in the Paris catacombs are stacked not by owner but by type. To be greeted by rows of skulls followed by packs of tibias and then piles of spinal disks is quite...bizarre. Proving that sleeping your way to the top never really gets you anywhere, one of the most famous sets of bones in the place belonged to Madame de Pompadour (1721-64) the former mistress of Louis XV.
After a dizzying descent down a spiral staircase, it’s a 0.5km walk to the Paris Catacombs themselves.
While gates and signs make it impossible to get lost in the Paris catacombs, the dim lighting and sharp turns make for a surprisingly isolating experience. The visuals are quite unlike anything you've ever seen before. To enhance the eerie, horror movie-esque atmosphere of the place morbid-themed graffiti lines the walls and seeing hundreds of thousands of bones all around you is probably an experience you won't forget.
The tour usually lasts between 45 minutes and 1.5 hours and don’t forget to take a sweatshirt as the temperature drops as soon as you get underground! The tunnels are lit, but it might be a good idea to take along a flashlight as well, especially if your eyesight isn't great.
Don't wear open-toe shoes to visit the Paris Catacombs either as the whole path is gravely. The Catacombs are open Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 4pm and under 14s go free.
The entrance can be found in the district of Montparnasse and the metro stop is Denfert-Rochereau.
Unfortunately, one of the most intriguing sides of the catacombs is one you probably won't witness. In recent years "cataphiles" (mostly crazy-creative art students) have found a way to break into the tunnels at night and so they congregate there to compare art and party and stuff.
The site was closed for several months in 2009 after vandals caused serious damage.