Paris – Day 10 – Bones…

We saw a lot of what Paris had to offer on Day 1 and Day 2, including the Sacré-Cœur, Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower, Moulin Rouge, and Notre-Dame.  So where did we go to keep Day 3 interesting?  Underground of course…

Day 3 – Paris – 4/9/2016

While we were at Notre-Dame the day before, we saw a sign directing you to the Crypts of Notre-Dame.  Crypts of Notre-Dame sounds pretty awesome, but we weren’t sure about how much it would cost or what the tour would include.  It prompted Brittany to ask if I would mind if we went to the Catacombs of Paris.  Now, I’d heard of the Catacombs, but honestly I knew absolutely zero about them.  I agreed anyway…I mean, at the time, she had just let me walk around Notre-Dame for an hour or so pointing at all the gargoyles and chimera I saw…it was the least I could do.

So that night we went home and looked up the Catacombs.  Funny enough you could add a discounted ticket to get into the Crypts of Notre-Dame with your Catacomb ticket, so we decided to do both.  In our research, though, we did see several people commenting on how long you have to wait in line to get into the Catacombs.  We decided to get up and go early…

It didn’t matter…when we actually got to Place Denfert-Rochereau, the public square in the Montparnasse district of Paris where the Catacomb entrance is located, the line already stretched from the entrance all the way around the square.  At this point in our trip we really hadn’t had to wait in any lines, but this one was monster to start with.

After a two hour wait (which included my walking to the nearest McDonald’s to get coffee and a muffin for us, a quick trip to the Pharmacy to ask about an ear ache, and lots of overheard conversations from the American girls in front of us about how much they missed the convenience of Target {we felt their pain}), we finally made it to the entrance…just as it started to rain.

I did get to snap some pictures of a replica of The Lion of Belfort while we waited though…


…I’m easily amused.

So we finally made it into the gate, and I have to say, I was a bit skeptical about all of this.  After all, we just waited two hours to go see some bones…

But I guess I’m getting ahead of myself.  I suppose I need to explain what the Catacombs of Paris really are…

The following information comes from placards at the Catacombs, Wikipedia, and the Catacombs’ official website.

Catacombs of Paris

Where to begin…In the 10th century, Parisians began moving their urban development from the Left Bank of the Seine River (the south side) to the Right Bank (the north side); however, it wasn’t like the Right Bank was completely void of buildings.  Most notably, for the purpose of explaining the Catacombs, there were already churches with cemeteries.  One in particular, and most central, was the parish, Saints Innocents, with a cemetery often used for mass graves called “Cimetière des Innocents” (Cemetery of Innocents).  This meant that, unlike most human-inhabited areas, the Right Bank of Paris was established with cemeteries at its center rather than on its outskirts.  By the end of the 12th century the cemeteries were already overflowing, with the Cemetery of Innocents being the worst.

Paris had another problem at this time as well.  Haphazard mining techniques were being used to extract limestone deposits.  (The stone that was used to build much of the city came from these mines.)  Often when these mines were depleted they were left uncharted, abandoned, and forgotten.

These two seemingly unique problems came to a head in the 18th century.

In 1774 the first of a series of mine collapses occurred, which led King Louis XVI to name a commission to investigate the state of the Parisian underground. This led to the creation of the mine inspection service.

The need to eliminate the Cemetery of Innocents gained urgency in May of 1780, when a basement wall in a property adjoining the cemetery gave way under the weight of the mass grave behind it. The cemetery was closed to the public and all inner-city burials were forbidden after 1780.

The problem of what to do with the remains crowding inner-city cemeteries was still unresolved.  However, the mine renovation and cemetery closures were both issues within the jurisdiction of the Police Lieutenant-General Alexandre Lenoir, who had been directly involved in the creation of a mine inspection service. Lenoir was firmly behind an idea of moving Parisian dead to the newly renovated subterranean passageways that had been circulating since 1782.  The idea became law in late 1785.  Beginning from an opening ceremony, that included blessing the former quarries as an ossuary, on April 7, 1786, the route between Les Innocents and the “clos de la Tombe-Issoire” became a nightly procession of black cloth-covered wagons carrying millions of Parisian dead. It would take two years to empty the majority of Paris cemeteries.

Cemeteries whose remains were moved to the Catacombs include Saints-Innocents (the largest by far with about 2 million buried over 600 years of operation), Saint-Étienne-des-Grès (one of the oldest), Madeleine Cemetery, Errancis Cemetery (used for the victims of the French Revolution), and Notre-Dame-des-Blancs-Manteaux (not the Notre-Dame we visited).

So, to summarize, haphazard mine tunneling and overcrowded, unsanitary cemeteries were both a problem in Paris from the 12th century to the 18th century.  When mine cave-ins began in the 18th century an organization was formed to investigate the tunnels and secure them.  Not long after the first cave-in, a supporting wall at the Cemetery of Innocents collapsed.  Both problems fell under the same jurisdiction…the solution…move the cemetery remains to the renovated mines.

At first the bones were just placed unorganized within the tunnels, but in 1810 Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury, head of the Paris Mine Inspection Service, undertook renovations that would transform the underground caverns into a visitable mausoleum. He was in charge of directing the stacking of skulls and femurs into the patterns seen in the catacombs today.

Okay, that’s about as brief of a history lesson as I can give about the Catacombs.  Now for a few detailed facts about our excursion.  Once you purchase your ticket, you immediately begin winding your way down a very narrow, very steep spiral set of steps.  130 steps take you to the entrance of a low-ceilinged tunnel.  At this point you are now roughly 66 feet underground (the height of a five-story building).

WARNING: Some may find the images that follow disturbing or frightening.

A picture of the entrance tunnel…(it’s very dark, so some pictures are a little blurry)


Along the wall of the tunnel are dates and titles, these were used as markers by the quarry inspectors.  1780 is the earliest date that we got in a picture…


The black line on the ceiling of the tunnel was used as a guide. (Remember, we have haven’t always had fancy electricity or portable phones with built in flashlights!)


And finally, after you feel like you’ve walked forever, you reach this sign…

“Stop!  This is the empire of the dead.”


Chills abound…


There’s not going to be much I can say about these pictures, it’s not like I can label this one “Tom Holcomb” or that one “Margaret Pinkerton.”  So for the most part, unless there’s a tidbit to add, I’m jut going to leave you to the pictures…they say quite a bit for themselves anyway…


Some of these “walls” of stacked bones were at least 5 feet tall…


Some of the skulls are arranged in an artistic fashion…


There are between 6 and 7 million Parisians whose remains lie in the Catacombs…


A marker for the Cemetery of Innocents from 1787…


This one was calling our name…


It was surreal at times, it’s not like there are glass walls or iron bars between you and the remains.  You can absolutely get as close as you want.  Obviously because of this, some of the bones have graffiti on them…but not many…


And after a mile and a quarter of bones, we found the end.  “He fears not death who has learned to despise life.”


And another 83 spiraling steps up to the surface.

Regardless of a two hour wait, walking through the Catacombs was honestly one of the most interesting, unique, and morbidly enjoyable things that I’ve ever done in my life, and I’m extremely glad Brittany suggested it.  Talking with people after the experience, the number one question has to do with whether or not it was creepy or scary.  Honestly, there wasn’t a single moment that I felt anything close to scared (maybe I’ve been desensitized by reading too many Stephen King novels).  Actually, it’s way more frightening to get crammed tighter than sardines in a can onto a Parisian subway train with a bunch of live people.

I have to say, there’s not much else you can do after walking through the Catacombs, nothing else we did that day could quite “live” up.  But we basically just wandered around after that, so no big deal I guess.

Actually, we went in search of a children’s bookstore, but our fruitless search led us to the area around Palais Garnier (Paris’s opera house).

Also in this area was the Opéra-Comique, which has been at this location since 1783, although multiple fires have led to new and updated buildings.

This is the rear exterior of the building…


And one of many sculptures along the wall…


We did pass the Palais Garnier, but it started raining soon after so we were forced to find shelter.


Luckily we were very near the children’s bookstore that had led us to this area, but in order to find it we had to run into the nearest Starbucks to use their Wifi (and restroom).  That led to its own little adventure.  As I’ve said in previous posts, finding a McDonald’s or Starbucks in Europe is nice because they both have Wifi and restrooms; however, the Starbucks restrooms in Paris were tricksy…

Here’s the deal, all of the McDonald’s require you to make a purchase before using their restroom.  You buy something and the code to open the restroom door is on the receipt.  Fairly easy once you know that’s what you have to do.  But the Starbucks hadn’t been like that, we had been able to just walk in.  Well, in Paris, the Starbucks were set up like the McDonald’s…only we tried every number combination that was on the receipts we got and still never could get the doors to open.  And you’d think that it would be as simple as asking an employee, but we’re in Paris, remember?  And we’ve been trying to learn Italian, which is very similar to French.  I don’t know how many times we were trying to talk to someone and Italian came out first followed by English, and finally some bastardized French would stumble out…we confused ourselves quite often.

However, we did finally manage to find the bookstore.  Only..its children’s book section was on a table that wouldn’t have been large enough to fit a good game of Monopoly on.

I can’t complain too much.  They did have an awesome Marvel book…


This book seriously weighs 15 and a half pounds.  I looked it up…

While we were online at Starbucks, we looked up other “children’s book stores” in the area, and there was supposed to be one a few streets over near the Louvre.  Well, it turns out it was in the Louvre’s shopping area, which is underground near the inverted pyramid.  Only, when we got there, we discovered there wasn’t a bookstore.  Why?  Because it was being renovated…story of our lives…

It did give us a chance to check out the inverted pyramid though!


As seen in The Da Vinci Code


While we were at the Louvre again, we decided to walk around and see what night had to offer.  We watched the Eiffel Tower twinkle again from here…(seriously, the twinkling starts at 9PM…how is it this light outside?!?)


At the end of the Tuileries Gardens in front of the Louvre is the Roue de Paris (we went back to check it out on a later day).  If you keep going straight past the ferris wheel, you will eventually run into the Arc de Triomphe.


A view of the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel at night, with the Roue de Paris in the background…


And a few pictures of the Palais du Louvre and the pyramid at night…



A better view of just the pyramid.  You actually enter the Louvre museum here, at the center…


Palais Garnier

Since it had stopped raining, we decided to walk back to the Palais Garnier to get a better look.  The opera house, which was built from 1861 to 1875 for the Paris Opera, is named after its architect, Charles Garnier.  The Palais Garnier is “probably the most famous opera house in the world, a symbol of Paris like Notre Dame Cathedral, the Louvre, or the Sacré Coeur Basilica.”  This is at least partly due to its use as the setting for Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel The Phantom of the Opera and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s popular musical.  (Wikipedia)


Like many other pieces of French architecture, the opera house is covered in statues.  My favorite was “Lyrical Drama.”


This piece looks fierce from almost every vantage point…


But my favorite item on the sculpture, is the mirror…


After a long and exciting day, we hopped on the Metro in front of the Palais Garnier and headed home…where we finally enjoyed the wine, cheese, and crackers we had previously purchased.  Good day.

Day 3 was a creepy underground adventure.  What will Day 4 hold?


3 thoughts on “Paris – Day 10 – Bones…

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