Last Updated on 24th February 2020 by Sophie Nadeau
Paris might be most famous for its monuments above ground: the sparkling Eiffel Tower, the grandiose Arc de Triomphe, and the iconic domes of the Sacré-Coeur Basilica. But quite literally scratch beneath the surface of the Parisian landscape, and you’ll soon discover the French capital’s underbelly, a maze of passages, secret railway systems, the métro, and of course, the sewer network.
The most famous of Paris’ underground complex is probably the tunnels and former limestone quarries which are collectively known as the catacombs. This underground network tell the secret story of Paris: that of WWII resistance fighters, those cultivating mushrooms deep beneath the city, and of course, an underground city of the dead. Here’s how to visit the Paris Catacombs (behind the scenes) and things to know before you go!
This post was written in collaboration with My Private Paris. As always, all photos and opinions are those of the editor.
A brief history of the Parisian catacombs
Paris Catacombs during the Roman Era
Though the land where Île de France is situated has been inhabited since time immemorial, the story of Paris perhaps truly first began as we know it today with the arrival of the Romans. After all, it was they who settled Île de la Cité and parts of the left bank (what has since become known as the Latin Quarter) and constructed the first stone buildings, some ruins of which can still be spied to this day.
During this time, the French capital was known as Lutetia and it was also during this period (the 1st and 2nd centuries CE) that the story of the Parisian catacombs began. Unlike the catacombs in Rome, which are older and were where early Christians once hid to worship and bury their dead, the history of the French catacombs are entirely different in their origins.
Indeed, it may well surprise you to discover that the Paris Catacombs have actually only been referred to as such since the 18th-century. Prior to this, they were largely undocumented and were simply quarries that began when the Romans quarried limestone so as to construct their public monuments and buildings.
The Romans continued to quarry the area surrounding Lutetia up until the end of the 5th-century when the city became the centre of the Frankish-ruled region of what is now Europe. From that point onwards, and right through until the 12th-century, the city remained largely concentrated on Île de la Cité and little quarrying took place.
Paris Catacombs during the Middle Ages
All this changed during the 12th-century when the great Gothic churches and cathedrals of Europe were constructed, including Notre Dame in 1163. The very first Louvre Palace (the ruins of which can be spied in the basement of the Louvre museum today) was also built during this time as a fortress directly outside of the Parisian city walls.
Stone was required and so the quarries were once again opened, only this time underground and allegedly under the control of the King. As you might imagine, keeping control over a largely undocumented underground system of tunnels and caves is nigh on impossible and so plenty of illegal quarrying took place.
The fact that the quarries were underground meant that collapses were commonplace and, in a bid to avoid this, when quarries were created, around 50% of the stone was left behind, leaving behind stone pillars. If you’re still wondering what ‘Paris stone’ is, then undoubtedly you’ll have seen it before.
After all, it’s this material that was used to build the grand Haussmann works that are so synonymous with the city today. Due to its formation under tropical waters millions of years ago, there are also plenty of sea fossils found in the stone today!
Paris Catacombs during the 17th-century & the creation of the General Quarry Inspection
Quarrying of the Paris limestone under the city carried on over the centuries. Unfortunately, so did the expansion of the city, often onto less than stable ground as a direct result of over-quarrying. This led to many a collapse of buildings and the like during the 17th-century.
By the 18th-century, collapses had become so commonplace that stories involving ‘disappearances’ into literal holes in the street were a regular feature in the press. Particularly shocking tales suggested that entire carriages and buildings were falling into the ground, not to mention an entire market in the Saint Michel area of the city!
As a result, in 1777 a relatively unknown man was appointed as the chief architect in charge of surveying the tunnels by Louis XVI (yep, the one from the French Revolution). The company was thus referred to as the General Quarry Inspection and it was under this programme that the ‘inspection tunnels’ were created, a maze of interlinking tunnels which were to connect many of the former quarries. These tunnels were quite literally created to ‘save Paris from collapse’!
Paris Catacombs from the 18th-century to the present day
Soon enough, another problem had arisen within the city. You see, though many romanticise medieval Paris, the truth is that the city was dirty, crowded, and incredibly unsanitary. While Paris outgrew its walls over and over again, cemeteries in the city too became overcrowded. The most famous of these was the Cimetière des Innocents (where Fontaine des Innocents is to be found today).
The Cimetière des Saint-Innocents was probably in use since the Roman period. By Medieval times the graveyard was regularly pillaged, with body theft and vandalism rampant. Such was the problem, that during the 12th-century, a three-metre high stone wall was erected around the cemetery. Several centuries later, and the sheer number of bodies in Paris were a serious health risk.
You see, over the centuries, some 2-3 million Parisians were interred in the burial grounds, thus meaning that by the 18th-century, the ground level of the cemetery was some 2 metres higher than that outside. By 1780, the Cimetière des Saint-Innocents was officially closed due to its increasing health risk to the public. The nearby Les Halles was one of the most popular market places in the city.
One night, it’s said that due to the sheer number of remains and intense rainfall, the wall between the cemetery and a nearby pub cellar gave way, spilling the remains of a mass grave into the basement. And thus, the decision was taken to move perhaps 6 million human remains (no one knowns the exact number) into the Parisian underground system.
Since 1814, the Paris Catacombs you can visit as a member of the public today has functioned as a Mausoleum. Once owned by the Catholic Church, the area under the 14th arrondissement is now managed by the City of Paris. Visit now and some all of the inspection tunnels mark the names of Parisian street names no longer in use. Book a private tour and you’ll even see some sections which are typically closed to the public, including some particularly ornate carvings by a man nicknamed ‘Beausejour’.
What’s it like to visit the Paris Catacombs?
The start of the interior visit whether you’re taking a private tour or are partaking in a general entrance, is down an endlessly spiralling staircase which will soon deposit you into two initial rooms, a former bomb shelter from WWII.
Within these whitewashed rooms, there’s a series of panels describing the beginnings of the catacombs, though if you opt to visit with a private guide everything will be explained to you in full, thus meaning that you won’t require the panels for information!
At the start of the visit, you’re approximately around twenty metres underground (some 60 feet). By the end, you’re around 35 metres under the ground (around 80 feet). The underground section open to visitors comprises of around a mile’s worth of tunnels and passages, though this is likely less than 1% of the total catacombs.
During your visit, you’ll soon see many of the inspection tunnels from the 18th-century, as well as barred offshoots and evidence of Cataphiles attempting to access the museum after hours. Since 1955, entrance into the catacombs outside of the museum has been illegal and ‘Cataphiles’ are those who venture into the ‘forbidden Paris catacombs’ in search of undocumented tunnels and the like. Stories emerging from those who have been are pretty wild, including tales of illicit parties by candlelight, secret cinema screenings, and more.
Behind the scenes with a private tour of the Catacombs
One of the greatest benefits of booking a private tour is that you’ll be able to skip the queue, which can be up to three or four hours long during the summer months, thus cutting into your Parisian exploration time. However, this is not the only benefit and so read on to discover what we were able to see during our visit (though I’ve not listed all the Paris Catacombs hidden gems as it’s nice to have some surprises too!)…
Oldest parts of the catacombs
Indeed, the oldest parts of the Parisian catacombs contain the remains of people exhumed from the Cimètiere des Innocents, one of the first cemeteries to have been exhumed and deposited into the catacombs. In the very heart of a maze of paths through stacked bones, there’s an altar where visitors during the 19th-century would have once attended mass.
Puits de Port-Mahon
As you might imagine, the catacombs that visitors can access today are above the water table (though this is not the case with every tunnel within the entirety of the catacomb network). The ‘Puits de Port-Mahon’ are sometimes referred to as the ‘quarry foot baths’ and were dug out during quarry reinforcement works so as to reach ground water.
Hands down, my favourite part of the private Catacombs visit was seeing the Port-Mahon sculptures, a series of beautiful model buildings quite literally hewn out of the rock face. Created between 1777 and 1782, the models represent the Port Mahon Palace on the Island of Menorca and were created from memory by a man called Decuré who was held captive ion the island.
Though little is known of the worked of the Quarry Inspections who created the sculptures, it is known that it was his dream to create a kind of attraction in the tunnels, whereby visitors could come and admire the models deep underground. Sadly, Decuré was killed in a rock fall while attempting to build a staircase from above whereby visitors would easily be able to access his Menorca models.
Fancy learning more about how to book a private tour of the Paris catacombs for yourself? Discover the full details here.