Place Denfert-Rochereau, 75014. Métro: Denfert-Rochereau (lines 4, 6 and RER B). Price: €8 adults, concessions available.
Strolling through the busy and café strewn streets of Montparnasse it is difficult to imagine a parallel world beneath the pavements spiralling out for hundreds of kilometres across the city, yet the Catacombs of Paris are as much a part of the history of the capital as the Eiffel Tower or Notre Dame and in some cases have even contributed to their construction. Macabre, moving and to unexperienced eyes just a little bit mad, the Catacombs constitute a vast subterranean network of tunnels, chambers and tombs packed with the bones of over 6 million past inhabitants of the city as well as numerous plaques inscribed with French poetry on the every poet’s favourite topic, death. They are the antithesis to the sanitised smiles of Disneyland or the grandeur of the crypts in Père Lachaise cemetery, and the quiet solemnity and inevitability that pervades the dank atmosphere makes for a surprisingly memorable part of any visit to Paris.
Established as limestone quarries as far back as the Roman era, the catacombs are a crooked yet highly organised series of underground spaces that have evolved and been added to throughout their long existence. The tunnels first began to be used as an ossuary for bones in the 17th century due to overcrowded graveyards on the city surface leading to a dangerous incidence of disease, with whole graveyards being exhumed and deposited beneath the city streets. Today the majority of the catacombs are closed to the public due to their hazardous nature, although a sub-section of Parisian society known as ‘cataphiles’ persists in illegally sneaking into the tunnels through sewers and other secret entrances. However, it is possible to visit a section underneath the 14th arrondissement, where tickets are on sale almost every day of the year from the entrance at the Place Denfert-Rochereau.
We visited in August when the crowds were at their peak and had to endure a 90 minute wait in the queue outside, although languishing in bright sunlight for this amount of time arguably made the descent into the bowels of the Paris underground even more startling. A spiral staircase winds down to the gloom of the tunnels, where you are left to make your own way with some trepidation past inscrutable gated caves, signs detailing the history of the area and limestone engravings of buildings, creating the impression of a eerie city of the dead beneath the feet of the everyday. Entering the caves in which the remains are stacked is an even more arresting experience, as your senses are confronted by a gruesome patchwork of discarded and unidentified skulls, femurs and assorted parts of skeletons arranged in a bizarre pattern of crosses and lines. However, once you have adjusted to these unsentimental arrangements the sheer scale of the catacombs, with each section defined only by occasional plaques with the name of the exhumed graveyard engraved on them, impresses upon you the thousands of individual stories that lie underneath the normal world, forgotten by all living things. The experience is both a humbling and a fascinating one, and when you emerge into the sunlight, blinking, dazed and miles from where you began, it becomes much more difficult to ignore the history that exists underneath your feet.