Stop! Here lies the empire of death.

On Thursday we made our way back to the catacombs. This time we were able to find the entrance without the help of a little old French lady. This time the catacombs were open, which meant that this time there was a line to get in. They limit the number of people inside at any given time to no more than 200, so the line doesn’t exactly move quickly. We should count ourselves lucky that this was the only really long line that we had to sit in during our six days in Paris, but it still took two hours to make it through. Advice for others though – if you’re going, go early. They stop letting people in at 4pm and they weren’t going around cutting off the line, so some people probably waited for an hour and didn’t get in.

We'd make it to that part of the line in an hour...

We’d make it to that part of the line in an hour…

Once you get inside, there’s a small ticket desk and then you immediately start descending a spiral staircase to get about 60ft below street level.

Yay stairs!

Yay stairs!

At the bottom of the stairs, you get some information on the geology of the area, which explains why these tunnels are where they are. They’ve basically been quarrying stone from beneath Paris for centuries, so tunnels such as these are leftover. The fact that the ground beneath the city is full of holes is supposedly one of the reasons there aren’t taller buildings in much of the city.

After you get through learning about rock layering, you pass through some long tunnels, before entering an area with some eerie carvings and archways.

Sorry - I'd have to translate a picture of the sign in French explaining exactly what this is.

Sorry – I’d have to translate a picture of the sign in French explaining exactly what this is.

Underground tunnels.

Underground tunnels.

Eventually, you arrive at a this.

Looks like a nice spot for a picnic.

Looks like a nice spot for a picnic.

A rather foreboding sign reads “ARRETE! C’EST ICI L’EMPIRE DE LA MORT” or “Stop! Here lies the empire of death” ┬áPast this entryway, the catacombs begin.

The brief history – In the late 18th century, the cemeteries in Paris were causing some problems, i.e. they were full and posing health problems to the surrounding areas. They started by removing the remains from one cemetery to the empty quarry tunnels, and then moved others. After initially just tossing the remains into piles, some genius said “Hey, people are fascinated by dead things, let’s make these bodies look cool and charge people to see them.” (might not be the exact translation, but close enough). So they started organizing the remains in various patterns and shapes using the skulls and long leg bones (tossing the other bits behind the pretty skull/leg walls). Cemeteries, churches, and whoever else had a body surplus, moved them into the collection, eventually reaching around six million people.

The experience inside these dark, winding tunnels, lined on both sides with row after row of bones, is sort of surreal. You have to stop and remind yourself that these were once living, breathing people, that had lives on the streets of Paris. When you first walk in, you’ll say “holy crap, there are bones in here!” By the end of the walk, you’ll just be dumbfounded by the sheer number of bones packed into the tunnels. It’s morbid, but there’s nothing quite like it.

Without further jabbering, here are some pictures.

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At two bones per person, somebody count how many people are in this one picture.

At two bones per person, somebody count how many people are in this one picture.

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The skulls won't eat me, the skulls won't eat me.

The skulls won’t eat me, the skulls won’t eat me.

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Ghost Jenny.

Ghost Jenny.

Years and years worth of visitors carving things into the wall at the end.

Years and years worth of visitors carving things into the wall at the end.

The tunnel out.

The tunnel out.