Walking down the street it’s just like any other Parisian intersection, an ornate statue encircled by bustling traffic chaotically criss-crossing between pedestrians. It’s an hour before opening time on this beautiful summers morning and I can’t shake the feeling we are in the wrong spot. There are no obvious signs, no advertising, no fanfare at all. Out of the corner of my eye I spot a small group of inconspicuous visitors lined up at a narrow black metal door with tiny letters embossed above “Entree des catacombs”; we are here, standing on top of the world’s largest cemetery, the final resting place of over 6 million people.
At 10am on the dot the doors open and the first wave of visitors are welcomed through. The line now stretches down the street, wrapping neatly around the bend and into the park. Luckily we took the advice of friends and arrived well before opening time. From street level you would never guess what lay beneath, but it soon becomes clear that where we are going is a long way from the bustling world above. The tightly wound spiral staircase sink us deep below the ground, like we are truly transcending from the land of the living into a time capsule of the dead. Where we are heading are the dug out quarries once used to mine the stone that built Paris; now they’re filled with the bones of millions of Parisians lay to rest between the late eighteenth and mid nineteenth century.
We move through a network of narrow tunnels as the roof closes in tightly overhead. Carvings in the masonry mark a mixtures of ancient dates, poetry and directions. After what feels like an eternity of snaking path we reach our destination. A doorway with the words “Arrête, c’est ici l’empire de la mort” (Halt, this is the realm of Death) carved above. My pupils dilate further as I refocus on what lay beyond the doorway; skulls and bones stacked from floor to ceiling as far as the eye can see but that isn’t what is twisting my mind into disbelief. The sheer number is a sight needing to be seen to believed but it is the artistic arrangement of this gallery of lost lives that has me fixated. Beautifully arranged patterns and line work of the remains are stacked meters deep off the walls creating ornate designs fit to line a churches eves.
The empty hallway ahead invites us in as I grip my camera tighter in excitement. I’ve never experienced anything like this before. There are no guard rails, no protective perspex, no guards, no supervision, just a smattering of polite signs inviting you to keep your hands to yourself, your self-sticks away (where they belong), your flashes off and your voices to a minimum. There is mutual respect between us guests and the residents of these halls. It’s dark down here and the light casts an eerie warm yellow glow over the skulls protruding from the wall. My mind is in complete overdrive as I fire off photo after photo. It is an incredibly well though-through experience from a visitors point of view as there are strict limits to the number of people allowed in the two kilometres at any given time.
The air in these tunnels is a constant and damp 14 degrees and water drips from the ceiling echoing through the dark passages as they fall into the pooling water on the ground below. This is by far the most entrancing experience I have had in recent memory. Whilst initially the sight of these stacked skeletons can be confronting, it isn’t long before the beauty in their design captures your imagination and draws you further in to it’s complex and winding network. As you pass between each section a collective tombstone details the graveyard from where the deceased were transported.
If you find yourself in Paris this is a must-do experience as it’s not something you will likely come across again in a lifetime and not something that even photos do justice. Personally, it again proves that it’s easy to glance over the places we travel and not look past the obvious, but go a little bit deeper here we are, five stories below a single narrow black metal door on the street that it home to more people than a small country.