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Paris Catacombs

Visitors seeking a change from the vibrant streets of Paris and shimmering lights of the Eiffel Tower can go underground to experience a darker side of the city.

At a temperature of 14 degrees Celcius, the Paris Catacombs get chilly, even in summer, so grab a jacket before descending 130 steps and winding through an eerie series of tunnels leading to an 18th century graveyard. The site is located beneath its unassuming entrance on Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, and stretches more than a mile beneath the tree-lined boulevards above. Upon entry, visitors are warned; “Arrête, c’est ici l’empire de la mort” (Stop! This is the empire of death!).

The Paris Catacombs in fact originated as a very practical solution to a serious sanitation problem. In the late 1700s, the Cimetière des Saints-Innocents , Paris’s largest cemetery, became overcrowded, leading to the spread of diseases through contaminated water. From 1785 to 1860, a project to exhume Parisian bones from local cemeteries was carried out, with the skeletons being ferried to a nearby disused quarry. The skeletons of around six million Parisians were transferred. Initially bones were just thrown into corridors, but in 1810, the bones needed to be arranged in an orderly fashion, and were stacked neatly and decoratively.

Today, visitors can peruse the displayed remains, with bones – some more than a century old – forming ornamental walls and sculptures. Intricately carved works by eighteenth century army veteran and quarryman Decure adorn the Port-Mahon corridor. Other features include the Samaritan Woman’s Fountain - a spring walled with bones, the large cross and altar at the Sacellum Crypt, and the Sepulchral Lamp – a fire bowl used to light the way of the quarrymen at work.

Allow an hour to wander through the tunnels, which are open every day except Mondays. Adults must accompany children under the age of 14.

To avoid congestion down in the caverns, the number of visitors entering the Catacombs is limited to 200 at any time, leading to long queues above, so it’s best to arrive early. The Catacombs open every day except Monday and public holidays. First admission is at 10 a.m. but queues start to form well before then. Children under 14 must be accompanied by an adult. The tour takes around 45 minutes to complete, and is concluded with a bag check, to make sure all of the bones remain underground!

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