2020 has arrived…and we’re already well into February! This has been the warmest winter since I moved to Paris 3.5 years ago (temps have been around ~52F)… and although it’s a bit off-putting–no thanks to climate change 🥺–I haven’t been complaining too much because this Californian is not very fond of the cold.☀️Speaking of other firsts since I’ve become a bonafide French resident, I finally got around to visiting Les Catacombes de Paris this month!💀
A Private Tour
I had the opportunity to participate in a private evening tour of Les Catacombes with My Private Paris, a boutique agency that offers intimate bespoke tours of Paris’ historical and cultural landmarks. Our group was comprised of 4 other expats and 1 French gal, and we were led by our own experienced guide, Marc, who obviously had a true passion and deep knowledge of Parisian history.
The other perks of the private tour vs. booking this on my own were immediately obvious: upon arriving at 6pm, we got to skip the mile-long line for entry with “VIP entrance”–and inside Les Catacombes we got to see special areas that are closed off to the public. Funny note: Since moving to France, I’ve realized that I’m even more drawn to saving time and expediting processes in both my professional and personal life, which isn’t surprising when I compare the speed of life in Silicon Valley vs France…*sigh* Old habits die hard.😂
The Hidden City Below Paris
The tour started off with a deep dive (literally) into the history of Paris and how the city was literally built from the underground up. Underneath what is now the Île-de-France region, the earth was filled with rich limestone and gypsum stone which the early Romans mined to build infrastructure on the surface of the land. Centuries later, the empty mining quarries caused tragic accidents as entire buildings and parts of the city caved into the hollow earth below. It was then that the French government decided to commission the Inspection Générale des Carrières–whose responsibility was to map out and identify the underground mines in order to strengthen the foundations of the city. They literally marked the names of the streets above directly below in the tunnels, creating a sort of city below the city. In fact, what we visitors see in Les Catacombes is just 1% of the entire underground network of mines and tunnels.
Who Let The Bones Out?
Another interesting–albeit disturbing–fact about Les Catacombes was where many of the bones and remains came from. During the Middle Ages, there was a massive cemetery right next to the central market (now Les Halles) called the Cimitière des Innocents. A more accurate description of this grave site would be a literal land fill of bodies, as the number of dead placed into these massive pits during the Black Plague was hundreds if not thousands by the day. To put it in perspective, it’s estimated that at least 30% of the European population died as a result of this pandemic. The open graves and rain were causing disease and bacteria to spread even faster, and in the early 1780s local officials finally caught on and prohibited bodies from being buried in Paris, and for the bones from the Cimitière des Innocents and other Paris cemeteries to be moved into Les Catacombes.
Secret Tunnels Unlocked…& Illegal Parties?
🤫The “restricted access” areas that we got to visit with Marc as a part of the private tour were interesting–to my own surprise I found them to be quite beautiful in the eerie Empire of Death. We learned more about the religious and cultural significance of Les Catacombes : in the past people would gather down in the catacombs to visit the remains of their loved ones, but also to party. There would be food, drink, and music as they danced around, sang, and celebrated. Apparently, the partying actually still happens today, though in a very different context. People secretly dig their own tunnels into the catacombs or sneak in through hidden entrances to host illegal soirées of their own in the dark.🎉
A Dark Romance
I do admit, there was a moment during the middle of the tour that I got a bit spooked by the fact that I was deep in the tunnels surrounded by rooms and rooms of spirits bones…but I’d imagine that happens to more people that I think hehe?😅 Overall it was an incredibly special and unique way to see another side of Paris, starkly different from the beautiful and romantic sites of the city that most envision. I also think I learned more history about Paris than at any museum I’ve visited so far–having a private guide made it more engaging and easier to ask questions about Les Catacombes (a big merci encore to Marc!) compared to generic audio guides.
Let me know if you’ve visited Les Catacombes before and what you thought of it…And if you’re planning to visit, I would highly recommend booking your tour with My Private Paris for a truly in-depth and memorable experience!
✈️ps: Heading to London, Amsterdam, or Rome? My Private Paris also hosts private tours by local guides in those cities as well, find out more here!