Paris is the city of amour, a beautiful urban grid of patterned city streets that is home to many of the world’s finest museums, parks, and restaurants. There is no shortage of things to do when visiting Paris, and the Catacombs are one of those must-see sights every traveler should have on their list. Like much of the city, the Catacombs are steeped in incredible history, rich with fascinating and sometimes creepy facts.
Read on to learn about 10 creepy things you didn’t know about the Paris Catacombs.
10 Wake The Dead
17th century Paris was a bustling metropolis and the largest city in Europe. It was a time of great invention, expansion, and imagination. Since Paris wasn't a young city, its cemeteries were overcrowded... so much so that bodies were often easily unearthed. Residents in certain neighborhoods, like those nearby Les Innocents, the oldest cemetery in the city, would complain of overwhelming odors of decomposing bodies.
This caused major health problems for the living citizens and ultimately required bodies to be moved from the cemeteries. The challenge was where. Quarries run beneath the city of Paris, mined for limestone which was used to build the city above. Paris authorities decided on using the Tombe-Issoire quarries that, at the time, ran just outside of the city and that had been out of use since the 15th century. Once this was decided, over 6 million remains were moved into the Catacombs.
9 Moved In The Dead Of Night
The process of moving the remains from the cemeteries of Paris into the Catacombs was a complex process that took over 12 years to complete.
The first cemetery emptied was Les Innocents which, after a long spring of rain, caused bodies to spill out when a wall crumbled. The bodies were moved under the cover of darkness, in order to tamp down on reactions from the Church and Parisians.
8 Swim If You Dare
The Catacombs beneath Paris were originally dug out quarries where limestone was mined centuries before. Though part of the tunnels now houses the municipal ossuary, it’s not a far stretch to think some of the tunnels might be filled with water.
There’s even a short documentary called “The City of the Sea” that gives an insider view of what it’s like to explore and swim in the Catacombs. It’s not for the faint of heart and anyone who’s not a fan of confined spaces wouldn't do well on this adventure, but you can still live vicariously through the video, which is probably good enough for most people.
7 Bones As Art
As the bones were brought into the Catacombs they were dumped in piles, completely disorganized as remains were removed from Paris’s cemeteries. Louis- Étienne Héricart de Thury oversaw the transformation of the quarries into the eerie art that still exists in the Catacombs today.
He directed his team to stack femurs and skulls to form walls that essentially created an art museum of death below the streets of Paris. Under his direction archways with inscriptions warning visitors, were also added.
6 Underground art gallery
As bones were organized in the Catacombs they were formed into a variety of shapes, hearts, crosses, a giant barrel of femurs and skulls, but there is other art to be found in the Catacombs. The sculptures of Décure are one example. Francois Décure was a quarry worker who spent some of his time working in the quarries creating small, but incredible sculptures in the walls of the limestone sections of the Catacombs.
He carved images of the Quartier De Cazerne, Port Philipe, and even the Port Mahon prison. Décure was killed during a cave-in in the Catacombs but his unique contribution is very much a lasting part of the tunnels.
5 Underground Secret Lair
All bad guys need a secret lair and the Catacombs were once used to pull off a nefarious heist. In 2017 a group of thieves used the Catacombs to access the underground vault of a nearby apartment building.
They drilled through the limestone walls to gain access to a collection of vintage wine with a value of nearly $275,000. Another infamous story for the Catacomb archives.
4 Party Time
People will look for any excuse to throw a party and who wouldn’t want to go crazy in the Catacombs? Stories claim that King Charles X would throw secret parties in the tunnels when he was merely the Comte d’Artois. Musicians have held (illegal) concerts and there has certainly been more than one trespasser that has spent the night in the Catacombs.
Police also stumbled upon a room that had been turned into a movie theater, complete with a screen, projector, and even a full restaurant. Nothing could top watching a scary movie in the tunnels on Halloween.
3 Farm Fresh Mushrooms
The Catacombs have been used for many things but one of the oddest might be the cultivation of mushrooms. There are several stories about how farmers stumbled upon using the underground tunnels for growing mushrooms, but one such story says that deserts from the Napoleonic army hid there and found that it was the perfect environment for growing mushrooms.
This discovery didn’t stay a secret for long and soon other farmers rushed to plot out their own space for mushrooms. This practice still exists today and produces a mushroom with exceptional flavor.
2 It’s War
The Catacombs beneath Paris have been used in the past by deserters of Napoleon's army as a hideout, so it’s not a surprise that they were used in World War II as well.
The French Resistance used the tunnels, which travel beneath most of Paris, to organize and plan for attacks against the Nazis. It was also found that the Nazis had several bunkers in the tunnels.
1 Secret Underground Community
There is a group of explorers and thrill-seekers called the cataphiles who like to spend their time beneath the city in the Catacombs. This group of individuals are explorers who roam the more than 170 miles of tunnels that fall outside of the Catacombs. They have set up rooms with murals and graffiti, or they have come to find a place of calm within the bustling city of Paris.
They are very protective of the tunnel’s entrances and risk the possibility of a fine if they are caught by police. There is also the chance of injury since the tunnels are dark, rocks can fall and there are pools of water as well. But for some, the danger is part of the experience.