There is very often much more to the city of Paris than what immediately meets the eye. Travelers to see the Mayan ruins of Central America are missing half of the story and heritage if they don't visit the Mayan ritualistic caves there - the conduits to the netherworld. And in Paris, while Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower may grab people's eyes, the Parisian catacombs lurk just below their feet. These catacombs are actually not all that old only having been in use since around 1774. But the quarries are massive and are also the resting places of some 6 million French. Visiting them is very straightforward, however, there can be long lines of people waiting to access these haunted vaults of the city.

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History Of The Catacombs Of Paris

Part of the catacombs of Paris comes from Paris' ancient stone quarries. They were built in earnest in response to the city's major public health problems and overflowing cemeteries. The first large-scale excavations were from 1785 and 1787 following concerns about Paris' largest cemetery, Saints-Innocents cemetery.

  • Caution: Visiting The Catacombs Is Not For The Faint-Hearted, There Are Many Thousands Of Human Skeletons To Be Seen

In 1786 they were consecrated as the "Paris Municipal Ossuary" and have since taken on the mythical name of Catacombs (the original catacombs were the ancient Roman catacombs). For years the catacombs of Paris were largely forgotten in the public consciousness until it became a novelty place for concerts and private events in the 1800s.

A distinction is made between the "Paris Municipal Ossuary" and the much larger and extensive "Quarries of Paris" from which much of Paris' stone was quarried. Local Parisians use the term catacombs to refer to the massive quarries as a whole and not just the smaller ossuaries.

Related: Paris Is The Most Popular City In France, But Here's Why Nice Deserves More Hype

  • Length: The Length Of The Quarries (Not Ossuaries) Of Paris Is Some 200 Miles
  • Note: The Temperature In The Catacombs Is A Constant 14°C or  57°F, So Bring A Sweater Even If It Is A Hot Summer's Day

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The Problem

The reason for these catacombs is the overflowing cemeteries of Paris as the city grew. It was getting so bad that sometimes corpses were being uncovered. The quarries beneath the city had long been there (since around the 13th century) - these quarries had been dug since way back in the 13th century before Paris was a great city.

When the residents living near the afore-mentioned Les Innocents complained of the foul odor of rotting, semi-exposed human flesh. Something had to be done to relieve the stench of rotting people. It was even getting to the point that local perfume stores were complaining they couldn't sell their perfumes as the wreaking smell was putting people off buying their perfumes. Finally, in 1763, King Louis XV banned all burials inside the city. Another problem though was that the very powerful Catholic Church at the time in France refused to have the cemeteries disturbed or moved.

There was a period from 1763-1780 where nothing much was done and nothing much could be agreed upon. But the catalyst finally came in 1780 when - following some particularly extensive downpours - a wall around the cemetery Les Innocents collapsed. And out-poured rotting corpses.

The Solution

The decision was made to move the corpses five stories down underground into the tunnels. This was a mammoth undertaking and took some 12 years to complete. An estimated 6-7 million skeletons were moved down into the catacombs. It is believed that the oldest of the remains were some 1,200 years old.

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In 1789, Paris, France, the world, the course of history was rocked by the French Revolution. From around this date, people were buried directly in the catacombs. This came to an end in 1860 when people ceased to be buried in the catacombs.

Related: How Paris Is Being Reinvented (And What It Means For Travelers)

  • Maximilien de Robespierre: The Influential And Ruthless And Ultimately Guillotined Robespierre Was Buried In The Catacombs

Visiting The Catacombs

Today, it is very easy and straightforward to visit the catacombs.

  • Cost Of Admission: 4 Euros ($5)
  • Time To Walk Through: 45 Minutes - 1.5 Hours Depending On How Much People Want To Take Their Time
  • Length Open To The Public: 1.5 Kilometers or 1 Mile (Only A Small Fraction Of What Is There)
  • Warning Sign: The Enterance Displays A Warning Inscription "Arrête, c'est ici l'empire de la mort!" (Stop! This is the empire of death!)
  • Guided Tours: Guided Tours Are Available For Those Wishing To Really Understand The History Of The Catacombs

The catacombs are very different from the original Roman catacombs or of the underground cities in Cappadocia in Turkey. They are an important part of Paris' history and are a must-see for those brave enough and not susceptible to nightmares!

Next: 10 Things Most People Don’t Know About Paris Until They Visit

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