ARRÊTÉ! C’EST ICI L’EMPIRE DE LA MORT! (A visit to the Paris Catacombs)

Wedged in between the mountains of Irensaga, Starkhorn, and the Dwimorberg, Legolas, Gimli and Aragorn take the Dimholt road through the Paths Of The Dead and summon a deadly force enabling them to defeat the armies of Mordor. Long ago the men of the mountains swore an oath of alliance to Gondor, but when the time came and Gondor’s need was dire, they fled vanishing into the darkness of the mountain. And so Isildur cursed them, never to rest until they had fulfilled their pledge……

This scene from Lord of the Rings lingered with me throughout my visit to the famous underground burial sites in Paris. The Catacombs, which have been open to the public since the early 19th century, are the most un-tourist of tourist sites.

In 1786, behind a procession of chanting priests, began a parade of black-covered bone-laden horse-drawn wagons that continued for years. The bones of 6 million people were distributed throughout the abandoned stone quarries beneath the Parisian streets and workers arranged crosses, urns and other necropolis memorabilia recovered from Paris’ overcrowded and rancid graveyards. In a bone-labyrinth, which inspired Victor Hugo and was used by the French resistance during World War II, you can wander through this ossuary whose subterranean tunnels and caverns extend well beyond this boneyard for 300 miles into the abandoned mines which remain largely unknown. Unfortunately this uncharted area is not open to the public, and we are kept on a well-lit route of dripping tunnels and bone walls.

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Aside from this 2km that has been made into a rather unique tourist attraction, the rest of the Paris Catacombs are explored by close communities of urban adventurers known Cataphiles. Illegally they descend into the tunnels. Secret entrances exist throughout Paris, and it is sometimes possible to enter the catacombs via the sewers, metro, and certain manholes. Then ensues a cat and mouse game with the French police tasked with patrolling the tunnels, the Catafics. Sound intriguing? The Cataphiles are notoriously difficult to make contact with and finding a guide who will indite you into the secret community of the underworld is a task akin to delivering the ring of power to Mordor…..

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However if you fancy the somewhat tamer version, 8 euros (only 4 for students) will take you into this metropolis. The entrance is next to Denfert-Rochereau, and you must be prepared to walk 2km and there is only one exit so once you are inside there’s no coming out. Not for the faint hearted or those with a nervous disposition. Having said that, one particular Catacombs warden I spotted (photo: below, left) seemed to find the environment relaxing – he had fallen into a deep sleep and rocked back and forth snoring loudly, and was at times, spooking visitors more than the bones.

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http://www.catacombes.paris.fr/

 

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One thought on “ARRÊTÉ! C’EST ICI L’EMPIRE DE LA MORT! (A visit to the Paris Catacombs)

  1. Brilliant writing -I felt I was right there behind you on the tour, your description and atmospheric photos have opened up somewhere that always fascinated me but feared to tread.

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