Monday, October 17, 2005
spooky old bones
Visiting damp tunnels full of centuries old skeletons is probably not everyones idea of a great day out, but there's something I rather like about roaming about in tunnels. And if there's one thing that Paris has got a lot of, it's tunnels.
These particular tunnels were originally limestone quarries - some dating back to Roman occupation (of what was then Lutece). During the late 1700s, there were severe problems with overflowing graveyards and poor burials - especially in the region of Les Halles (once a famous marketplace, now a tragically designed commercial district). To combat the disease caused by these unsanitary conditions (becoming even more problematic during the revolution), it was decided to transfer the bodies to the former quarry sites and create mass graves.
I'm not overly squeamish when it comes to bones, skeletons, slimy toads, slithery snakes, dissections, blood and all that sort of stuff - probably my biology training shining through. There's something very anonymous about this sort of experience though. Graveyrads at least give you an indication of who each person was. Lots of plaques with short prose throughout the tour to remind you that this is the fate that awaits us all (cheerful!), and you find yourself wondering, as you looks at the rows and rows of skulls, who they were, how they lived, how they died. Though its sure that these old bones get no rest with all us tourists wandering through day after day.
Here's some other fun info about the catacombs (from Wikipedia)
* The chamber walls are full of graffiti from the 18th century onwards. In the 19th century some families even lived there.
* Victor Hugo used his knowledge about the tunnel system in his novel Les Misérables.
* During World War II, some Parisian cells of French Resistance used the tunnel system.
* The arrangement of the bones, as well as the ominous signs placed here and there, were made specifically for visitors in the 19th century.
* Burial chambers are only a small part of the full amount of galleries under Paris. The total amount of underground tunnels is more than 300 km.
* In theory, entrance to catacombs is restricted. However, enterprising souls can enter the tunnels through certain places in the sewers or the subway system, as well as through manholes in some streets.
* On rare occasions drug dealers, addicts, eccentrics and those who want to keep clandestine meetings or unusual parties frequent catacombs. Most of the explorers who visit the catacombs today are adventurers or urban explorers.
* Legally speaking, going into catacombs has been illegal since November 2, 1955. There is a 100 € fine and a special tunnel police. Some of the most dangerous places, especially in the center of the city, have been closed.
* While most unofficial visits to the quarry are safe, there are still hazards in such activities. The map of the tunnel is complex; while some of them have plaques indicated the name of the streets above, this is not the case of most, and the complexity of their layout can be perplexing. It is thus necessary to have a good map of the tunnels, and possibly the company of people who have made such trips before.
* In September 2004, a hidden chamber with a movie theater run by the Mexican Perforation group (a French artistic movement that seeks to convey their ideas in underground places) was found by the French police in the Catacombs of Paris.