Review: Paris Catacombs

Make no bones about it, they're creepy!

Cata-come and visit!

I've been to Paris lots of times and ticked off all the major tourist attractions. So on recent visits I've been starting to look at slightly more obscure or out-of-the-way things to do.

I'd wanted to go to the Catacombs in Paris for quite some time, having seen a few photos online. I took the photo attached to this blog during my visit and I'm sure you'll understand my sense of macabre interest in seeing the place for myself. 

What are the Catacombs?

Situated in a small part of an underground tunnel network built to consolidate Paris' ancient stone mines, the Catacombs are a series of ossuaries created as part of the effort to eliminate the city's overflowing cemeteries. Altogether they contain the remains of more than 6 million people, all lined up in alarmingly fascinating skull and limb piles resembling small walls or artworks. It's been open to the public since 1874.

And my slightly morbid fascination matched the rest of Paris's, so it seems...!

On a working break to the City I thought this would be the perfect thing to do during some free time. I'd tried to "bone up" online before heading to Paris and was slightly confused by all the differing information on TripAdvisor and other websites about whether I should book before I went or not. Booking would enable me to have an allotted entry time and to skip the queue which, by all accounts, sounded mostly gargantuan and hours-long. But pre-booking also meant paying an extra €16 on top of the on-the-day queue price. So I chose not to book and to chance the queue.

I decided to go on the Wednesday morning of my stay, and on the evening before (a swelteringly hot day), I read countless horror stories from that day of 3-4 hour-long waits in-line and recommending that anyone who goes should book. So I tried - and failed: I was too late...all the pre-booked places had been sold. It seems that to pre-book, you should do it at least five days before the date you want to go. 

That info helped to make up my mind - I was going to get there early. Opening at 10am every day but Monday, I was fortunate to read a review from the day before about a lady who thought she had timed it right by arriving twenty minutes before the Catacombs open, and still ended up having to queue for more than 3 hours! 

Rattling in

I took the Metro - Denfert-Rochereau Station is directly opposite the Catacombs, and I arrived just before 9am. There was already a queue of about 30 people, most of whom had probably also decided it was safer to be as early as possible. I was pleasantly surprised that I seemed to have timed it right, and my friend and I joined the end of the queue instantly. We were a bit disappointed that there was nowhere comfy to sit - we had to make do with the pavement. But we took it in turns to visit the boulangerie for breakfast and sat patiently reading our books and watching the world go by.

People continued to join for the next hour and a half, so there were probably around 200+ people in line by the time the Catacombs opened. It didn't feel as though it was anywhere near as bad as the horror stories of the previous day, and we surmised that it could be due to the weather not being quite as nice on the day we visited, and also that maybe Tuesdays are a busier day because the Catacombs aren't open to the public on a Monday.

Chilled to the bone

They only let 200 people into the Catacombs at any one time, and with lots of pre-booked people going in first, we finally reached the front of the queue at 10.30am - although it had only been an hour and a half wait. We paid €18 for our ticket, including an audio guide each and descended the 130 steps to the dark subterranean world. Note: if you're going to come, I'd recommend bringing a jumper - temperatures down there are around 14°C. Oh, and it's wet and a little slippery in places, so decent footwear is also a good option.

The tour starts with quite a walk through lots of tunnels, the audio guide (which had to be held up to the ear to hear it) explaining how and why they were built, what the marks on the walls mean and lots of other facts and figures. 

And here I encountered my first problem - my audio guide was stuck on Spanish! 

I spent the first 15-20 minutes wandering through the tunnels fiddling with the machine and hoping to bump into a member of staff! The only reason I knew what was happening was because my friend's audio guide was playing in English and he was relaying the information to me. I was actually a bit shocked that so far I hadn't encountered any member of staff except the lady at the ticket office taking the money! Even my friend was having problems with the audio guide in English - there was no way of clearly knowing when to start playing each section, and it was easy to get lost with it, even in spite of numbers on the walls at various points.

I finally found a member of staff who sorted out my machine problem, and we tentatively walked through to the ossuary.

And the vision was instantly astounding...row upon row, wall upon wall of human bones...countless limbs punctuated only by rows of skulls, many facing out at their visiting spectators in a kind of lifeless defiance. And a strange damp, earthy smell permeating the air, really reinforcing the deathly feeling of it all. Most striking of all is how close you can get to them - for at least half an hour we meandered relentlessly through them, surrounded on all sides by a spectacle that was impossible to wholly fathom and inducing a feeling it's difficult to sufficiently express. Both sad and oddly beautiful in its own way, it served as a stark reminder of our own mortality and how death renders us no different from each other.

The most perplexing feeling of all was that of exposure. After 20 minutes or so of staring at, and half-guiltily taking pictures of, the skeletons I realised that the initial feeling of shock had passed and exposure had numbed my senses a little. And that feeling of getting used to it is perhaps the most disturbing of all!

Reaching the end of the walk, and then ascending the 83 steps to the exit and daylight, the whole experience felt somewhat surreal. Here, above ground, was Paris drenched in sun and warmth, life and vitality... Encountering the triviality of the gift shop, it felt like the normal order had been restored! But that was mixed with feelings of relief and a small, new-found thankfulness.

Oh, and there was an odd realisation of just how far we'd walked underground, coming up nearly 1.5km across from where we'd first gone down.

Bones of contention

The audio tour: when I finally got mine to work, it was confusing and not really essential. There were still some displays which gave out similar information in English at the important points. The signs for each portion of the audio tour were hit and miss, meaning that we weren't getting the right information at the right times. In hindsight I also felt that the audio detracted a little from the overall experience. Knowing the basic info already, I'd rather have had the authentic experience of listening to my own emotions as I wandered through the ossuary. So I'd recommend not paying the €5 extra.

Lack of staff: there were hardly any around, and no-one to help me out for about 20 minutes when I needed them, which became very frustrating!

Was it to die for?

Terrible puns aside, yes, it was definitely worth the trip. I'm really glad I went. The very fact that these piles of bones were once all living, breathing people is simultaneously dumbfounding and humbling. It's not something I'll forget in a hurry.

Just to recap, if you're queuing on the day, I'd recommend:

  • Getting there at least an hour in advance of the opening time 
  • Taking a book or something to keep you occupied in the queue, or reading up on the Catacombs at that point and not buying the audio guide
  • Taking food and a drink - or if you're in a group, taking it in turns to go off and buy some

For inside the Catacombs:

  • Take a jumper - it gets cold underground
  • Wear sensible shoes - it's wet and slightly slippery in places
  • Turn off the flash on your phone or camera - it's not allowed
  • Only bring a small bag - very large bags & suitcases will have to be stored above ground
  • Be prepared to walk - you'll cover 1.5km and have to go up and down lots of steps on the way in and out
  • Go to the toilet before you go down - the tour took me an hour

The bare bones:

Where: 2, avenue René Coty         Nearest Metro: Denfert-Rochereau, Line 6         Bus: 38, 68 

Opening days/hours: Tuesday to Sunday, 10am to 8.30pm. Last admission 7.30pm. Closed on Mondays

Prices on the day: €13 Euros each or €17 Euros coupled with ticket for Archaeological Crypt. €5 Euros extra for audio guide. 

Online pre-book prices (specific times): around €29pp



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Post by Stuart

Stuart discovered his passion for all things travel during one of his first jobs overseeing the travel section of a well-known bookshop. He has worked in publishing for 15 years, most recently as a freelance travel writer. He's always planning his next adventure away. Favourite destination? It has to be Western Canada & The Rockies. Next trip? Prague.

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