*Warning – some may find pictures below disturbing*
There aren’t many things that I’m afraid of. Bears, snakes, spiders, no problem. I’ll pet the biggest lion or the slimiest slug. But there are a few things I won’t tread near – the creepy beasts of the world beneath us. I mean… have you seen a naked mole rat? Nooo way.
Relatedly, I don’t seek out scary movies to watch. I’ve never understood the appeal of wanting to be scared, usually with some obviously timed jump scare that still gets you each time. There are two, however, that came to mind when I last visited Paris. The Descent (parts 1 and 2) is about a group of girls who have to fight their way out of a cave while fighting some naked mole rat zombie mutants. That is my literal nightmare… The other is As Above, So Below – a group ventures into the Catacombs of Paris in search of the philosopher’s stone before realizing they’ve essentially entered hell.
If you are going to invite me on any kind of spelunking, caving, or potholing adventure, my answer is probably no. But maybe. As much as I don’t want to come face to face with an albino, eyeless monstrosity, there’s something appealing about a site that warns you:
The creation of the catacombs can be summarized fairly concisely. Paris expanded in size rapidly and overfilled the existing cemeteries. In need of space, over 6 million Parisian bodies were moved underground into abandoned quarries by way of covered wagons that worked overnight. There is no way to tell who is who down here. You could be looking at a peasant or an aristocrat, the bones of privilege or the bones of frugality. We all end the same.
The logistics of getting into the Catacombs is straightforward. You arrive at a rather unassuming green building and will likely see a line (sorry, a queue) that is an hour long. They only let 200 people down at a time, pre-COVID and presumably post, as well. There is a longer line that costs less, but you may not be able to get in. We opted for the shorter, pre-purchased ticket line for €29. We grabbed an English-language audio guide and started our descent down 20 meters of stairs.
It’s fairly cold by the time you get to the bottom, so bring a jacket with you and some walking shoes for this 45 minute, 1.5km walk through tight alleyways of rock and bone. There are a lot of sections that are not friendly to tall people. I highly recommend spending the extra €5 for the audio guide, because you can take a gentle stroll between the numbered guide points taking in the history and stories of the underground Paris.
Various gated passages will peak your interest as you try to look down them for a glimpse of what’s being hidden from you. Maybe a cult of druids who are summoning the king of naked mole rats, but probably just some ballsy Parisian cataphiles who are trying to escape the life above for a few hours.
You can only spend so much time around a city of dead. Your mind will wander and there’s some lingering dread that you’re ready to shed by the time you get to the stairs that will take you back up and drop you by a side street and skull-themed gift shop.
If you’re in Paris and have a few hours free in the morning, I’d suggest venturing over to the Catacombs of Paris. I may not have sold it to you on excitement and flare in this post, but sometimes we need a bit of realism that can bring us back to Earth. You may be in the city of lights, but it hides a dark history beneath.
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