Below the City of Lights: The Catacombs of Paris

According to The Independent, Paris received approximately 16.1 million international visitors in 2017, making the City of Lights the 3rd most visited city in the world. In 2018, Paris attracted 17.95 million visitors and maintained its 3rd place status via Business Insider. Considering the city’s wealth of art, history, culture, and entertainment, neither statistic should come as much of a surprise. However, it is difficult to truly grasp the beauty of Paris without witnessing it first-hand.

After spending a weekend walking its streets and properly taking in all the breathtaking sights, I knew I would have no issue writing about what I had seen. The Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Sainte-Chapelle, Luxembourg Palace, the Louvre, Musee d’Orsay—Paris has an abundance of magnificent views and heavenly places that I would highly recommend exploring. Today, however, I am writing about a more grotesque, slightly unconventional sightseeing destination. It is not located in Paris, but below it. It is the City of Lights’ dark heart, the maze of bones, and the final resting place of many. This is the Catacombs of Paris.

The Catacombs of Paris are a series of underground ossuaries that first underwent construction by Parisian quarry miners in the late 1700s to combat overflowing cemeteries. Containing the bodies of approximately 6 million deceased Parisians, the ossuaries are located 20 meters below the city streets and feature bones arranged in a variety of different patterns and designs. While the tunnels measure roughly 320 kilometers in length, the majority of these passages do not contain human remains. They are currently operated and maintained by Paris Musées.

After paying the reduced entrance fee, my friends and I cautiously traversed the spiral staircase on our way down to the tunnels. The stairs have a slightly hypnotic quality, reminiscent of Dante descending into Hell. Once we reached the entrance to the first tunnel, there was a noticeable odor that was particularly prominent among the cryptic silence. I could feel my excitement mounting with each step. The lights cast a yellowish glow on the walls, revealing graffiti from long ago. When we finally entered the ossuaries, I was nearly petrified by shock.

It is one thing to look at pictures of the catacombs online or in books, but something entirely different to see them in person. Walls made exclusively of stacked bones lead to small cavernous spaces full of skulls and neatly packed femurs. Large stones engraved with dates and various phrases in both Latin and French mark specific channels or sections of bones. In one section, there are skulls protruding from the typical rows in the shape of a heart. In another, the skulls create a cross. When we finally finished our tour and walked back up another flight of steps, my friends and I were left speechless.

There are many beautiful destinations and monuments within the city limits of Paris, but there is something hauntingly beautiful about the Catacombs. They are unique and amazing in a way that separates them from other popular tourist stops. The Catacombs of Paris offer proof that beauty can be found everywhere, even in the dark.

Zach Smith is a student at University of Alabama and an ISA Blogger. He is studying abroad abroad with ISA in Rome, Italy.

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