Before the late 18th century, there were a plethora of cemeteries in the middle of Paris. The burial ground of Les Innocents was one of the most popular, due to it’s central location and the close proximity of the Saints Innocents church. However, by the end of the 19th century, Les Innocents had become a two metre high mound of earth full of centuries of Parisian dead- famine, disease, war and the remains from nearby hospitals and morgues. Apparently it was impossible to keep milk in any of the nearby houses- it would go sour within hours. Levels of sickness rose in the neighborhood. Other parishes in Paris had their own cemeteries, of course, but the condition of Les Innocents was really very awful.
A large amount of Paris is built from limestone, and a lot of that limestone was mined in uninhabited areas of Paris. Once they had been rather haphazardly [and often illicitly] depleted, these mines were left abandoned and uncharted. Thus, as the city built new suburbs, both new residents and the authorities were unaware of the fact that there were mines right under them. Around the early 17th century architects began to discover these mines, but it wasn’t until a series of mine cave-ins, beginning in 1774, that Louis XIV ordered a commission to investigate the Paris underground. And so the Inspection of Mines service began.
In the 30th May 1780, the basement of a building adjoining Les Innocents collapsed from the weight of the mass grave on the other side of it. This hastened the decision to get rid of Les Innocents. Now only the problem remained- what to do with all the dead?
The cemetery closure and the mine collapses were both problems under the jurisdiction of the Police Prefect, Police Lieutenant-General Alexandre Lenoir, and since he had played a part of the creation of the mine inspection service, he supported the idea of moving all the bones and human remains to the subterranean passageways and tunnels, newly renovated and made safer with stone walls and pillars. in 1885 the idea took action, and after an opening ceremony on the 7th April, black clothed wagons would transport millions of Paris dead every night. It two years to empty most of the cemeteries in Paris- all parish cemeteries within the city limits were now condemned.
The mines, now the ‘Tombe-Issoire’, were at first just a jumbled depository for bones, but in 1810 Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury, head of the Paris mine inspection at the time, began renovations that would turn the caverns into a visitable mausoleum. As well as stacking bones into the shapes and formations still seen today, he added pieces of decoration e.g. pillars and carvings, and inscriptions on the archways and entrances to different ‘rooms’ of the Catacombs. He also created a room dedicated to the different kinds of minerals found under Paris, and one to the deformed skeletons found among the estimated six million dead transported there.
The Catacombs were definitely a must see for me, and I’m glad that Ruth wanted to go as well. We got up relatively early to travel there, but apparently not early enough- the queue to get in wrapped around the entire block! This was due to the fact that they didn’t let many people in at a time- I think it was maybe only two hundred allowed in the entire 2km long area at a time.
So we decided to wait. We waited for maybe three hours, taking turns to go for coffee, and pop off for a picnic lunch. It was a really lovely sunny day, so we didn’t mind waiting too much. It was after noon by the time we got in, but it was definitely, definitely worth it.
At the beginning of the Catacombs, they had a couple of extra spaces set up vis-a-vis the early 1800’s. However, instead of deformed skeletons, these rooms were showcasing the very early prehistoric history of the area. It was actually very interesting, learning how the land had changed, how the sea had moved in and effected the mineral deposits found, and the fossils found whilst renovating the underground passages.
But anyway, onto the macabre business of the day. The caverns were quite cool, a constant 14°, but it got colder the further we went in. The air was quite clear, with a faint, dusty smell- it actually reminded me of the underground city we visited in Turkey.
At first there was just a series of empty little passages, interspersed with informative signs on the history of the mining and original collapses. We walked along, listening to our audio guides. When we got to the skeletal part of the caverns, there was a carving over the archway- ‘Watch out! You are entering Death’s realm’.
After that we wandered through rows and columns of bones, arranged quite decoratively, the skulls leering at you from their pedestal of larger bones- I didn’t see any phalanges or carpals hanging around! I guess it’s all the little bones that get lost when skeletons move house.
It’s very hard to describe the feeling of being in that space, and photos don’t do it any justice. Although I did take a few very blurry ones- no flash allowed. It’s one of the most truly gothic places that I’ve ever been, and I have to admit, there were a few shivers running down my spine at some points. Despite all the other visitors, we very rarely bumped into anyone, and only occasionally did we hear echoes of other voices from another passageway. As we walked through the Catacombs, we saw hundreds of other paths branching off from our own, closed off with gates. These were deemed too unstable, or simply too uncharted for visitors. It made me realize just how big these catacombs were, to see all these bone-lined tunnels stretching out into darkness.
We reached the end, and climbed out into the early afternoon sunshine. After a brief visit to the souvenir shop [of course!] we asked ourselves ‘have we had our fill of death for the day? no?’ and navigated our way to Pere Lachaise.
We got there only half an hour before it closed. It was a lovely half an hour though, just wandering among the sunsoaked graves, reading the names and wondering about the people whose names we didn’t know. It sounds strange, but it was very idyllic. There were spring flowers sprawling over the grass, and in the late afternoon sun shadows slowly grew longer. I wish we’d had longer, but I’m determined to go back one day.
It wasn’t dinner time yet, so next we went to Sacre Coeur. Now, I’m afraid I don’t know a lot of the history or stories behind this place- we were the last people allowed to climb up the dome, having arrived just as it was closing, and after that I was more interested in watching the sun sink down towards the Paris skyline. The view from the top of Sacre Coeur is really, really good. Like, in the Top Views From Places Olympics, it would probably get a silver medal.
I was also interested by the mass graffiti covering the walls, benches and roof of the dome. It was the only kind of architectural monument we’d visited that had had so much defacement just let left there.
And then hunger got the best of us, and we climbed down and wandered through the streets spread out from Sacre Coeur, like a great big skirt of stalls and restaurants and those artists clamouring to sketch your portrait. We ended up eating outdoors, which was surprisingly chilly after such a nice day- that’s just spring, I guess!