When I first arrived in Paris, I had of course heard of the Paris catacombs but more in terms of it being a pretty cool museum in the 14th arrondissement that showcased the stacks and stacks of skulls and bones dating from the 18th century, stored in mass underground rooms. Very cool and something definitely worth visiting. However, I was soon to learn that that was only a little, tiny glimpse of the mystery that these coves had to offer. In reality, the catacombs are not just the museum mentioned before but in fact are a whole underground network of caves and passages that spans under the entirety of Paris. The catacombs have a huge history and nowadays are the location of a large underground scene (no pun intended) for all Parisians who are hip enough to be the owners of a map or know an entrance in.
Not a museum of happiness and glitter, that is for sure
The best way to understand the history of the catacombs is to go to the catacombs museum which is of course, open to the public to visit. In this museum you can see for yourself how these underground caves were used to hold human remains when all other cemeteries in the town were overflowing to the point that it was becoming a health hazard. Wandering around the museum you will be presented with the skeletons of many generations of Parisians, stacked by the thousands, in sometimes very crafty looking ways. The bones in the Catacombs have become not only a tourist attraction but also the keeper of Parisian history with many notable figures in history whose remains are displayed within these walls, most notable skeletons being the like of Danton and Mirabeaus-two important influencers during the French Revolution.
As the years rolled by, the catacombs grew and grew in size with the coves were quarried and hollowed out for stone during the redesigning of Haussmann Paris. Nowadays, they have become so big that it is an expanse of space which stretches all the way to the Parisian banlieue. This spider web of mazes underground have by no means been tended to over the centuries and so now they stand as miles of unchartered and sometimes dangerous territory especially for those who do not know how to navigate around them well. This mysterious edge to the catacombs, particularly came in handy during the Second World War. When France was taken over by the Nazis, the French resistance took to hiding in the catacombs where they were able to stay underground without ever being apprehended.
Being caught in the catacombs could mean you'll face a fine. You have been warned!
I guess you could say that the importance of the catacombs still resonates to this day. There is a definite culture within young Parisians to go down and explore the catacombs unchartered territories, creating a map as they do so. These activities are of course, illegal, due to concerns of public safety, to the point that there are even specific catacomb police who are designated to keeping the catacombs safe and thus, free of people. The problem is, the caves are so big and disorganized, it is impossible to control the coming and going of people from the numerous entrances that exist. This underground, secret catacombs scene is so popular that the catacomb police were even said to have come across a fully functioning cinema, with a functioning bar and popcorn machine as well- and it is very likely this is not the only one of its kind. The catacombs stand underneath the feet of every Parisian, as an unlocked treasure trove of secrets and adventure.
A very blurry picture of a very blurry night!
I have had the luck to have been able to go down and explore the catacombs also. One Halloween night I attended a rave, deep in the heart of the Parisian underworld. Even thinking back on it now, I am still amazed that I was lucky enough to find myself an invite or more importantly, a guide with a map who was willing to take me and my clueless friends down there. My friends and I went to meet our guide, with absolutely no idea what to expect. We had brought everything we were told to bring with us, a list of outdoor equipment such as: a spare set of clothes, waterproof shoes, a towel, food and drink to consume at the party and of course, a torch. All this gear was needed, because the way through the catacombs can be quite unpredictable and you have to be ready to crawl through small spaces and get very muddy and wet if need be. We were fortunate that we never had to cross through any particularly wet section of underpass on our journey but we were crawling, climbing, squeezing through passages for about one hour with absolutely no way of turning back - it was rather daunting and this adventure is not for the claustrophobic or the easily spooked.
As we grew closer to the party, there were signs we were walking in the right direction, with wax candles occasionally lighting up empty caves, but apart from that there was no way we could have found our way on our own. It was not surprising to hear that people had died looking for escapes out of the catacombs, it is a completely incomprehensive mess of tiny passages and would be utter insanity to go down without a guide or at least a map. As rudimentary as the journey to the party was, the actual event itself, was nothing short of a genius. When we finally got to our destination, we were shocked there were crowds of people and a live band equipped with all the equipment needed from a drum kit to a colossally big sound system. I have absolutely no idea how the band got all the instruments down to the location unscathed, but they seemed to be completely unphased by their surroundings and rocked all night long. The night itself, was of course was unforgettable and by the time you resurface to real, open-air Paris, in the wee hours of the morning, covered head to toe in muck and soot, you will be completely disorientated but have a Halloween story that will be the envy of many for years to come.