The stairs curl downward, further and further into the underbelly of Paris. At the bottom stretches a low, dimly lit passageway. Gated tunnels branch, like a giant labyrinth. Suddenly the rough limestone walls give way to another form of crude decoration. Human bones.
Paris is a stunning city. But if you’ve already climbed the tower, toured the Louvre and admired the Arc, perhaps you should consider scratching beneath the surface — literally. Because, running underneath the streets and boulevards are a network of underground tunnels, rooms and chambers that stretch for more than 300 kilometres.
These were originally Roman quarries; limestone and gypsum were carved from the walls and used to build some of Paris’ most iconic buildings, such as Notre Dame Cathedral.
Due to the state of disrepair of some sections, and the danger of getting lost in the winding labyrinth, most of these walkways have been banned to the public since 1955; however there is a section under the 14th arrondissement that remains open to tourists.
It was in the late 18th century that this section was converted into an undergound cemetery – Les Catacombes de Paris.
At the time the Parisian graveyards had been interring bodies for hundreds of years and most of them were literally overflowing. The stench was terrific, and the badly buried bodies were breeding disease. So officials closed the cemeteries and ordered the remains to be relocated to the old quarry tunnels.
Every night as darkness fell, sacks of bones would be hauled from 30 different cemeteries and delivered to the site. It took 15 months to complete the mammoth task, but finally the bones of 6 million skeletons lined the tunnels.
The bones weren’t just dumped — they were stacked in tidy piles along the walls, like logs ready to stoke a fire. Every few feet in this wall of femurs ran a seam of skulls,empty eye sockets gazing eternally outwards.
Today tourists can see this bizarre resting place for themselves by entering the LES CATACOMBES DE PARIS on the avenue du colonel Rol-Tanguy, near the Denfert-Rochereau metro stop.
Catacombs have been used to house the dead for centuries. The first burial caves are thought to be those under the San Sebastian church in Rome. In fact an entire underground city that stretches under the Italian capital. You can explore the many subterranean chapels, crypts, and churches that exist below street level.
The Capuchin Crypt, on the Via Veneto, is the final resting place for over 4000 Capuchin monks. The crypt includes six rooms decorated with their humanly remains. Bones are fixed to the walls and ceilings in intricate patterns, like avant-garde wallpaper. Even the ceiling roses and chandeliers are fashioned from femurs and vertebrae bones. It’s a remarkable, if somewhat unnerving, sight. If that doesn’t send a shiver down your spine, wait until the final room when you’re faced with the prophetic words: ‘What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be’.
Palermo, Sicily, is home to the unique tourist attraction of the Capuchin Catacombs in Piazza Cappuccini. This site was initially reserved in 1599 for the bodies of the departed monks, but over time this stretched to include related men and women, priests and children. Bodies were embalmed by laying them on special straining benches for eight months, then washing them with vinegar. They were then dressed, and placed in coffins, or slotted into burial niches carved into the walls.
The tomb is definitely not for the squeamish. Long dead bodies literally line the walls, dressed in period clothes and held upright with loops of wire. The dry underground conditions have preserved some of the bodies so effectively they still have teeth, hair, fingernails and skin.
The most remarkable sight is that of two-year-old Rosalia Lombardo. Despite passing away in 1920, her body remains so well preserved there is virtually no decomposition of her skin or hair. Aside from some discolouration to her face, the little girl could be sleeping in her glass-topped coffin. Her embalmer, Dr Alfredo Solafia, never revealed the chemical process he used on Rosalia, and took his secrets to the grave.
Due to the wide Roman influence, these subterranean resting places can be found all over Europe. The St Paul’s Catacombs, in Rabat, Malta, were used until the 4th century, and represent the early Christianity movement. No bodies remain, but you can still tour the chambers were funerals were held for the departed, and view the tombs where families were buried together. Small openings in the walls mark the final resting place for babies and young children.
The catacomb burial sites aren’t for everyone, but there’s no denying they’re a unique – often macabre – underground adventure.
CATACOMBS CAN BE FOUND IN:
OTHER UNDERGROUND ACTIVITIES:
Carnglaze Slate Caverns
St Neot, Cornwall, UK.
These caverns are centuries old, and were created by slate miners. Today you can travel 200 feet (60 metres) underground to admire the subterranean lake with its crystal clear, blue-green waters.
Wieliczka Salt Mines
Wieliczka, 10 miles southeast of Krakow.
This salt mine opened in the Middle Ages. Mining for rock salt has ceased, but the site is still open for tourists. Travel underground and admire the subterranean chapels and statues carved entirely from salt.
Caving in Devoluy
Abseil down into the limestone caves and explore underground streams, lakes, ice caves and subterranean glaciers.
West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, UK.
These unique caves were carved by hand in 1740 on the order of Sir Francis Dashwood. Behind the church-like façade passages lead you underground through temples, halls and chambers. Finally, 300 feet (90 metres) below the surface, is the inner temple where the infamous Hellfire Club used to hold their secret meetings.
St Michael’s Cave
Upper Rock Nature Reserve, Gibraltar
Catch a show or a concert under the magnificent stalagtites of Cathedral Cave. The natural rock formation features a series of chambers that plunge more than 250 feet (75 metres) into the earth.