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Paris is consistently the top tourist destination in the world, yet relatively few people seem to know about one of the more intriguing sites in the city — or rather, under it. The ossuary keeps the remains of about six million residents, all sharing two kilometres of subterranean accommodation.
The guides and the city custodians cite a number of celebrities who have visited the site since it was created in 1786, among them, Charles X; François, the Austrian Emperor; and Napoleon III. It took two years to construct the catacombs; it took until 1814 to fill them. The bones were taken from the many cemeteries which could not keep so many bodies.
It is recommended that tourists consider the lack of toilets and vestibule, and remember that it is two kilometers of dimly-lit tunnels, with many stairs. The elderly and very young might prefer another tourist attraction.
Those who descend are in for an unusual walk. Many bones have been arranged into creative and even aesthetic sculptures and pieces of art; many line the walls as an extra layer. Skulls stare, and signs point the visitor along his way. The guides are keen and know much about the history and details.
The entrance is located beside a pretty little park, at the exit from the underground train at Denfert Rochereau, south of Notre Dame. It is on the site of the old “Barrière d’Enfer” (Wall of Hell), the site now called the Place Denfert Rochereau. As with many places throughout Paris, this area has a rich history and bears investigation; but it is the catacombs that provide a more visual experience.
There are other, more famous cemeteries in Paris; quite a few, in fact. Père Lachaise, the cemetery at Montparnasse, and that at Passy are only three examples with memorials to some of the most famous names in French history and some foreigners. There are very few names in the Catacombs, but it is impressive for other reasons: dead celebrities can be found in many places, but fewer places can be found celebrated for the dead.
It is a humbling feeling, walking down corridors of bones. The presentation is not disrespectful, though there are elements of humour in some designs and in many of the signs and placards throughout the site. Indeed, the entrance greets the tourist with a creepy but tongue-in-cheek “Arrête, c’est ici l’empire de la mort.” (Translation available at the site itself.)
The Catacombs are open until 10:00pm most of the year; it is suggested allowing 45-90 minutes, and to dress appropriately, as the temperature hovers around 14°C. It is possible to visit at one’s own pace, or to sign up for a tour, which provides a much better picture of the story of this distinct site. Paris is best known for its vivacity and wealth of interest. The Catacombs are not for everyone, but they are for those interested in discovering something memorable and unusual.
Image Courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/seangraham/