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Jul 10

Don't judge a city by its cover.

Posted on Tuesday, July 10, 2007 in Uncategorized

Speaking of creepy stuff,  I thought I’d let you in to another of my weird fascinations.  This is your official warning.  If you’re squeamish about enclosed spaces or being buried alive, you really don’t need to read the following.

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I’ve never been to Paris.  When I do someday get a chance, one of the first places I’ll be visiting will be “les carrières de Paris” or “the quarries of Paris.”  I saw a programme once (Scariest Places on Earth) which highlighted the immensity of the area underneath the city.  From their sensationalist point of view, they aired a tape which was found deep inside the vast warren of catacombs and crypts, apparently belonging to some poor schmuck who had long before dissapeared.  The footage was of the panicked journey undertaken by this amateur explorer.  You watched this chap wander further and further through small chambers, breathing quickly, obviously very spooked by the crunching of bones underfoot, macabre skulls decorating the walls and obscure graffiti.  You watched him walk faster and faster, facing too many turns and crevices which may or may not lead him back to the surface.  You see him arranging arrows made from bones, only to find minutes later that he was circling and utterly lost. 

The empathy you feel for this chap is overpowering.  The last few seconds on the tape show our man finally losing the plot.  He panics, screams, and drops the camera.  An ominous thud is heard, and we are left with nothing but a brief flash of a creature of some sort screeching past the lens.  We jump as we have never jumped before.

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This is the only thing I’ve ever watched (and I’ve seen them all – Saw I, II, III, bah!) that has left me with nightmares.


Have I lost you?  Let me give you a brief history of this sordid tourist attraction.

In the first century BC, limestone was quarried from the site of Paris City, and used to make sarcophagi, and later the buildings of Paris. The Romans, being the resourceful type, constructed 300 km of tunnels and caverns.  In the 1700s, excavation ceased, and Paris began to have problems.  Cemeteries became overcrowded.  Waste was dumped into the Seine causing epidemics.  So, it was decided that the cemetaries would have to go, and all exhumed bodies would be placed in this underground tunnel system.  All 6 million bodies, representing 30 generations of Parisians.

 “The remains of some six million people are collected here, and although individuals can’t be identified, it’s ironic that members of the French nobility have ended up side by side with the revolutionaries who exterminated them. The catacombs are said to house victims of the Reign of Terror, including Robespierre himself,executed on 27 July 1795, and Louis XVI’s sister, Mme Elisabeth, who went to the guillotine exactly a year earlier. Other illustrious inhabitants include comedian Scaramouche, and poet and academician Jean de la Fontaine, who both died in 1694, and Madame de Pompadour, courtesan to Louis XV and friend of Voltaire, who died in1764.” (ref)

Louis-Etienne Héricart de Thury, engineer-in-chief of the mines from 1776 to 1854, had the bones arranged in a ‘decorative way’, so that the catacombs could be opened to tourists in 1804.  Several brave people went to explore the tunnels to try to map the place, but so many people dissapeared, that in 1955 access was limited to just a small portion of the tombs.  There are however so many entrances to this warren, it is impossible to stop people wandering in to host weird parties, or to do a spot of cataphilia.  The tourist entrance in Montparnasse was once dubbed ‘Hells Gate’, and leads to a staircase which brings you down 130 steps, spiralling 20 feet into the caverns.

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Arête! C’est ici l’Empire de la Mort – Stop! This is The Kingdom of the Dead.

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The idea of getting lost in the miles of tunnels down there gives me night terrors, but it’s still a morbid fascination of mine.  It’s like a dark secret harboured by a well-loved city, full of legend, horror and ghoulishness.   Who wouldn’t want to brick themselves on a nice romantic holiday?

Bring on the comments

  1. Grannymar says:

    I’ll stay at home thanks!

  2. Larry says:

    Feckin hell! Nothing like death to spark a bit of the erotic! Bring it on!

  3. b3n says:

    I never knew that about Paris. It reminds me of the catacombs under St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. Apart from the tombs of the Hapsburgs, the lower sections of the catacombs house the remains of tens of thousands of people that died during the Black Death. The bodies were just tossed down holes leaving piles of skulls and bones everywhere. Very spooky.
    Or Edinburgh, where during the plague again whole sections of the city were just bricked up leaving thousands of people underground to suffocate to death. You can do tours of those parts of town today.

  4. baino says:

    Caw . . who’d have believed it. You’ve never been to Paris! I’m not the only one in the world yeay happy claps!

    I soooo have to go and visit the catacombs . . I love spooky stuff.

  5. Brianf says:

    In St. Germaine en Laye, a suburb of Paris, there were once open entrances to these catacombs. All they did was put up wooden planks at the entrances. The wood was easyly removed. We were young and didn’t have the ‘cojones’ to actually venture down in there.

  6. Conortje says:

    Jeez I can see myself having nightmares after just reading your post. I still want to go and see for myself now though :-)

  7. Deborah says:

    That is very cool. I went to Paris and all I cared to see was Jim Morrison’s grave. Too bad I didn’t know about this. I’ve been quite fascinated with ossuaries since reading John Connolly’s The Black Angel although this is of a more practical and secular nature than ossuaries. http://www.kostnice.cz/ has some amazing pictures!

  8. K8 says:

    I thought you might, Grannymar!

    Larry, did you know that the french phrase for an orgasm is translated as ‘the litte death’? How morbid is that?!

    B3n, I had no idea.. it amazes me what us humans are capable of. I’m pretty glad I was born when I was. More stuff to add to my ‘creepy places to visit’ list :)

    Baino :) You’ve a better excuse not to go, I mean you’re gazillions of miles away! All I’ve to do is drive for 3 days. Had a french student from Paris once though. Does that count?

    Brian I’m picturing a bunch of kids on the verge of a right of passage just like the Stand By Me kids! Worth writing about!!

    Conor, you’ve no idea. You should’ve seen that S.P.O.E. programme. Imagination’s your worst enemy.

    Deborah, the state of that chandelier!!!! Seriously, that is some weird art.

  9. Been in Paris twice for a total of 10 days, and never made it to the Catacombs. Found ourselves near there late one night, but, golly-gee we sure were tired, and we could always come back.
    Ha!
    But surprisingly we did wander around the cemetaries. They are so different than U.S. Much more creative in their tombstone design.

    @Deborah: when we were there, one could still rub the dead guys penis for fertility. Didja? (look it up… Victor Noir)

  10. Brianf says:

    You HAD a student from Paris!?!?!????

    chuckle, snorf!, gufaw.snorkle….snorf…choke….
    Ahem,….yea, I know what you mean.
    hehehehehehehehehehehe!!!!
    I am so not good at lieing!

  11. K8 says:

    Sixty, for a dead guy, Victor sure is popular! I wonder if he saw that much action when he was alive?!

    Brian, I sure did! I pimped her out to the locals and made a mint.

  12. Kate says:

    I was just THERE!

    It’s wild. Takes a lot of walking, and a LOT of arguing with the guys at the gate to convince them that your wheelchair-bound sister can indeed get up and walk all those steps, down and back up again. (It’s not like she would SLEEP there!)

    Photos here: http://takingonparis.blogspot.com a little ways down)

    Tres cool.

  13. K8 says:

    Those are some excellent photos! Just imagine what the off-limited tunnels must have looked like. Bleurgh!

  14. […] The first time I stumbled across the show, they were running a documentary-type story about the crypts of Paris’ underground.  They made a big deal out of a video-tape they’d allegedly found in a camcorder five levels […]

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