All too soon, our final day in Paris rolled round. Our initial disappointment that a repeat of yesterday’s chocolatey breakfast wasn’t to be soon gave way to delight as we noticed a string of market stalls lining one side of Boulevard Auguste Blanqui. With breakfast temporarily pushed to the back of our minds, we wandered past a metre-high pile of radishes, crates of seasonal fruit and displays of fresh seafood; stumbling upon outdoor markets like these is something I’ll miss when I move back to the UK. A hundred metres or so down the street the market came to an end and we eyed up a promising boulangerie with an outdoor stall piled high with breads, tartlets and viennoiseries. Munching away, we continued walking towards Denfert-Rochereau.
In the middle of this unassuming roundabout in the heart of the 14th arrondissement is an unobtrusive, small, dark green building. The unassuming façade of the aforementioned structure is in fact the entrance to the Catacombes de Paris, a labyrinth of ossuaries 130 steps below street level. Warning: this post contains pictures of human remains. Though we knew it was a popular attraction, we hadn’t expected the queue to be quite so long; we timed our arrival with its opening and still ended up waiting in the cold for nigh on two hours to get in. After paying our entrance fee we made our way down the staircase, pleasantly surprised to discover it was warmer below ground than it was above!
Limestone deposits beneath Paris resulted in the creation of numerous uncharted mines running beneath the city; in the late 1700s a series of mine cave-ins led to an investigation into these haphazard tunnels. Around the same time, many Parisian cemeteries were overflowing; conditions were unsanitary and overuse of the graveyards meant bodies were unable to decompose properly. It was subsequently decided that bodies from a number of cemeteries – including Saints-Innocents, Madeleine and Errancis – would be exhumed and transferred to reinforced sections of the former mines.
Open to the public since 1874 – almost a century after the first skeletal remains were transferred – the Catacombes de Paris is a unique experience, though not one for the faint-hearted. After reading the plaques which detailed the area’s geological history and provided some background information on the development of the mines and the eighteenth-century burial crisis, we followed a narrow passageway for about a kilometre until we reached the entrance of the ossuary.
Tibias and skulls were neatly stacked, arranged into patterns – hearts, kegs and stripes – and unnervingly aesthetically pleasing. Wandering around these underground passageways surrounded by bones brought back memories of my anatomy project for A-Level art, which involved photographing, drawing and painting bones, animal organs and fossilised remains, but I digress.
We easily spent an hour and a half meandering through the passageways; others took selfies and sped on through. There were a couple of things that bugged me, though. One was the needless, and thoroughly disrespectful, graffiti on some of the remains. The other was people ignoring the signs explicitly forbidding visitors to touch the bones. What on earth possessed those people to handle centuries-old green-tinged bones is beyond my comprehension.
Emerging into the daylight several streets away from our starting point, we headed north towards the Jardin du Luxembourg. Surrounding the carefully manicured lawn were flowerbeds brimming with colour and dozens of green seats for people to sit on while watching the world go by. It was a beautifully landscaped garden, and had we had more time I would have happily whiled away a few hours there in the sun.
Alas, time was not on our side (or at least Laurence’s, as his flight left earlier than my train) so after circling the garden we set off for the Latin Quarter. It didn’t take long for us to locate a cheap take-away crêpe; for the princely sum of €5, Laurence had his Nutella-banane (featuring an entire banana) and I had my compôte de pommes. Crêpes in hand (or, more accurately, in mouth) we wandered towards Notre Dame to pass the remaining time before Laurence headed off to Charles de Gaulle.
I spent the remaining hours before my train checking out the stained glass windows of Notre Dame, venturing into Sainte-Chapelle and wandering round Saint-Germain-des-Prés, before looping back along the Seine to the Gare de Lyon.
- Whilst a lot of people are entitled to concessionary (or even free) entry to the Catacombes de Paris, the sign at the ticket office explaining the various discounts is only written in French. Check here to see if you’re entitled to a concessionary rate and bring proof of age/entitlement when you visit.
- If you’re catching frostbite in the queue for the Catacombes de Paris and need some sugary sustenance, there’s a Paul just across the roundabout. Their hot chocolate (chocolat chaud) is top notch.