The ground under Paris is mostly limestone and settlers of the city, dating back to the ancient Romans, have been using this rock for building the city we love today. Both the Louvre and the Notre Dame Cathedral are made of limestone. Originally the quarries were outside of the city, but then Paris grew. People had forgotten, or maybe just ignored the fact that they were building on top of old mines. The French call this world under Paris ‘les Gruyere’. And it makes sense. Like the cheese, this space is full of holes and tunnels.
It was no big deal… that is until streets and buildings started collapsing. The first major cave in happened in 1774. And things just kept crumbling. So Louis XVI created the post of Inpecteur des Carrieres (quarry inspector!) to explore and map the underground mines and try to reinforce the roads and structures above. He appointed Charles Guillaumot. Totally systematic, he was the perfect man for the job. He engraved each support pillar he built with the name of the street above and the date it was installed.
These channels were not yet catacombs. For catacombs you need bodies. They started coming in 1786. The same thing happened with cemeteries that had happened to the quarries… they started outside the city… but the city grew. Cemeteries were now downtown and they were really full. So full that at the notorious St Innocent Cemetery, to make room for new profitable burials, they dug up bones from earlier graves and put them into the space between purpose built walls.
Neighbours complained about the stench and the disease but the Church fought all attempts to move the cemeteries out of the city. Instead, they agreed to up their fees so fewer people would want to be interred. Too late. When the walls started to crumble and bones poured into the street, Louis ordered the cemeteries closed. Secretly at night, with wheelbarrows, the corpses were moved underground. The Church of St Innocent was then destroyed. Creepily, Les Halles market was built where it once stood.
Originally bones were just dumped randomly into the tunnels but later inspectors started organizing them… skulls were formed into hearts, bones neatly lined up in fancy patterns and tomb monuments that had been in the cemetery were used as decoration. A sign was carved above the main entrance warning “Stop, Here lies the Empire of the Dead”. The tunnels continued to be used for fresh bodies. Many of those killed during the Revolution, including Robespierre, ended up under the streets of Paris. It is believed the remains of about 6 million bodies are resting here.
This underground labyrinth of passages and bones entered Paris lore. Victor Hugo used his extensive knowledge in his book Les Miserable while the Phantom hides in the tunnels beneath the Opera. In real life, the Communards executed Monarchists in the subterranean caves in 1871. During WWII the Germans built bunkers while the Resistance fighters hid in the old quarries using them to escape the Nazis.
Since the days of Louis XVI the catacombs and tunnels have been a dangerous fascination, and a frustration to the government, which is always trying to restrict access. Almost immediately after Louis had the bodies moved people clamoured to visit leaving graffiti, stealing bones and getting lost. The church was dismayed… such sacrilege. Back in the day, you had to know someone to get special permission. But by 1867 they were opened to tourists once a month and increasingly frequently thereafter. Today you can tour a small portion of the “Empire of the Dead” everyday but Monday and public holidays.
Officially that is. Not surprisingly, this does not satisfy everyone. You can just imagine how tempting it must be to go off and explore on your own. Maps exist of the tunnels and there are still plaques indicating the names of some above ground streets. That said, it is still a pretty complex place to investigate… a lot of the streets have changed names since the plaques were made, cave-in still happen, some portions are flooded with water while other passages are littered with aging wires and pipes.
Since November 1955 it has been illegal to explore without an authorized guide and special permission. A distinct police force patrols looking for violators. They impose a fine between 60 and 100 euros when they catch someone. Not that this seems to be much of a deterrent. Regular trespassers have been labeled Catophiles. They enter the tunnels through hidden entrances and manholes to explore, clean (yes clean!), restore, host dinners and party. The police have even shut down a secret underground theatre.
Rumour has it you can find Catophiles on the Internet who will act as guides taking you off piste on tours of this illegal side of Paris. While I would love to attend an illicit dinner (in phantom costume?), I am too chicken and instead will head to the official museum.