See Paris from a very different angle, coming eye to eye with ancient skeletons or walking through the city's sewers
You’ve been up the Eiffel Tower, seen the Seine from Quasimodo’s tower on Notre Dame and peered down on the city from Montmartre - but have you been down under? No, not Australia, but into the rabbit warren of tunnels, caverns and catacombs that riddle the underbelly of France’s capital. You can play at being Orpheus in the Underworld and see beneath the city’s skin; packing boots, jacket and a torch makes the exploration more comfortable .
In the world’s largest underground necropolis, you get to the bare bones, seeing six million past Parisians’ skeletons artistically presented in the space of about one hectar . At the end of the 18th century, the city cemeteries were so overcrowded they were spreading disease. In 1786 it was decided to move the bodies to former quarry spaces - the city is riddled with them - under Place Denfert-Rochereau in the Montparnasse area.
For two years, sinister nightly processions of black-veiled carts accompanied by priests chanting the burial service trundled skeletons to their new home. No wonder Place Denfert-Rochereau was known as Place d’ Enfer - square of hell. The catacombs have been visitor attractions since 1787, when Charles X took court ladies there; the emperor of Austria and Napoleon lll were other sightseers. Since 2005, the catacombs have been a museum and were reopened after renovation last spring.
A visit is eerie. Descending 83 spiral steps into a dimly-lit maze, you are guided along candle-blackened tunnels sloping 20 metres to an arch proclaiming the entrance to the ‘Kingdom of the Dead’. Beyond lie chambers and galleries stacked and packed with skulls and bones in neat symmetrical patterns. Those eye sockets you pass could be those of guillotined Robespierre, Louis XVl or Marie Antoinette, moved from a mass grave near Place de la Concorde. Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV’s mistress, is also there, mixed in with common folk.
There are still an estimated 200 miles of tunnels under Paris, though few are open to the public. Once used for storing wine and growing mushrooms, they provided hiding for the Resistance during the war; the Germans had a bunker below Lycée Montaigne; and today there are people living or holding parties in sections and occasionally offering ‘unauthorised visits’.
One of the largest networks is the sewers - 200kms of them - and every street has its own sewer, each marked with a replica of the street sign above ground. They were built to save the Seine, then used for waste disposal - the stinking river forms the backdrop for the novel and movie Perfume. Paris was so proud of its 19th-century sewer system that boat cruises were run for ladies and gents in their Sunday best.
Victor Hugo, whose friend Pierre Bruneseau, the city municipal works inspector, had mapped the old 1300-mile tunnel network dating back to Roman times, used the sewers' setting in Les Misérables and described them as ‘tortuous, fissures, unpaved - interrupted by quagmires, rising and falling illogically, fetid, savage, wild... nothing equalled the horror of this old voiding crypt’.
Today’s sewer rats must scuttle along to Les Egouts de Paris, which sounds more like a posh restaurant tasting menu than a peak at poo. The filthy-minded can clamber down a staircase from a manhole in Pont de l’Alma, to be met by the thunder of rushing water and a whiff of something lavatorial. Only 500 metres can be walked over channels of Parisian effluent in a fully functional tunnel decorated with old sewer workers’ implements including giant wooden balls rolled down the sewers to act like huge stopcocks, trapping silt but allowing water to pass through. Commemorate your visit to the bowels of the earth with a sewer-venir from the museum shop - T-shirts and giant furry rats say it all.
Sewers: daily sewer tours are available in English; buy tickets from the museum/boutique on Place de la Résistance; departure is from a manhole at Pont de l’Alma.
Catacombs: open every day except Monday, 10am-5pm (last entry 4pm); entrance from 1, Avenue du Colonel Henri Roi-Tanguy.