Except for when I repeat about a thousand times (a day) that you don’t say “J’ai allé” but “Je suis allé” to my students, my patience usually is in short supply. The prospect of queuing to see the very popular catacombs of Paris therefore did not fill me with joy but the website said to expect around 1h30 wait for the privilege so I came armed with drink, croissants and a kindle. 2h35 min later and I had visions of sending the usher’s bones merge with the ones a few meters down under my feet. Cheer up, he told me, people wait up to 3h30 to get in. Essentially if you want to visit the Catacombs, a lot of grinning and bearing is required. Also it is best not to have a bladder since there are no toilets in or near the place.
Still, I had been wanting to visit this macabre location for a while and last time I actually got to the Denfert-Rochereau station, there was a strike (welcome to France!) and the catacombs were closed so this time I braced myself and queued up for 2h35, puffing my cheeks and tutting as much as required by the situation. In my opinion nothing is worth that much queuing but if you can find a way to go on a lighter period (end of day, not in the summer) it is worth going.
It is only possible to visit a small part of the catacombs that has been structured as a museum but the tunnels and alcoves that can be seen are enough to get the monumental scale of the enterprise. Essentially, part of a vast ancient network of quarries was used as an ossuary when it became necessary at the end of the 18th century to relocate cemeteries for public health reasons, and later under Haussmann’s town planning. Until the end of the 19th century, 6 millions of people were transferred in the ossuary.
I have never visited the catacombs of Rome and cannot compare but the disposition of the bones in Paris is orderly, well organised by cemeteries or battles and also aesthetically pleasing. The walk is 1.7km through tunnels and there are lots of plaques with quotes around the topic of death, what else?
I loved it. It is always unsettling to think of our own mortality and what we leave behind. That skull I took a picture of might have been that of Robespierre or that of Jacques the candle maker, it might have been that of a rich merchant or that of a scullery slave. Although their individual stories remain inaccessible to us, each of the bones belong to a body that used to be a person and this is awe-inspiring. Visiting a place like this is also good to remember not to take oneself too seriously since we are mere grains of sand in the beach of humanity.