What is it I love so much about Paris? Maybe it’s how utterly saturated it is in history; after all, it is (at least in my opinion) the city of museums. Maybe it’s the fact that despite being the world’s biggest tourist destination, Paris is still a beloved haunt of contemporary artists, filmmakers, musicians and designers. Maybe it’s the multicultural population and -as a direct result- the amazing range of food and culture to be discovered. Maybe it’s the bookshops, the tiny cinemas, the cafe culture, the fiendishly efficient public transport system. Hell, maybe it’s the January sales (how on earth am I going to get my suitcase home next month?) Or maybe it’s the fact that in a city of seven million people, you can still wander down a cobblestone street on a Sunday afternoon and find a peaceful little corner all to yourself.
Time for a miniature history lesson. The city has been around since before it was even called Paris; the Romans founded the settlement of Lutèce on the Ile de la cité, where Notre Dame cathedral now stands, and the city grew out from there. Over the centuries, as the population flourished and the metropolis grew, the city became more and more congested and dysfunctional. Paris was a maze of narrow streets (hence why the Revolutionary barricades were so successful) and oppressively close-set buildings. There was no plumbing. There were a lot of rats. Dante would have taken notes.
The Paris you see today is vastly different in style and design to the place I’ve just described. In the mid nineteenth-century, Napoléon III came along and decided Paris should be a sparkling jewel in the imperial crown rather than a putrid labyrinth. He dreamed of a model city of unrivalled beauty that the regime could be truly proud of (and, strategically, that the French people would thank him for). He employed an architect named Baron Haussmann to reshape the city. Thousands of Medieval buildings were razed and replaced with Haussmann’s distinctive apartment buildings (you know them; the ones with the sloped iron-blue rooves). The narrow, winding streets were replaced with spacious boulevards which opened up the city and rendered it unprecedentedly accessible. A proper sewer system was built. Drinking fountains cropped up all over the city. Parks were installed. The air was cleaner. The water was cleaner. The people were cleaner.
However, prior to the nineteenth-century Haussmannien facelift, urban cleanups were far less majestic and far more morbid. In the eighteenth century, Paris’ cemeteries were full to bursting. Some of the most struggling hospitals took to throwing their dead into the Seine river (a source of drinking water for many). But burial was a lucrative business and a solution had to be found to free up the prime real estate of the Cimetière des innocents, as well as other central Parisian burial grounds. In an unceremonious move, a long-unused rabbit warren of passageways under what is now the fourteenth arrondissement, once used as a quarry, were reopened to become a repository for millions of skeletons. The exhumation and relocation of the bones took two whole years. Then in 1810, Louis-Etienne Héricart de Thury had the brilliant idea of rearranging the passageways’ sinister contents into a more visually appealing formation and turning the space into a sort of mausoleum. The catacombs museum was born.
It sounds grotesque, and really it is, but the catacombs are more than a pile of bones. In fact, there’s a theatrical element to the way it’s all set out. After an interminably long descent down a cramped spiral staircase, you find yourself wandering a series of shadowed, dripping passageways before arriving at the entrance to the actual catacombs, headed C’est ici l’empire de la mort (“Here lies the realm of the dead”). Inside, skeletons are heaped along the walls in inconceivable numbers, the piles’ outer surfaces meticulously arranged in patterns; thousands of identical leg bones punctuated by the occasional skull and crossbones for dramatic effect. Every so often an inscription drawn from the Bible or traditional French poetry, carved into a stone tablet, recalls the fact that the decor was originally intended for, and housed in, a cemetery.
Sure, the Tuileries gardens, the quaint laneways of the Marais or the stately monuments of the eighth arrondissement are more typically alluring sides to Paris’ multifaceted personality. But the catacombs showed me that Paris’ charm lies not only in its light, but also its dark side. Before I went to the catacombs, I already knew that Paris was overflowing with inconceivable beauty. I just didn’t expect to find it among a pile of skeletons too.