Suitcase and World: Paris. The City of Dark.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Paris. The City of Dark.

Paris Catacombs. @Dave Shea, / CC BY 2.0

aris is infamously referred to as the City of Light or City of Lights, depending on your reference source. But it should also be known as the City of Dark for under its lively streets lies another world.  As much as I want Z to fully explore what sits above ground, I also want to go below ground as it's a part of Paris I've not been to hence this blog post.

Dating as far back as the 13th century, the ground underneath what is now the present day city was mined for Lutetian limestone and gypsum (used in plaster of Paris), two of the materials used in the construction of the many structures in the city.

As the population of Paris grew so did the quarries and their tunnels and mineshafts - eventually growing to around 300 kilometers of tunneling spanning both Right and Left Banks of the city.

Map of the mines of Paris circa 1908.  The green patches indicate where gypsum was mined, the red patches where limestone was mined.

The mines of Paris (in French *carrières de Paris* or *quarries of Paris*) comprise a number of abandoned, subterranean mines, connected together by galleries. Three main networks exist; the largest, called the Grand Réseau Sud (*large south network*), lies under the 5th, 6th, 14th and 15th arrondissements, a second under the 13th arrondissement, and a third under the 16th arrondisement.  Minor networks are found under several arrondissements including the 12th, 14th, and 16th.

As a section was mined out, old tunnels were abandoned and new tunnels were built.  Apparently, nobody bothered to keep track of how many quarries were being dug or how far they extended in any direction.  What was clear was that tunnels weakened the ground above to the point that it could not support the weight of the city's structures.  By the 1700's, sections of Paris were swallowed up by sinkholes.

At the same time, the city ran out of space to bury its dead.  Cemeteries were overflowing to the point where corpses were often left uncovered and nearby residents complained of the overwhelming stench of the decomposing bodies.  Those living in the Les Halles neighborhood near Les Innocents, the city's oldest and largest cemetery, were among the first to complain.  In 1763, Louis XV issued an edict banning all burials from occurring inside the capital, but because of push back from the Church, which didn't want cemeteries disturbed or moved, nothing was done. Louis XVI, Louis XV's successor, continued the crusade, also proclaiming that all cemeteries should be moved outside of Paris.  He also ran into a wall of protest.  In 1780, the matter finally hit a tipping point when a prolonged spring rain caused a wall around Les Innocents to collapse, sending rotting corpses down the neighborhood streets.

Bones in the catacombs of Paris.  Macabre but fascinating.
(Photo by © Einsamer Schütze. Licensed under Creative Commons 3.0)

Something had to be done and someone came up with the idea to exhume buried bodies and move them underground - eventually creating a subterranean maze of crypts and tunnels.

Cemeteries were emptied beginning in 1786, starting with Les Innocents.  It was no easy feat as quarry spaces had to be blessed before bones were moved in and the moves only took place at night.  It took the city 12 years to relocate all the bones.

Beginning during the French Revolution, the dead were buried directly in the catacomb's ossuaries.  By the time the city stopped burying its dead underground in 1860, some 6 million Parisians had come to their final resting spot in the city's catacombs.

Farming mushrooms in the catacombs.  (Photo from
In addition to being used as a underground cemetery, the abandoned quarries also served other purposes.  Abandoned sections were used by farmers to grown mushrooms, at one point producing hundreds of tons a year.  That practice has been long discontinued so it's no longer possible to get Parisian grown mushrooms.  During World War II, French Resistance fighters hid in some quarries while the Germans built bunkers in others.

Today, it is prohibited by law to go into the underground tunnels but that has not prevented a clandestine group, called *cataphiles* from spending their days and nights beneath the city.  They eat, sleep, party and even paint murals down in the tunnels!

I am not about to have Z and I arrested for illegally trespassing down into a tunnel.  Luckily, for the curious, a small section (about 1.8 kilometers or 1.1  miles) of the catacombs are open for visitors to explore.  There is a daily limit of 200 people who can enter the catacombs and apparently, they are a popular tourist attraction so I've purchased tour tickets for us that will allow us to *skip the line* so we don't risk not being to get in.

This should be a fun tour!  I just hope Z won't be creeped out!  Guess I should have asked him first :-)