Mike is a freelance writer exploring obscure media, wyrd tales, and cultural oddities.
Vast, dark, and riddled with the bones of the deceased, there’s no denying that there is something inherently eerie about the Paris catacombs. But look beyond their taboo and macabre nature, and you’ll find an even stranger world entrenched in surreal history and home to many secrets. From hidden communities to criminal activities to odd farming practices, here are ten weird and wonderful facts about the Paris Catacombs.
1. They Were Originally Mines
The catacombs may be a strange and surreal underground world, but the story behind their origin is quite a mundane one. During the Gallo-Roman period, the inhabitants of the Roman city of Lutetia, the predecessor to modern-day Paris, tunneled for the Lutetian limestone deposits there to construct their buildings.
Eventually, the limestone, which is of a particular variety only found near Paris, would go on to build much of the city, its unique properties providing the capital with its distinctive look. The miners extracted this stone horizontally along ore veins, resulting in the long and vast tunnels as the city grew.
2. It Holds the Remains of 6 Million People
By the 17th century, Paris had become one of the world’s biggest international hubs. But the residents there soon ran into a problem. Enough people had by then lived and died there that the city’s cemeteries were overflowing. So stuffed full were the graves that some corpses were left uncovered, and parts of the city were subjected to an endless stench of death. Things got so bad that heavy rains often resulted in human remains and bones washing into the streets.
Soon, the people had all they could tolerate, and King Louise XVI ordered the remains to be taken to the underground quarries. However, getting all the bodies down there would take some 12 years. All in all, an estimated 6–7 million human bones were moved from the cemeteries to the catacombs below. It wasn’t just the newly dead the Parisian moved either. Some of the bones moved were nearly a thousand years old.
3. They're So Big People Get Lost
Today you can visit the catacombs as part of a tour, and it is a definite must-see if you are ever in Paris. But in reality, such tours only offer a small glimpse at this vast network. All in all, the catacombs are thought to be some 300 km in size, reaching depths of some 60 meters (200 ft) below sea level. Moreover, large portions of the catacombs remain uncharted and unmapped, with some areas simply being too difficult to access.
Unsurprisingly, there are plenty of stories of people getting lost down there. Most are unconfirmed. After all, who’s going to find you? But before you dismiss such stories as urban legends, know that in 2017, two teenagers almost suffered a tragic fate after getting lost in the catacombs for three days. Thankfully, in this case, some fire service dogs managed to sniff out and find the pair, who were both suffering from hypothermia when found.
4. There Are Secret Communities Down There
As mentioned, large portions of the catacombs are not open to the public, and the government prohibits people from going down there. But despite the dangers, many Parisians head down into the catacombs through its secret entranceways. Such people are often referred to as ‘Cataphiles,’ and they have formed something of a community down there.
So, what do these cataphiles get up to down there? Well, Many have simply committed themselves to exploring and mapping the many underground passageways and taking photos of what they find. Of course, they’re also always looking for new ways in and out of the catacombs, which they share only with those within the community. But, as we will see, some cataphiles get up to more than just exploration.
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5. People Go Swimming There
Some sections of the catacombs are exposed to waterways. As a result, large sections have been flooded, with some areas submerged entirely underwater. In other parts, though, the flooding has resulted in crystal clear blue pools, and many cataphiles enjoy nothing more than a relaxing swim down there in the dark. Meanwhile, others take things a step further and bring their scuba gear to explore the submerged caverns.
6. They Were Used Extensively Throughout WWII
During the second world war, Paris found itself occupied by the invading Nazi Germany, against which many Parisians fought in any way they could. But while you may have heard of the French resistance, you might not know how literally underground the movement was.
With their secret entrances and dark hidden passageways, the very nature of the catacombs made them perfect for evading the Nazi occupiers while planning their demise. As a result, they became an obvious headquarters for much of the French resistance’s operations. But Parisians weren’t the only ones using the catacombs. The Nazis also used them, building underground bunkers in case of invasion. That the French could still use the catacombs in relative secrecy while Nazis were down there is a testament to how big and confusing they are.
7. They're Full of Macabre Art
The catacombs are quite macabre in their own right. After all, they’re literally full of bones, many of which have been placed to form ‘decorative’ displays. But many cataphiles have taken to creating all sorts of weird and wonderful art in the tunnels and passageways, using the abundant limestone to carve sculptures and eerie altars. Unsettling as they would be to come across, some are truly impressive too.
8. Farmers Grew Mushrooms There
A button mushroom variety that became known as the Paris Mushroom was once grown almost exclusively beneath Paris and the surrounding areas. In fact, in 1880, some 300 farmers worked in the Parisian Quarries, producing around 1,000 tons of Paris mushrooms a year. Unfortunately, today, the practice has all but disappeared.
There are several stories regarding how this practice came to be. One account suggests that deserters from Napoleon’s army were hiding underground near the Eiffel tower when they discovered mushrooms spawning on their horses’ manure. Supposedly these deserters survived thanks to the sustenance these mushrooms provided. Another, perhaps more likely story attributes the discovery to a Parisian farmer named Chambry who, after a disappointing harvest, discovered that Paris mushrooms grew better underground than in the forests
9. The Catacombs Play Host to Illegal Parties
Whereas some Cataphiles work on mapping the tunnels or creating strange artwork, others just come to party. Indeed, the catacombs have played host to concerts, bachelor parties, and even film screenings. There have even been reports of people shooting erotic films down there, though most have purer intentions.
10. Thieves Used the Catacombs to Pull off a Wine Heist
While heading down into the catacombs could get you into trouble, most cataphiles simply look for fun or to explore. In 2017 though, a group of criminals used the catacombs to pull off one of the biggest wine heists in recent memory. The thieves in question drilled into a wine cellar from the catacombs and made off with more than 300 bottles of vintage wine, reportedly worth €250,000. Only in Paris, right?
© 2022 Mike Grindle