Catacombs and Cemeteries of the French Capital
On the eve of Halloween, I thought it rather apt to write a bewitching blog around one of Europe’s most popular short break destinations. From underground catacombs and celebrity-packed cemeteries to outrageously offensive anatomical anomalies, where better to write about than Paris, where a city break over the Halloween weekend takes in more than just the standard, staple sites.
It must be said that the vast majority of Paris’ treasures are to be found above ground, be it the soaring Eiffel Tower, the beautiful bridges over the Seine, the tranquil parks and gardens or the vast wealth of artistic greatness across the city’s many museums. And yet, 20 metres beneath the stunning architecture and walkways of Paris – the equivalent of a five-storey building – lie a labyrinthine collection of catacombs, providing a fascinating visit for those wishing to escape the usual suspects on the sightseeing checklist.
Dating back to the late 18th-century, Les Catacombes not only offer a unique insight into the history of Paris, but also of the earth’s geological evolution, for some 45 million years ago, Paris and its environs were surrounded by a tropical sea. Created in the galleries of Paris’ former quarries, whose stone was used in the building of the city, and consecrated in 1786, the process of transferring bones from the Parisian cemeteries, due to the risk to public health, took some 90 years to complete. In 2002 the catacombs officially became part of Paris’ Musée Carnavalet, devoted to the history of the city, and today, visitors flock to follow the rather macabre 800-metre path through the ossuary galleries, lined by the skeletal remains of some six million Parisians, including many notable writers, artists and victims of the French Revolution, interred here.
If staying above ground is more your thing, another option on a Halloween vibe is to visit one of Paris’ many graveyards, several of which serve as the final resting place to a wealth of well-known names. Perhaps the best known and most popular is the Cimitière Père Lachaise, a place of pilgrimage for those wishing to view the grave of The Doors singer, Jim Morrison, who spent his last days in the city. Whilst Morrison undoubtedly tops the tombstone charts, take time to seek out the final resting place of artists Pissarro, Modigliani, Ernst, Delacroix and Lalique, as well as writers, singers and musicians Oscar Wilde, Honoré de Balzac, Edith Piaf, Maria Callas, Bizet, Chopin and Rossini, all buried here.
Over at the Cimitière de Montmartre meanwhile, the roll call is almost as impressive, with the graves of esteemed writer, Émile Zola; the Russian dancer, Nijinsky; the composer, Hector Berlioz; and the celebrated artist, Edgar Degas, amongst many others, all situated here. Or alternatively, the Cimitière de Montparnasse boasts a cast list including the philosophers: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre; Serge Gainsborg, a celebrated French singer; playwrights and poets Samuel Beckett and Charles Baudelaire; Hollywood actress, Jean Seberg; and the sculptor responsible for the Statue of Liberty, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi.
Last but not least, not for the fainthearted but guaranteed to make a memorable impression on any Paris city break would be a visit to the Musée Dupuytren, devoted to medical anatomical abnormalities. Opened in 1835, this eccentric museum displays a macabre collection of over 6,000 malformed and diseased human organs and body parts, skeletons and foetuses. Suffice to say, it takes a strong stomach to appreciate the subject matter, but it certainly offers a different side to Paris – in all its gruesome glory!