My boyfriend and I are not the most organised people, and tend to make plans as we go. So on the way to our city break in Paris, we decided it’d be a good idea to pick some things we definitely wanted to do in the city, and then if we had time we could see what else was good.
I know some people detest travel guides, but I love them. I’ve been on trips using them, and been on trips not using them. When we visited Barcelona we didn’t have a travel guide, and while we did plenty of things, we also missed out on some greats like Park Guell. I love Gaudi, so this was a double blow for me! But during our visit to Amsterdam, we found some great tips and hidden gems in the travel guide that meant we skipped an afternoon queuing for the Anne Frank House, and found some fascinating information about the Red Light District.
So as we sat on the Eurostar, we flicked through the travel guide and picked out some things we thought would be cool. Something I do like about Lonely Planet travel guides is the ‘Top’ stuff to do in the front. It’s like a little heads up of the highlights of the city. And one of the things we spotted in Paris was the Catacombs.
For those, like me, who aren’t familiar with Catacombs, they’re basically an underground burial chamber. Sizes can vary and they’re found all over the world. I won’t lie; I wasn’t initially thrilled at the idea of walking through an underground chamber surrounded by bones.
The Catacombs of Paris weren’t originally intended for religious, burial purposes. They were in fact old mines, many of which had been dug and just forgotten about. As the city expanded, most districts were built over abandoned mines. The problem in Paris centuries ago, was that they had too many graves and not enough space. The graveyards were overflowing, and in the most central one by Notre Dame, they decided to dig up those who had been long-buried and move their bones to the walls and ceilings of the cemetery walls to make space. Delightful.
Before long, they’d overpacked the walls, and one collapsed into the basement of a property neighbouring the cemetery. Even more delightful.
Fortunately for the people of Paris, around the time all this was happening, they were also trying to work out what to do with all the old mines. Some clever so-and-so decided that it’d be a good idea to move all the bones to the old mines. Now, they didn’t just chuck them all in to fill the mines up – that would be disrespectful. Instead, they arranged all the bones along the walls. In the early 1800’s, a decision was made to make the underground mining areas into a place people could visit. So the bones were arranged in a pattern, and old decorations from the graveyards were added. Initially, visits to the catacombs were only allowed a few times a year. As time went on, the frequency of visits has been increased, with a brief ban along the way. Now, the catacombs are open every day for visitors to walk through and admire.
And so, after we’d checked into our hotel, we made the short 10-minute walk to the catacombs. I’m not sure what we really expected, but the entrance to the catacombs just looks like a big shed. There’s no huge sign, and we weren’t 100% sure we were in the right place. Upon closer inspection we saw that this was, in fact, the right place, and joined the queue.
There’s a small park/green area, and the queue wound round nearly the whole area and back to the entrance. We joined the end of the queue and waited.
Then waited a bit more.
And carried on waiting.
After what seemed like ages (I don’t have much patience for queues, despite being from the nation of queuers) and moving about a metre, my boyfriend decided he’d go and see why the queue wasn’t moving. Turns out it’s a one in one out kind of place, with a low capacity and an expected visit time of 45 minutes per person.
We figured we’d probably end up spending our first day in Paris in this queue, so decided that we’d get up bright and early the next day to get in the queue early on. But after arriving the next day twenty minutes after opening time, the queue was even longer than it had been the day before. Clearly the catacombs are a popular attraction in Paris. We weren’t going to join the queue, knowing how long it was likely to be. We just decided we’d have to get there before opening time the next day.
And still, when we turned up before opening time the queue was huge. As in it circled around the greenery and back to the entrance. Well, we had one more day in Paris, so we decided that’d be the day we’d get there early enough to join the queue at a reasonable stage.
Unfortunately though, we’d had too much fun on our second to last day and had been up the Eiffel Tower until 1am. It was such a late night by the time we got back to the hotel, there was no chance of us getting up for our alarms. We both slept through and missed our last chance to see the catacombs without paying the price of hours in a queue.
And thus, the catacombs of Paris are still on my to-do list. Some people may not love the idea of looking at loads of bones, but there’s so much history to it all. And how often do you get a chance to do something like that?
Next time we’ll just have to get there early! Or camp out….
N.B. These are not my pictures…because this is a to-do list post and I’ve not yet been down into the catacombs.