Upstairs, Downstairs in Paris

Sheets of rain came pouring down the morning we stood in a queue to enter the network of tunnels, better known as the Catacombs, deep beneath the enchanted city of Paris. Down there, the enchantment wears off a smidge. There has to be balance after all, or you would be in danger of becoming inured to the beauty of that old city. The queue for the Catacombs was long and our patience short, e’en though we were armed with a sturdy umbrella from the boutique hotel we had just shifted into, from The Grand Hotel.

I have always been curious about them, ossuaries. There are 40 such houses of bones scattered around the world, in England, France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Siberia, the Czech Republic…yet I had not been to a single one.

Before you exclaim, ‘oh how macabre’, there is nothing macabre about death. It is a natural counterpart of life, after all. When the cemeteries started to get overcrowded, it was inevitable that ossuaries cropped up as a response to the need of the times — they were chambers dedicated to the preservation of the skeletal remains of the departed.

Paris sits above quarries of limestone and gypsum. In Lutetia, that is old Paris, the Romans used the stones to build their bathhouses and arenas. The Parisians carried on with quarrying underground, and naturally, the outcome is a honeycomb of tunnels in the bowels of the city. They are said to extend for 200 miles, most of them uncharted, but the adventurous few known as cataphiles, make regular inroads into the tunnels through hidden entrances, ventilation shafts and manholes. There are underground cinema theatres, murals and setups for raves. The gendarmerie stumbled upon a cinema and restaurant of sorts somewhere beneath the 16th arrondissement a few years ago. They also found a note that instructed them to not try and find these cataphiles.

I am not a cataphile, but I do profess to have a fascination for the underground. There was that subterranean wine cellar in Southbank where I once sat with my cousin drinking wine to beat the heat outside. Its dimly lit chambers a salve to the senses on that bright and hot summer’s day in London. The underground salt cellars in Krakow were a revelation. The allure of the underground lies in the sense of mystery it evokes, perhaps in the suggestion of more; a strange intoxication that stems from the possibility of disregarding rules, because to begin with, strictly there are no rules down there. Also, for the most part, you leave the world well above you.

Back at the public entrance to the Catacombs’ in the 14th arrondissement, a grizzled, grumpy man, seemingly overcome with ennui, checked our tickets and let us in. Then five stories of winding staircase, a dizzying exercise if you did not stop because there were people at your heels, and voila, you were in the Catacombs.

“Arrête, c’est ici l’empire de la mort” (Halt, this is the empire of death), read the words at the top of the entrance before you found yourself walking through long galleries, eye goggling at the sight of skulls, tibias and femurs stacked together, and rather neatly, from ceiling to  floor. Some arranged in heart-shaped patterns. Those were old, old bones. Some dating back to thousands of years. You would hardly know which bone belonged to whom. There in death’s chambers, we were witness to a strange equality. Aristocrats and beggars lay stacked together. Many famous figures from the French Revolution too, when bodies were buried directly in the Catacombs.

True, it was the history of a city preserved in tangible terms, in a dimly-lit and quiet affair, but after walking through the remains of some 6 million dead in those tunnels, it was refreshing to come back above to the land of the living, to appreciate the flow of life around us.

Oh but there is such poetry in simply living!

Cimetière des Innocents. Towards the latter half of the 18th century, bodies were transferred from the cemeteries to the quarries. It started with Les Innocents, the oldest burial ground in Paris, where there was such dearth of space that thousands of bodies were being piled into a pit, some not even properly buried. 
The Catacombs where it is said King Charles X threw clandestine parties and musicians played  Chopin and Camille Saint-Saens. Bizarre.
Neatly stacked skeletal remains. Who knows, one of these might belong to Robespierre or Rabelais. Where there were gaps in the stacks, you knew people had happened. Bones here are often stolen. Again, bizarre.
Seeking comfort and quiche in a café in Montmartre
The elegance of mansions in the 9th arrondissement. At Place Saint-Georges.
Place Saint-Georges. The fountain at the centre, where horses would stop for a drink, is topped by the bust of a 19th-century Parisian illustrator, Paul Gavarni.
Théâtre Saint- Georges 
In the shadow of old churches
Beauty is always everywhere around you, in Paris.


Style, in the 9th arrondissement
Somewhere in the 2nd arrondissement
Near Bastille
The 16th-century Gothic church of Saint-Eustache in the 1st arrondissement
The constant flow of people in the 1st arrondissement



Christmas markets
Vintage shops and dreadlocks
Back in Le Marais
And tada, when Juliette became American.

Published by

Arundhati Basu

The great affair in my life is to travel. I count myself immensely fortunate that my partner shares this passion. We are a team that likes to spend time planning and plotting out places to go. Destination check, flights check, accommodation check, cheesy grins check. Off we go.

50 thoughts on “Upstairs, Downstairs in Paris

    1. Thank you Tracey. I would join the cataphiles too if I had the opportunity! Adi was not too pleased with me for dragging him into the Catacombs though.


  1. Another great post. Paris was your destiny. 😉
    And compliments for the catacombs. never been able to go, there’s always a queue around the entire block. 🙂


    1. Paris as my destiny…sounds grand. Thank you, I am brimming with photos and stories from it. As Adi would say, you are not missing out on much, but I did find it fascinating to think that the remains of mortals can be arranged in such a neat, clinical manner.


      1. I’m sure we are missing out much. 🙂
        And I hadn’t thought of that: mortals in a circle. You guys would be reminded of the large wheel of life, whatever name you give it. (Samsara, is it?) 🙂


      2. I honestly don’t know. (To the French Samsara is a perfume! God forbid!) 🙂
        My personal view is that myths and religions are partial views of the universe. Probably all have a bit of truth, probably some are skewed, and maybe the combination will yield the truth?
        Just realizing I am breaking one of two cardinal rules: never speak politics or religion with a friend. 😉
        So be good ma’amji. Each of us all humans on our own personal wheel.
        Bonne semaine


      3. Not to worry, sir ji. I think religion is overrated and I am way too sceptical about it anyway.

        ‘Each of us all humans on our own personal wheel’. I would put faith in that line of thought.

        You have a satisfying week too. 🙂


  2. I love how your posts always make the reader feel like they’re there, it’s truly magical ❤️ The skeletal remains look so scary, I don’t know if I would have been able to go down there 😂 great post! 💞


    1. Thank you, sweetheart. I can promise you that my husband was not thrilled at being dragged into the nether regions, only to see bones and skulls.


  3. Fabulous photos as always, even recognised a few places. Never thought to visit the Catacombs because I so do not like to go underground, plus my beloved won’t wait in queues!


    1. Thank you, Sheree. He sounds just like Adi! Or maybe it is the male gene. 🙂 I wanted to experience an ossuary just once, at least. I doubt Adi is going to indulge me another time.


  4. wow so much to learn about the place from your posts ..those skeletal remains gave me the creeps . Paris is lovely and hope to visit some day. The only closest I ‘ve seen is the Paris in Vegas 🙂 and was amazed by that itself.


    1. Thank you love. They were actually not all that spooky. Of course, I would not care to be caught in there more than the time we did spend inside. Now I have not seen this other Paris, but the original is not too shabby. 🙂 xx


  5. What a fascinating look into this almost otherworldly life. I remember going through the catacombs in Rome and going underground in Cooper Pedy a few years ago. Wonderful photos. 😊


    1. I looked up Cooper Pedy and love the colour of the earth there. A whole underground town beneath it! Yikes. I would love to see it. Thank you for an insight into a place I had no idea about. xx


    1. Hehe…entirely like Adi. He was so happy to out again. That last sentiment of yours. It is something else truly. Thanks Jo. xx


  6. Lovely photos of Paris! The black and white theme fits perfectly. I especially like the photo “Near Bastille” – classic Parisian style. In that photo is your fiancee, right? 🙂 I also visited the Catacomb during our last visit. At first, I thought it would be a horror place, but it was not. It’s just the final resting place of people, and they died naturally (well… mostly).


    1. Thank you, Len. My husband, yes. 🙂 I had preconceived notions about the Catacombs like you. But they dissolved as we walked through the tunnels. Funny how experiencing something/ a place challenges our mind which arrives upon a certain conclusion hastily.


  7. Hello Arundhati, lovely pictures of Paris. I am enjoying this series very much, it looks like you were there 3 months hehe. Also, I don’t know if it is you or me but I can’t seem to like your posts with my WordPress account, nor comment. I am logging in with my normal email whereas before I could do it from my WP account. In other blogs I am able to comment as usual. Does it happen to you on my blog too? I recently added a domain, do you think it’s that?


    1. Hey V, thank you for indulging my extensive rambles about Paris. I am sorry to hear that you cannot comment. That is odd. The comment section in my blog should be accessible through your WP a/c ideally. I am able to comment on your blog as usual. :-/
      Wishing you a lovely week. xx


      1. I wish we could say that we are doing well but Sar fell and fractured her back. She’s been in a nursing care facility which I’ve been visiting for that past 19 days. It’s been a struggle but I hope that she will get better soon. I’m afraid I won’t be able to log on to a lot of blogposts. Please take care and hope to get back to normal again one day.- Neek


      2. I am awfully sorry to hear about Sar. It must be difficult for you both to see her in pain. You take your time and I hope she heals well. * hugs. All will be well, Neek. xx


    1. It was Pam. The Catacombs is all about the prosaic nature in which millions of skeletal remains have been preserved. Quite an example of man’s industry.


  8. Wow what a place. I found one church during my visit in Germany that was such a house of bones and held the remains from cemeteries that were emptied. You could stand above the bones looking down through a thick piece of glass and additional lighting. I had never seen something like this before and will not forget it.


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