I complain a lot about Paris. That's because I've mainly traveled there in the winter, when Paris is invariably cold, damp and gray. It hasn't charmed me.
When a friend informed me she was planning a day trip to Paris to tour the catacombs, of course I said I'd go. Because I'd never properly seen Paris in the summer (with the exception of a few hours a couple of years ago, spent mostly in the metro and in a stuffy car stuck in traffic).
On Friday we left before dawn from St Pancras in London, hopping on a Eurostar train and reaching Gare du Nord a couple of hours later (plus an extra for the time change). After a quick RER journey we stopped for a leisurely tea at a café, where we admired the sun filtering through the sycamores and watched the traffic. A fireman leaned out of a passing firetruck to flirt with us.
My opinion of Paris was definitely improving. We paid our bill and followed the signs to the catacombs, passing the hundreds of people already lined up for entrance.
The catacombs are a series of underground tunnels first created by the Romans, who mined rock from under their city Lutetia. Quarrying carried on during the middle ages, until there were hundreds of kilometres of tunnels underneath Paris, far below the level of the metro. No one has ever completely mapped the tunnels, and even the cataphiles who know the tunnels well occasionally get lost—and die—inside.
When the dead population of Paris rose during times of famine and revolution, the bodies multiplied at a rate that couldn't be sustained. So in the 18th century someone had the bright idea to rebury the dead of Paris, moving bodies from the cemeteries to the underground tunnels and quarries. Beginning in 1786 bodies were moved to the "new" ossuary, and eventually the catacombs would claim 6 million inhabitants. The bones were arranged in patterns, with heads and femurs at one end, so that a visitor today sees a wall of femurs decorated with a few heads here and there.
Tourists began touring the catacombs in 1867. A thick black line above head marked the safe path—anyone venturing off the black-lined path was sure to be lost for eternity, becoming just one more skeleton in the catacombs.
Modern visitors can wait in line for two hours to tour the catacombs, or can sign up in advance for a guided tour. Our tour guide regaled us with gruesome tales of execution and decomposition, so I'd advise anyone with tender hearts to stay above ground or consider the self-guided tour.
After exiting the catacombs, we slowly adjusted to the bright August sun over a leisurely lunch in the Latin Quarter. Unfortunately service in Paris is no better in August than in the winter, so we waited quite a while for our meal.
After that we'd had enough of hot Parisian sun, so we went back underground to the Crypte Archeologique outside of Notre Dame. Containing remains of Roman Lutetia as well as medieval Paris, the Crypte Archeologique illuminates the City of Light's ancient history. Self-operated lights expose features of the underground ruins of Lutetia, including a small bath house and hypocaust. The surrounding boards describe the Roman expansion of Gaul, particularly in the third century.
The self-guided tour of the Crypte Archeologique took less than an hour, so we were back out in the sun and walking across the Seine long before our departure time. I felt as if I'd been plunged in to a proper summer: the temporary "beach" was full of people sunning themselves, and a giant sandcastle rose along the banks of the Seine.
Oh la la! Where had this Paris been on my previous visits? Buried underground perhaps?
I was fast acquiring a proper sunburn, and it was time to head for Gare du Nord and our Eurostar train...but halfway on our journey home, the travel gods had other ideas.
We were forced back at Calais when one of the locomotives failed (only trains with two working engines, front and back, are allowed to enter the Chunnel) so we stopped in Lille and boarded another train (whose passengers had been on the way to Paris from London, and were then forced to take our 1-engine train on to Paris). We arrived back at St Pancras two hours late, and exhausted from tramping around under Paris. Our shoes contained a layer of fine chalk dust—at least I think that was chalk.
To tour the catacombs of Paris, book in advance at Viator tours. To tour the Crypte Archeologique, look near the entrance of Notre Dame for the stairs leading down underground. And if you're traveling in August, bring sunscreen.