Skulls, sewers, and priceless art:
Underground Paris

(Published by The Forum, February 1990.)

By Ross Collins

It seems a poetic irony that Paris, known as "The City of Lights," also celebrates its digs into the dark and has for centuries. All kinds of sights and scenes are carved into the ground underneath the city.

Underground Paris includes the Metro, the city's subway maze; extensive underground parking; and tiers of shops called "Les Halles," named after the erstwhile city marketplace.

Among the new Paris digs now open to tourists are two as new as 1989 and one as old as two centuries. The new ones perhaps might best be described as grafts onto famous Paris sights: a new addition to the Louvre and a new sewer, both finished in time for the French bicentennial.

And as for the old dig, the Paris catacombs were carved and furnished between 1785 and 1860.

The path to the catacombs begins at a demure entrance across the street from Metro stop Denfert-Rochereau. A spiral stair leads you down 83 steps, below the subway, below the sewer, below the earth and into the chalky bedrock under the city.

A damp cave of corridors lit by dim bulbs runs on an don, and you wonder, is this it? Is this the Paris catacombs?

But you haven't even started. You reach a hewn archway, step over bleached walls some 10 feet high, a corridor tunneled as far as you can see into the darkness, not of stone, but of human bones, neatly stacked. Every few feet up, like decorative facing on a brick building, is a layer of skulls. Sometimes the skulls are laid in patterns, hearts, crosses, a skull-and-crossbones.

Between five and six million Parisians dating from medieval times are deposited in this labyrinth, moved from city cemeteries when they became too crowded and hygenic. The first of the catacombs was ordered by King Louis XVI, and the last bones were deposited more than a century ago.

There are no headstones, but occasional monuments quote Biblical and literary thoughts in Latin or French. "From the tomb of Hervey," reads, "Come, people of the world, come into this silent abode, and your soul so carefree will be struck by a voice that rises form inside; it is here that the greatest of masters, the Tomb, holds his school of truth."

You climb back up the stairs to an exit on a noisy Paris side street. People don't often dawdle in the catacombs.

Far to the northwest of the catacombs you'll find another staircase, at Place de la Resistance, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. the "egouts de Paris" (Paris sewers) have been open to public tours for a number of years, but last year, as a tribute to the French bicentennial, the city launched a major remodeling project to put a pretty face to their 1,304 miles of underground canals.

You don't get to walk more than about 500 yards of the network, but what you do visit is scrubbed up, and gangways lay over rushing rivers of sewage apparently cleaned of some of the bits you'd least care to see.

The huge vaulted sewer system of Paris is centuries old, and every street wider than 22 yards has at least one corresponding sewer under the asphalt. A sewer is given the name of the street above it, nicely mounted on a porcelain plaque. It forms a city underneath the city.

Before the 19th century, the ancient sewer network had never been explored. It was unknown and feared, until Monsieur Bruneseau descended to the task of discovery and mapping the system in the last century. Bruneseau was a friend of Victor Hugo, which might help to explain the author's sewer passages in Les Miserables.

Cross back to the right bank of the Seine River, and you'll find another Paris dig dedicated in 1989, the most famous of the city's new attractions: the new entrance to the Louvre Museum.

French critics were harsh when American I.M. Pei was selected as architect for the project in 1983. But Pei knew the Louvre was a palace and monument to eight centuries of French history.

The transparent pyramid is half the height of the surrounding 17th-century court, and the glass lets the view of surrounding buildings show through.

What you can see form above is a web of stainless steel supporting 673 panels of diamond-shaped glass. But from underground, the structure forms a skylight sheltering a swirling staircase winding to a cavern in white and cream-colored stone.

The bookshop, restaurants, exhibits and footings of medieval fortifications are there, and even if you've already seen the Louvre, you owe it to yourself to see Pei's new underground entrance. Try going Sunday, when admission is free.

Copyright 2004 by Ross F. Collins <>