In Paris, I’ve seen a lot of things. The big museums, the small museums, the landmarks, the parks. Check check check check. But we never made it to the catacombs because my mom claimed claustrophobia. If a bazillion people a year visit the catacombs, how claustrophobic could it possibly be? I thought. Certainly not worse than being shoved against a hundred strangers underground while traveling on the metro.
This week, I returned to Paris with my adventurous husband, Thor, who seemed more than agreeable to visiting the Catacombs. I purchased our skip-the-line tickets weeks in advance on www.getyourguide.com since I had heard they often sell out, and I hate nothing more than standing in line for hours. (Guess what? We still stood in line for over an hour.)
Although I know a lot of the history of Paris, the finer details of the catacombs are not something I really researched ahead of time. They’re underground. There’s millions of bones. What else is there to know beforehand?
First off, you take some very narrow, single-file, winding steps down…very far down…60 feet down. Then you enter a cramped area that has some historical info, but once we hit that room, all I could think about was how far down we were, and how impossible it would be to run back up those stairs clogged with tourists. I took a breathe and thought, Just get a move on and away from the people. Wrong answer. Outside that room was the beginning of the dark quarry, barely above my head. We’re going to die down here, I thought, but I kept moving and worked on my full catastrophe living breathing.
Once Thor muttered, “I don’t like this,” and I turned around to see him contorting his body to even fit as we followed the maze, I knew it wasn’t just me. We’re definitely going to die, I thought.
Never in my life have I experienced claustrophobia. Once in college, I was trapped alone in an elevator for over two hours – it wasn’t so bad. As the short person, I’ve been forced to climb in attics, crawlspaces, and under houses. No biggie.
This was different.
Once we made it through the lengthy quarry, the tombs opened up. When they says millions of bones, they aren’t kidding. Bones upon bones upon bones; piled up, artistically and architecturally.
I’m not much of an audioguide kind of person – it distracts me, but in this case I listened to most of it just to know what made one tomb different than another. Some had famous people buried there; others had hosted macabre live concerts 150 years ago; some were full of the bones of ill-fated protesters.
The tombs just kept going. One one hand, it was super cool to see everything first hand, and overwhelming to process just how many human remains are down there, and on the other hand I just kept thinking about how trapped we were.
What’s even more insane is that no long ago, THERE WERE NO LIGHTS. People used to have to bring flashlights (or even torches back in the day). Along the ceiling was a thick black line of paint all the way through so that people could shine their light and make sure they were going the right way. Screw that!
As the tombs began to end, we finished down another long, echoey quarry path, and then a heinous trek back UP the spiral staircase. I have stronger legs than pretty much anyone I know personally, and I was dying. Lord knows how Parisian smokers or cheeseburger-eating Americans feel going up.
Once outside, we both had to stand on the sidewalk and decompress for a few minutes. Was it a good experience? Yes, and I would recommend it to those who are willing to give it a shot. Would I do it again? Highly doubtful.
On the brightside, then we went and had lunch in the Jardin du Luxembourg. You know, outside. Above ground. With lots of fresh air and sunlight.