There’s Only One Paris #7: The Secrets of the Catacombs

Welcome to the seventh edition of our There’s Only One Paris participatory short story series! This week’s story takes us not to a district per se… but instead to deep underneath the city streets… the the Paris Catacombs! But there is more to this site than meets the eye! Find out in the story! If you’re new to the project you can read more about these participatory stories here and at the end is a link to all the stories thus far.

I’d like to give some acknowledgements before launching into the story. The first one goes to Susan McKee who not only suggested the location for this week’s story, but is also also helping me edit the stories for future use.

Kimberly Richey, Diana Booth Ranke, Brenda Cowe and Janet Conroy for leaving comments on this week’s post. A special thanks to Jeanne Boin whose story about visiting with her students inspired the story and to Jim Eric for sharing his great photo which is used in the title image. He also named one of the characters and Pascale Vincent Marquis contributed several of the other names.
The lockdown in France is officially ending tomorrow, May 11th. Nevertheless, many of you still can’t come to Paris so I’ll be carrying on with the stories until at least the end of May, then I’ll fill you in the their future.

To commemorate our “liberté” and the place I’m planning to go to tomorrow, our next story will be set along the Banks of the Seine!!  Be sure to add in your comments and favorite memories of the Seine to the posts throughout the week!

There’s Only One Paris #7: The Secrets of the Catacombs

What can one find deep down in the tunnels of the Catacombs…

Four students inadvertently find out!

“One at a time down the steps… ONE at a time!” shouted Madame Artois.

“How many steps are there?” asked Laure hesitantly.

“131!” replied Jérémie exuberantly.

“What?!” exclaimed Laure, halting on step number 22.

Behind them the daylight, and their only chance of escaping their current fate, vanished with the closing of the creaky entrance door.

“Well, you should have been listening earlier when Madame Artois told us all this,” admonished Flora.

“You were too busy on your phone!” needled Pascal.

“I wanted to check my messages one last time!” grumbled Laure in self defence. “Geez, I really should have pretended to be sick this morning and skipped out on this all together.”

“Afraid of the dark, baby?” taunted Jérémie.

“Does your mom still tuck you in?” added Pascal.

“Shut up! Of course not!” growled Laure, as she punched the teasing boys in the arm.

Shhhhhhhhhh! Les enfants, arrêtez de crier! Stop shouting!” shouted Madame Artois from the bottom.

“Come on guys, just leave her alone!” ordered Flora as she motioned her friends to follow her, and the rest of the herd of 14-year-olds, down the steps.

Down, down, down they marched. The 131 steps would take them twenty meters below the street level and into the weakly lit tunnels of the Paris Catacombs.

Even though they weren’t all that fond of school, the teens had to admit that it was nice to get back to real school after all those months of virtual classes. Nevertheless, after a few weeks of getting back into the swing  and catching up with friends, they were keen to get outside the classroom walls. That said, the merits of Madame Artois’ choice of such a macabre and claustrophobic place for their first field trip, was a matter of debate. But there was nothing they could do about that…. now.

Photo: Catacombes de Paris

“Bonjour and thank you for visiting the Catacombs,” started the tour guide, once they’d reached the bottom of the steps and were gathered in a small side room. Before they’d descended the stairs, he’d informed them that they were the last group to go through for the day. The four friends naturally drifted to the back of the group. “The Paris Catacombs are among the most famous underground sites in the world. Since opening in 1786 they have attracted millions of visitors including the future King Charles X, Napoléon III, the Holy Roman Emperor Francis II and even Otto von Bismarck.”

“Otta von Wismarck?” asked Jérémie.

Bismarck! The first chancellor of German, dummy!” huffed Flora. “No wonder you failed history class!”

“Cut him some slack, it isn’t like Monsieur Leclerc’s history lessons are very exciting,” defended Pascal.

“You have a point.” said Flora. “I think he’s even older than the Catacombs.” Her cheeky comment even got a giggle out of petrified Laure.

Shhhhhhh! Les enfants! Children, quiet!” hissed Madame Artois. 

“Underneath Paris there are over 300 kilometers of tunnels, but today, we’ll only visit part of the 1.7 kilometers which are open to the public. This site actually dates back 2,000 years when the Romans….”

“Boo!” Jérémie whispered into Laure’s ear while poking her side.

Ahhh!” she screeched.

Les enfants! Shhhhhh!” hollered Madame Artois, her anger mounting. “Pay attention… now!”

“Yes, we sure wouldn’t want to be sent to detention right here and now!” said Pascal under his breath.

“That’s for sure, imagine getting locked in down here!” added Flora.

“Dope!” enthused Jérémie.

“Terrifying!” whimpered Laure, as she scanned the room. All around them was the beige limestone upon which Paris sat, some sections were supported by neatly carved blocks whereas others were roughly dug out and topped with pebbled rubble. Here and there were some dusty panels featuring facts, maps and vintage photographs of this peculiar site.

“After the fall of the Roman empire, the area was still used as an open stone quarry until the 1300s when they began excavating the limestone via underground tunnels, like the one we are currently in. You’ve been to the Louvre and to Notre Dame, haven’t you?”

“Yes….” replied some of the keener students at the front of the group.

“Well, some of the stone used to build the cathedral and other medieval buildings in Paris likely came from these very tunnels,” said the guide. “The quarry….”

“If it was a stone quarry, why are there a bunch of bones down here?” asked Jérémie.

“Don’t interrupt the guide, Jérémie,” hissed Laure.

“Let’s move along first and I’ll answer your question at the next stop,” replied the guide politely. He led the students towards a long corridor.

Photo: Jean-David & Anne-Laure/Flickr

Arrête! C’est ici L’Empire de la Mort!” said Pascal reading the words carved into the stone above the entrance.

“We’re totally done for!” croaked Laure, gripping Pascal’s arm.

“It’ll be alright, Laure!” Pascal assured her. “We won’t be staying down here in the ‘Empire of the Dead.’ We’ll all get out of here alive and well at the end of the tour.”

Reaching the other side of the hallway, the guide stopped them in another rounded alcove. Here, the descriptive panels had been replaced with bones, row upon row of femurs and the occasional line of skulls.

“By the mid 1700s the cemeteries of Paris were overflowing,” explained the guide. “Many were made up of huge mass graves that were literally packed to capacity after century upon century of use. So the local sanitation authorities decided to close down the cemeteries in the city center and put all the bones in one common place. Back then, where we’re standing was actually outside the city limits of Paris, so these empty tunnels were a convenient place to put the bones.

“Between 1785 and 1787 over six million bones were transferred here. Crews often had to work at night so Parisians wouldn’t see them and cause a fuss about moving the bones from their intended final resting place. Instead of merely filling the tunnels with piles of bones, the man in charge, Héricart de Thury, decided to create a museum-like site. As you can see, he arranged the bones in original patterns…”

“Original? I’d say downright weird,” whispered Flora.

“Come on, Flora, I thought you were into art?” teased Pascal.

“I am, but I’m not sure if I’d qualify this as ‘art’,” she replied.

“Follow me, I’ll show you some of the most unique of these,” said the guide who turned down another tunnel with the group shuffling behind.

Pstt, guys… I’ll show you something ‘unique’,” said Jérémie. “Come have a look over here.”

“Okay, but quickly, we don’t want to fall behind!” pleaded Laure. The three others followed their wise-cracking friend to a small nook.

“Look at this skull,” Jérémie instructed. “Don’t you think it’s a little different from the others?”

“Different, how so?” questioned Pascal.

“Look, there’s a symbol carved in the top,” said Jérémie.

“What are you talking about?” huffed Laure, noticeably eager to catch up with the class.

“Come closer, Scaredy Cat!” teased Jérémie. Not wanting to completely lose face, Laure reluctantly took a few paces forward.

“Where? I don’t see anything,” she concluded.

Photo: Catacombes de Paris

“Right here!” said Jérémie, poking the star-shaped symbol with his index finger. Suddenly a section of the bones opened. It was the door to a secret passageway.

“Woahhhhhh! That’s totally sic!” said Pascal in awe.

“What’s down there?” pondered Flora, peering past the door. “It seems like there are some stairs.”

“Well, only one way to find out!” declared Jérémie as he started down the steps.

“I’m not sure this is such a good idea…” said Laure, voice wavering.

“The lighting isn’t great down here in the Catacombs, the others won’t even notice we’re missing until the end of the tour,” said Pascal.

“Come on, Chicken!” taunted Jérémie. “We’ll just have a quick peek, then go back and join the others.” 

“I’m game!” said the more daring Flora.

“Well, alright, but just a super fast look,” said Laure, caving to the peer pressure. 

The four friends tippy-toed down a few of the dark steps.

“Okay, I think this is far enough,” moaned Laure. “There’s nothing here, let’s turn back.”

“I think I see something down there,” said Jérémie.

“I don’t care, I’m heading back,” said Laure, in an increasingly panicked tone.

“Wait!” exclaimed Pascal. A lightbulb had gone off in his head. He pulled out his phone.” I’ll turn on my phone’s flashlight so we can see better.”

“Come on, Laure,” persuaded Flora. “We’ll just go to the bottom then go back up.”

Finnnnnnnne,” she said, giving in.

Sure enough, once they reached the bottom of the short stairwell, they could make out a room to the right. They stepped inside and Pascal shined his light slowly around the mid-sized cavern. Roughly carved out of the stone, the room was spartan, save for a few piles of crates caked in a thick layer of dust.

“Hey what’s this?” asked Jérémie, picking up a crumbling leaflet that was sitting on the top crate.

Le Gaulois / CC

“Let me see,” said Pascal. “Le Gaulois.” 

“Wow!” marvelled Flora. “It’s from the Siege of Paris!”

“The Siege of Paris?” repeat Jérémie, confused.

“Don’t you remember?” asked Flora. “Mr. Leclerc covered it at the end of last term.”

“Mr Leclerc’s online history classes were even worse than his in person ones!” commiserated Jérémie.

“I was asleep half the time too,” confessed Laure.

“Guys! The Franco Prussian War!” reproached Flora. “Remember Napoléon III and Bismarck from the beginning of the tour?”

“Yah, sort of,” said Jérémie sheepishly.

“Well, Napoléon III didn’t want the various German Kingdoms to unite as one country so he declared war against one of these, Prussia. I think it was in the summer of 1870.”

“Yes, in July,” added Pascal, who’d obviously not been daydreaming like the other two.

“Right. Well, Napoléon failed miserably and was captured within two months.”

“Yah, then the Prussians came to attack Paris,” added Pascal.

“Precisely,” said Flora. “However, the Parisians weren’t going to give it that easily. They managed to hold out for six months while the Prussians bombarded the city.”

“I’ve actually read that some people took refuge underground!” said Pascale. “Some people set up temporary bunkers in the cellars of their buildings, others hid in some of the city’s stone quarries, like in the northeast of the city and well, down here in the south. There were even people hiding out in the crypt of the Pantheon!”

“Coooool!” said Jérémie. “Imagine sleeping next to Victor Hugo.”

“Duh, he wasn’t dead yet!” corrected Laure.

“Details, details,” scoffed Jérémie.

“This must be one of those hideouts!” declared Pascal.

“Yes!” said Flora. “Look! There are some bowls and some kind of wash basin.”

“Hey, look over there, some blankets!” said Jérémie. “This takes ‘confinement’ to a whole new level!”

“And to think, we thought we had it bad!” said Pascal. “At least we had TV and Netflix to keep entertained. They only had these crummy leaflets.”

Pascal raised his phone a little higher up the walls and stopped. 

The Crypt of the Pantheon, 1870. Image: ktakafka

“La République ou la mort, the republic or death,” he read out.

“This wasn’t just any hideaway,” said Flora. “That’s the slogan of the Commune of Paris! This was used by Les Communards, the leftist rebels who were defending the city.” 

“Well, and then led their own siege of the city a few months later,” added Pascal.

“100 year old graffiti, dope!” said Jérémie.

“Okay, you guys might think this is ‘dope,’ cool and all, but this place gives me the creeps,” stated Laure. ”I’d rather be up there with all those bones. You can stay here, and get in trouble, but I’m going back up.” 

Without waiting for a reply from the others, Laure turned and made for the staircase. As she placed her foot on the first step, the secret door slammed shut.

“Oh great!” wailed Laure. “Now look what’s happened!”

“We probably just need to give it a push and it’ll open,” suggested Flora, trying to calm down her fearful friend.

“I’ll go and check,” offered Pascal as he bounded up the stairs with his phone. He gave the door a push, then a bigger one. “Oh geez guys, the door won’t budge.”

”See! We’re stuck down here…. forever!” howled Laure. “We’re going to diiiiiiieeeee!”

“Oh come on, Laure, stop being so melodramatic!” criticized Jérémie. 

“Hey, cut her some slack, she’s been through a lot this year,” hissed Flora. “Remember her grandpa, the bookseller, who died at hospital from… well, you know what.”

“Okay fine, but I still don’t think we are going to die,” said Jérémie.

“We just might if we don’t put our heads together and find a solution,” replied Flora.

“There’s got to be another way out,” said Pascal. “Besides, if we’re not there at the end, Madame Artois will send someone to search for us.”

“Yes, but can you imagine how much trouble we’re going to be in?” whimpered Laure.

“Which is exactly why we need to find our own way back to the group!” insisted Jérémie.

“Come on! We have nothing to lose!” said Pascal.

“There are two directions we could go along this tunnel, left or right,” said Jérémie.

“Didn’t the guide say there were 300 kilometers of tunnels?” Laure commented helplessly. “How are we ever going to figure out which way to go?”

“Didn’t Madame Artois say we’d be finishing the tour near the school?” remembered Flora.

“Yes, so near Montparnasse, but how does that help us?” asked Jérémie doubtfully.

“Well, if that’s the case, then we know which direction to go in,” rationalized Flora.

“Okay, Sherlock, but how do we know which direction that is from where we are?”

“Well, the Catacombs entrance is in Place Denfert-Rochereau and Montparnasse is west, so we just need to figure out which way that is.”

“I know how!” declared Pascal, proudly waving his phone. “Last year in Scouts we learned that most cellphones have a compass on them!”

“Bravo, Dr. Watson, however, your magic compass isn’t going to work since we were 20 meters below the street!” said Jérémie. Laure broke out in sobs.

“It’s going to be okay, Laure,” consoled Pascal, putting his arm around her shoulder. In doing so, his hand hit something metal attached to the wall. 

Photos: Jérôme Bon / CC

“Hey wait a sec, what’s that?” he said, flipping his phone light towards the wall. “Look, some metal bars.”

“They seem to be some sort of steps.” said Flora. Pascal shined his light up the wall.

“It’s some sort of vertical passageway,” observed Pascal. ”It doesn’t seem to have an exit at the top, but I bet if I climb up as far as I can, the compass would work.” 

“If you’re willing to try it, I can use my phone light to help guide you up,” offered Flora.

“Great, Jérémie, give me a boost,” said Pascal.

“Why am I the one to always get walked all over?” he complained.

“Come on, lean over, Jérémie,” ordered Laure, getting back involved. He obliged and Pascal agilely climbed onto his back so he was able to pull himself up onto the bar ladder. Flora stepped back to shine the light as he climbed higher and higher.

“This is as far as I can get,” called down Pascal. One hand gripping the bar, he pulled out his phone and opened the compass app.

“Does it work?” asked Laure anxiously.

“Give it a sec,” said Pascal. “Bingo! Yes, that way is west!” He said pointing to the left before scrambling back down and hopping to the ground triumphantly.

“Wait,” said Flora. “Before we leave here, let’s take those leaflets and scatter them along the way. In case we need to backtrack.”

“Okay, good idea!” agreed Laure. The two girls grabbed a dusty stack each.

“Let’s go!” said Jérémie. “Or else we’ll be in detention for the rest of the year and it’s only September!”

The four friends zoomed down the tunnel with the girls dropping a leaflet every few meters. Soon they came to a fork in the tunnel.

“Oh man, which way now??” blubbered Laure, her panic resurfacing.

Pascal flashed his light over the walls.

“Hey look!” said Flora, she read out loud the words drawn on the wall in charcoal. “Montparnasse!” 

That’s right.” said Pascal. “I’d heard that there were indications down here, like road signs. Some of them are more recent, added by those people who come down here to explore or even throw parties.” 

“Straight fire, man, I wanna go to one!” said Jérémie.

“Those fans of the Catacombs are called Cataphiles,” said Flora.

“I’m never going to accept an invitation to one of their parties!” yelped Laure. 

“Well, it’s not quite time to “celebrate” quite yet, we gotta get outta here first!” said Pascal. The gang raced down the tunnel on the left.  After a few hundred meters they spotted something in the middle of the tunnel.

“Hey what’s that?” asked Laure.

Parisians hiding out in their cellars, Siege of Paris. Image: ktakafka

“Looks like some wine bottles,” guessed Pascal. 

Maybe they are left from those partying Cadophiles,” suggested Jérémie. 

“CaTAphiles,” corrected Flora.

Jérémie picked up one of the bottles and dusted off the label: “1940. Was that a good vintage?”

“People must have been hiding out down here during the Occupation as well,” said Pascal.

“I hope they made it out… alive,” said Flora, wincing.

“I hope we make it out alive!” squealed Laure. “Let’s get a move on!”

Jérémie dropped the bottle and the pack carried on down the tunnel, picking up their pace.

“Hey wait!” said Jérémie. “Stop!”

The three others whipped around and started back to where Jérémie was standing, looking up to the left. 

“Stairs!” shouted Jérémie. 

“Oh my god, Jérémie, you’re our hero!” cried Laure, hugging him.

“So, I’m the good guy all the sudden?” he joked.

“Let’s not get too excited, just yet.” said Flora. “We’d better hope there’s a door at the top.”

They crept up to the stairs. Sure enough, when they reached the top, there seemed to be some kind of handleless door.

“Wait!” seethed Flora just as Pascal was about to heave it with his shoulder.

“What is it?” asked Pascal.

Shhhhh, voices!” she said in a hushed tone. The four friends were as silent as the sleeping souls of the Catacombs. 

“We have one more room before the end of the tour,” said the muffled voice of the tour guide.

“It’s our class!” whispered Laure gleefully. ”We’re saved! We’re saved from the Empire of the Dead!”

“Let’s wait a minute, until they’ve gone past so they don’t see us,” suggested Pascal. “But if the door doesn’t budge, we can yell our heads off and they’ll still hear us, hopefully.” 

“Okay, sounds like a plan,” the others agreed. 

When they could no longer hear the guide nor their classmates’ footsteps, Pascal gave the door a big shove.

“It’s moving a little, but it seems to be stuck.” he said with a sigh.

“Let’s all apply some strength to it, maybe the combined effort will do the trick,” proposed Flora.

The four friends fell into a line in front of the door, like brave Communards defending the city from the Prussians.“Hurry, now’s our chance!” exclaimed Flora. The four of them slid into the darkened room just as the guide turned back on the lights.

“One, two, three!” commanded Pascale. They pushed with all their might and the door swung open with a giant whoosh. The four friends stumbled into a bone-lined alcove, similar to the one where their subterranean adventure had begun.

“We did it!” cheered Laure, hugging Pascal.

“Shhhh! We have to keep it down,” said Flora. The friends hushed. They slinked to the end of the tunnel and peered their heads around the corner. 

“The coast looks clear,” said Flora.

“They must be in that room on the right,” said Pascal.

Careful to not make a noise, they crept along the tunnel. As they approached the end, the lights suddenly went out. Shrieks echoed from up ahead. 

“See,” said the guide. “That’s why you should never sneak into any of the parts of the Catacombs that are off limits. You just might not be able to find your way back out.”

“Exactly!” concurred Madame Artois who started clapping with the students following suit. “Merci beaucoup! What a fascinating tour!” 

The guide smiled and went to the far end of the room where there was a gate, beyond which was a set of stairs leading up to the street. Madame Artois stood at the base, checking that all her students filed past one by one.

“Oh my God, freedom!” gasped Laure as they neared the steps.

“Hey, wait a second!” ordered Madame Artois, stopping the foursome. “What do you have in your hands?”

Laure and Flora froze. They were still clutching some of the leaflets they’d picked up in the secret hideout. 

“Oh these?” said Flora, feigning innocence. “Ummm, they are just some

brochures we picked up at the entrance. For the EEGC, the speleology club.”

“Yes, the tour was so fascinating, we can’t wait to become members and discover more underground places!” added Pascal. “Ones we’re allowed to visit, of course.” 

“Right guys?” said Flora, turning frantically and wide-eyed to Jérémie and Laure.

“You bet!” chimed in Jérémie.

“Yes… I can’t wait.” forced Laure, much less enthusiastically. 

Madame Artois gave them a puzzled look but let them go past. Up to freedom they went, original souvenir in hand of their adventures in the catacombs of the Catacombs.

There's only one Paris - The Magic of Montmartre FB index 2

There’s Only One Paris Episodes

Did you like this story? If you missed the others, you can catch up on them at these links:

Episode #1: A View on the Eiffel Tower

Episode #2: L’Age Mur at the Musée d’Orsay

Episode #3: In Search of Lost Time at the Palais-Royal and the Galerie Vivienne

Episode #4: Our Lady of Hope: Notre-Dame

Episode #5: Aux Folies de Belleville

Episode #6: The Magic of Montmartre

Episode #8: Picnics & Surprises along the Seine

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *