I am a super planner when it comes to my travels. I like to have a plan for my days, with each day in a city usually scheduled for a food tour + another attraction. This schedule keeps me busy, very busy, and ensures that I maximize my time in a new place. But every now and then plans fall through due to things out of my control. In Paris, the biggest thing that kept screwing up my plans was the metro. Everyone will tell you that the metro is notorious for being suddenly shut down, not working, staff on strike, etc etc. They were not kidding. I had to miss two tours due to issues with the trains and not being able to get where I was going. One such tour that I had to miss was at the Catacombs of Paris.
My “home” metro stop was Saint Germain des Pres, on Line 4, and it should have been such a simple 6-stops journey directly to Denfert-Rochereau. When I arrived to the platform, I discovered the trains were not running on Line 4, but I had no real information since the announcements were made in French over the loudspeaker and it was completely garbled. There were no signs. Many people were standing around the platform waiting, but I imagine they were non-French speakers like me who didn’t understand. By the time I had figured it out, I had to go back up to the street, walk to the nearest metro stop on another line, and take a very long and convoluted journey that ultimately got me there about 5 minutes late. As the tours for the Catacombs are very strictly timed, I knew I had missed it.
Sadly, the end of the line for people waiting to buy tickets was already at the 2 hour mark, as it stretched all the way down the block and around the corner. And it was raining, to top it all off! I faced a choice: do I wait in line with everybody else, and do the catacombs without a tour guide? Or do I leave and find something else to do? I chose to stay, and so I literally stood there in the line for 2 hours, in the rain, waiting, and experiencing literally everything I had hoped to avoid by booking a wonderful tour in advance. Oh well. If we want to see things, we must be flexible when the best laid plans go awry.
There is an electronic ticker on the wall that shows the number of people underground at any given time, counting those entering the turnstiles and those exiting on the other end. They only allow 200 at once, so they wait for a space to open up to allow more in. Eventually I made it to the front of the line, paid admission and entered the spiral staircase of 130 steps that plunges deep under the streets of Paris. Once underground, there are a series of educational panels about the history of the catacombs, and you should definitely read these because the options for English start to run out eventually. Then, you start walking again…….. down an incredibly long hand-dug access tunnel with low ceilings that must have gone half a mile or more. Eventually, you arrive at the entrance: The Empire of the Dead.
I’m really sad that I don’t have a better understanding of the history of this place. What I gathered was that they emptied out the cemeteries of some of the oldest overcrowded churchyards in Paris and moved the bodies underground, but my learning is vague on that. Once I entered the catacombs, I found myself all alone for the entire journey through the winding maze. It’s a one-way path, and you can’t get lost, so I just made my way at a leisurely pace. It is really astounding when you think about the number of skeletons present, all formed into walls of bones stacked up. I was never really scared, as this kind of thing doesn’t creep me out, but I really wished I had been able to make my tour because I feel like I missed out on so much information. Everything was in French at that point, so I had no idea what I was looking at. I definitely should have gotten the audio guide!
Arriving at the end of the catacombs, you again have to walk back up a very high spiral staircase which emerges into a cool gift shop. What I didn’t fully understand is that you exit the catacombs about half a mile away from where you entered. Surprise! Eventually I was able to find the nearest metro stop which was not exactly close by. All in all it was a pretty frustrating morning, but at least it was a big item checked off my list that I wanted to see, even if the circumstances weren’t ideal.