Paris is the City of Lights, but it is also a City of the Dead. For a city that’s been around since Roman times, it’s understandable that there have been some dark periods. There are still tangible remnants of the violence from the French Revolution, mainly decapitated statues. And then there are the infamous locations, such as the Place de la Concorde, where King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette met the guillotine.
We chose three locations in Paris to visit that might not be in everyone’s Top Ten, but I felt were important historically and allowed us to pay our respects.
Les Catacombes de Paris
The Paris Catacombs are home to an estimated 6 million dead. The origin story is quite interesting. Many Paris cemeteries were collapsing and sanitation conditions lead to the clever idea of filling in the empty quarry tunnels below the city with the surviving bones. In 1785, officials and priests transferred the first bones from Saints-Innocents cemetery and deposited them in the (consecrated) tunnels below the Place Denfert-Rochereau. In all, remains from 17 cemeteries, 160 places of worship, and 145 monasteries and convents were relocated to the catacombs. You can find a load of facts and figures here.
The ossuary was officially opened to the public in 1809, but many dignitaries (and curiosity-seekers) got private tours as early as 1787. If you want to go today, be sure to plan ahead and get your timed ticket. The official website only sells tickets one week in advance. Direct tickets were sold out when we checked, so we had to go through a third party. This ended up doubling the price; $30 from the Paris Museum Billetterie vs. $65 through Viator.
You should also know that there are a lot of stairs (31 down and 112 up), plus it’s dark and narrow, and of course, creepy. The website’s disclaimer:
The site is not recommended for the motor disabled, pregnant women, individuals suffering from claustrophobia or cardiac or respiratory insufficiency, sensitive individuals who may be disturbed by the site. The atmosphere may be anxiogenic for individuals with mental disabilities.
Mark went down below, I did not. I waited patiently at the Cafe Rendezvous. He said it was a unique experience, but agreed that I would not have enjoyed the dark, close quarters. (Best to know your limitations!)
A Sad Chapter
Very close to Notre Dame cathedral is the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation. This is a memorial to the more than 200,000 people (mostly Jewish) deported from France to the Nazi concentration camps in WWII. Many made a stop in Compiegne before their final destination. (See my post about the Royallieu-Compiègne memorial.)
It’s a somber place, very symbolic. Architectural Digest included it in their list of “14 Famous Monuments and Memorial Buildings Around the World.” (https://www.architecturaldigest.com/gallery/memorial-architecture-slideshow)
If you visit Notre Dame, be sure to take 30 minutes or so to walk through. Admission is free.
The French Resistance and the Liberation of Paris
Just across the street from the entrance to the Paris Catacombs, is the Musée de la Libération de Paris and General Leclerc museum – Jean Moulin museum. I’ll admit I didn’t know much about the French Resistance beyond what was in movies or TV shows. And I’d never heard of Leclerc or Moulin. This museum gives a detailed chronology of life in France from the end of World War I to the final days of Nazi occupation and liberation.
A portion of the museum is in the underground bunker that was the August 1944 command post of Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, head of French Forces of the Interior (FFI) in Paris.
One exhibit that is particularly moving and enlightening covers the five-day period from August 19 to August 26, 1944. The Nazis were pulling out, but not yet gone and those five days were deadly for the Resistance and the citizens of Paris. Parisiennes old and young ripped up the stones from the streets and built more than 600 barriers to protect their homes and impede the Nazis. Today there are approximately 500 memorial plaques throughout Paris streets marking places where Resistance fighters and Paris citizens died for France. Here is a BBC story that details many of these stories.
An estimated 800 to 1,000 Resistance fighters were killed in the Battle for Paris, with another 1,500 wounded.
I learned a lot about the French Resistance and the Liberation. The story is told through personal effects and stories and many photos and videos. It is well worth visiting and admission is free.