Sunday, February 25, 2018

Paris Catacombs and the Unknown Soldier under L'Arc de Triomphe

Fascinating fact of the day: Getting back into Paris last night and chatting to the cabbie, having told him we had just come back from the Western Front, he told us a military story. I can't find anything about it online to back it up but, if it's true it would be the ultimate military mistake.


He said, several years ago that DNA was taken from the unknown soldier at L' arc de Triomphe buried by the eternal flame and he turned out to be an Australian.

He said they now know his name, so he is now also not unknown. I asked would they replace him, he said "No", but some are upset about the fact The Unknown Soldier is not French. The cabbie said, "The Aussie probably snuck into French lines for some red wine and was killed." Seems far fetched, but he swore it was true. C'est la guerre and indicates how hard it is to ID the dead.

We went to the catacombs straight after returning to Paris. A fascinating story about how Paris is almost completely undermined by ancient quarries. Some dating back to prehistory. The buildings are built from limestone quarried directly underneath them. The city is propped up with walls running through the quarries now.  Accordingly, it is a feature of most lease contracts in Paris now, that you sign away your right to compensation should your apartment building fall into the abyss. Some buildings in the early days of Paris fell into sinkholes. All heavily monitored now. Have a look at the model below.  You can see street level, the metro tunnel, sewers and all the walls in the ancient quarries propping up the city.

Paris also had a problem with burials.  Once Christianity became fashionable, cremations were no longer allowed.  So bodies were buried in mass graves with no headstones at first. There was a lot of death back then and the average life span was 22. 
Limestone was chucked over bodies in the mass graves and they decomposed in 9 days on average. It all got too much, with disease and filth, as the burial grounds were not fenced and animals roamed freely digging bones up etc.
So it was decided to exhume the bones and stack them in the as then unused quarries under Paris. There are 6 million bodies down there and only 2 million Parisians living today. So you can imagine the scale. In one place they are stacked 15m deep. Plague victims, guillotined aristocracy and everything in between is down there. Lots with bullet holes in the skull. One skeleton with a bullet hole to the skull survived, as the bone continued to grow around the bullet hole.  I was fascinated by the forensics of the experience.
The catacombs of Paris opened as a tourist attraction in 1810. In the early days many tourists were lost and there are some gaps in the arrangement of bones where people have stolen skulls. We had a guide and she was brilliant. We learned so much of the history of Paris.  This is a definitely fabulous Parisian activity.

Surprisingly the kids handled it like champions and were not at all frightened, then or since.

For more travel stories go here


  1. Bonjour,

    Un article très intéressant...
    Oui le chauffeur de taxi a raison...
    Gros bisous

  2. Wow Martin. How interesting you can confirm he is Australian. That info has never even made the news in Australia.

  3. Sorry Martine not Martin. Auto correct is so annoying.


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