Inside the city of the dead hidden under Paris

Damond Isiaka
17 Min Read


CNN
 — 

Charming. Historic. Romantic. Paris’s allure remains undimmed. The City of Light is a shining beacon, welcoming in visitors from all over the world keen to indulge in a spot of joie de vivre.

For two years running, it has topped Euromonitor International’s poll of the world’s most attractive cities, winning out when it comes to tourism, sustainability, economic performance and health and safety.

All of this will be on show when Paris hosts the 2024 Olympics and Paralympics in July and August, 100 years since the last time the Games were held on French soil.

Enduring sites and streets of unrivaled beauty continue to make it such a big draw. From the traffic braving the Arc De Triomphe to the scene-stealing Eiffel Tower, via the ghoulish Catacombs and the resurgent majesty of Notre Dame, Paris is a place where dreamers and history lovers will always feel at home.

Rising from the ashes

Fire engulfed Notre Dame in April 2019, destroying its roof.

It’s at Notre Dame where Paris’s past and present meet. Work began on arguably the world’s most iconic cathedral in 1163, its position on the banks of the Seine making it one of the city’s most striking landmarks. It bore witness to the French Revolution, Napoleon’s coronation as Emperor of France and two world wars.

But in April 2019, it suffered a devastating fire during a planned restoration, the blaze destroying the wooden ceiling and sending its spire tumbling into the cathedral’s nave. Remarkably, the grand façade, the organ, all the stained glass windows and works of art were only slightly damaged and remained intact.

But in December 2024, Notre Dame will open its doors once more, with work that many predicted would take 20 years completed in just five. Two thousand sculptors, stone masons, carpenters and artists were drafted in, their expertise ensuring that the restoration has left the cathedral looking virtually identical to how it did before the fire.

Philippe Jost took over as president of the restoration in 2023 and says the wooden ceiling presented the biggest challenge.

“The oak structure, known as ‘La Floret,’ burned to the ground. It is now rebuilt. We searched for thousands of oak trees in the forests of France,” he says.

Jost adds that there was nothing that the team could not restore.

“You cannot identify what has been rebuilt, because it’s the same stone and type of work. It’s the respect we owe the monument.”

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“I think we’re at 85% or 90%,” he says when asked about how close he and his team are to completion.

The work here is utterly incredible, a testament to the fact that such craftsmanship still exists in the 21st century.

The naked columns of the cathedral soar up to the ceiling; the walls, stripped of centuries of dust and grime, appear brand new.

The cost of the fire hasn’t just been financial. The careful cleaning and restoration – ensuring the health of the building for perhaps centuries to come – has stolen some of the mystical gloom and charm that visitors will remember, but that’s a small price to pay for bringing such an important building back from the brink.

A deathly detour

The remains of six million Parisians are entombed in catacombs under the French capital.

Paris’s past isn’t just visible at street level, however. Walk into an unremarkable building in the Montparnasse district and take the stairs below ground and you’ll find a very real reminder of the people who once called this city home: the Paris Catacombs.

Six million souls lie buried here, in what is thought to be one of the world’s largest mass graves.

“These are all the people who lived in Paris for the past 10 centuries,” says our guide as we walk past rows of skulls and bones, neatly arranged into the walls of these one-time limestone quarries.

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In the late 18th century, Paris faced a grim reality: overflowing cemeteries posed a dire health threat to its inhabitants. The solution was to take the bodies from these former resting places and move them into a dedicated ossuary housed within the city’s extensive underground limestone quarries.

The catacombs themselves occupy just a small fraction of the 300 kilometers of quarries that form an intricate network beneath Paris’s streets. So vast are they that whole communities are said to live within them, with literal underground raves a cornerstone of the city’s alternative party scene.

The sheer number of human remains here cannot help but cause deep contemplation.

“This whole theatricality is efficient because everyone who does the tour at some point thinks about his or her own death,” says our guide. “Thinking ‘Yeah, me too one day!”

Yes you can can

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<a href="https://www.cnn.com/" class="video-resource__source-url">CNN</a>
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<span class=”byline__name”>Mark Tutton</span>
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Driving through Paris in a Deux Chevaux

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CNN

While the dead make for a somewhat morbid distraction, there is something a lot more lively on Boulevard de Clichy, in a place that has been serving up a good time since 1889. The Moulin Rouge.

The birthplace of the high-kicking can-can dance, it pioneered a new form of cabaret when it opened in the late 19th century, starting a craze that endured for the best part of 100 years. It was also a byword for the Belle Epoque period, when prosperity and progress pointed towards a better world.

Today, it remains every bit as iconic (apart from the occasional mishap), its dancers dressed in stunning costumes that make their moves even more impressive.

“When you first start wearing it, I wouldn’t say it’s easy, but I’ve been dancing here now for six years so I feel like it’s a part of me,” says Jasmine, one of the dancers who dons these amazing outfits twice a night, every night.

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Each one is hand-made and tailored to the dancers, with more than three kilometers of the finest ostrich feathers used each year for these creations. They are meticulously crafted by Maxime Leroy and his team at Maison Fevrier – a prestigious feather atelier that’s been in the game for nearly a century. They need to strike a tricky balance, being heavy without weighing down the dancers when they take to the stage and perform their famous kicks.

“It’s all about how you finish,” says Jasmine when revealing how to can-can properly, explaining that you need to stand up straight and aim for a classic kick with a straight leg. It’s not as easy as it sounds and even harder to do. It’s why, perhaps, the Moulin Rouge endures to this day.

A foodie paradise

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<span class=”byline__name”>Barry Neild</span>
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Learning how to cook the perfect French omelette

04:43

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CNN

The French aren’t known for their patience, but when it comes to food, they take their time. Like waiting in line, no matter how long, for their morning baguette.

Modern technology has streamlined many aspects of bread production. Yet in Paris, there’s still a strong tradition of artisanal craftsmanship and patrons are willing to pay a bit more for it. In fact, in 2022 UNESCO added the French baguette to its list of cultural heritage items, recognizing its significance and importance to the French way of life.

And while baking your own is unlikely to match up to one you buy, you can at least have a go at that other Parisian staple, the omelet. And no one knows how to make one better than chef Yannick Alleno. With 16 Michelin stars under his belt, he knows what he’s talking about. In fact, he says that when training new chefs, an omelet is the best dish for them to start with.

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“You have to tell them to make an omelet,” he says. “This is the most difficult thing to realize. Because you’re using two hands. You move the pan and you have to look and control the fire under. Cooking is a dance with the fire. You should know how to dance with the fire. The omelet is the perfect thing for that.”

Alleno’s method requires four eggs, milk and a grinding of pepper, before cooking over a high heat, rolling the pan as you go to ensure it’s properly cooked but never hard on the edges.

“Because we are in France…pepper (in the mix), butter on the top. That’s what I like,” grins Alleno as he works his magic. It might seem a simple dish, but eat an omelet in Paris and you’ll leave dreaming of making your own in the same way.

The Eiffel Tower’s little-known apartment

Gustave Eiffel, depicted here in waxwork, maintained an apartment high up the tower named after him.

Of course, no trip to Paris would be complete without taking the time to scale the Eiffel Tower. The city’s tallest building and its most iconic site, it is the symbol not just of Paris, but of France too. And few people know as much about it as tour guide Jose Ruiz Cobo.

Cobo is an Eiffel Tower veteran, having worked here for 21 years, but says he never tires of climbing this most incredible of buildings.

“Especially this early when there’s no one here and you can really enjoy the view,” he says as we head towards the top at the start of the day.

For Cobo though, the public viewing area at the top isn’t the most special part of the Eiffel Tower. Instead, it’s the private apartment of Gustav Eiffel, the engineer who came up with this amazing structure.

Found at the tip of the tower, this small space is stuffed full of history, a place for its creator to contemplate his greatest achievement, a building meant to stand for just 20 years after its construction for the 1889 World Exhibition.

The 100-meter square apartment was slimmed down to make way for public restrooms, but remains as magical as you would imagine. And despite countless offers, Eiffel refused to allow tenants to take up residence.

“They offered huge sums of money to rent it for a night,” says Cobo. “But he was so obsessed with science that he refused. He would only bring family, friends and scientists. The most famous guest is probably… Thomas Albert Edison who brought his recording device.”

It’s part of the Eiffel Tower that few realize is here. Not that the view alone isn’t reason enough to queue for hours on end, of course. It’s undoubtedly the best way to see all of Paris, a city that’s impossible not to love. The views in all directions are quite magnificent, imbuing visitors with the urge to see and experience as much of it before they have to depart.

CNN’s Joseph Ataman contributed to this story.

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