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Carrières des Capucins: locals’ alternative to Paris Catacombs

Paris underground is not only about the Paris Catacombs, there are other incredible things under the streets of Paris. A good alternative to Paris Catacombs is les carrières des Capucins or quarries of the Capuchins in English. The quarries of the Capuchins is a former medieval quarry of stone built (limestone) which was exploited between the XIIth and XVIIth centuries. This limestone quarry is located under the 14th, 13th and 5th Paris districts, under the Cochin Paris hospital, part of boulevard Port-Royal and rue de la Santé. Its name comes from the Monastery of Capuchins (XVIIth century) located right above the limestone quarry. Today, this quarry is maintained and enhanced by a non-profit association, in the form of a museum. It is thanks to their great volunteer job that les carrières des Capucins became the first Paris underground site to be registered as Historic Monument, in 1990 (partially) and 1999.

This unusual and rather confidential torch light tour unveils part of the city’s exceptional industrial heritage (the world of underground quarries) and some interesting curiosities. This tour is also a step back in time: indeed, under the XXIth century Paris streets, the Paris of the XVIIIth century still exists inside the quarries of the Capuchins.

Carrières des Capucins is locals' alternative to Paris Catacombs

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A LITTLE BIT OF HISTORY: QUARRIES’ GENERAL INSPECTION

The Parisian region is particularly rich in limestone. Since the 1st century C.E, Romans started exploiting the Bièvre valley to get enough stone for its civil constructions. From antiquity to the middle ages, Parisians used the “open quarry exploitation” method which required simple resources but a lot of manpower. When stone became scarce on the ground, trenches were dug deeper and deeper and quarry-men started to go underground. Paris underground quarries were exploited as long as good quality limestone was available. Then quarries were closed and abandoned.

The history of IGC (Inspection Générale des Carrières, Quarries’ General Inspection) starts in the middle of the intensive exploitation of the quarries in Paris and its region. In the XVIIIth century the city’s subsoil and that of its suburbs was extensively excavated, leaving behind huge abandoned and barely indexed quarries. Paris was like a huge gruyère cheese and inevitably collapses (land, houses or even street collapses) started to happen. After such disasters, the king created in 1776 the Inspection Générale des Carrières (IGC). This special service had the mission to inspect and consolidate the underground quarries. They also proceed to the quarries’ study and mapping. What we can see today in the quarries of the Capuchins is the result of their work.

Carrières des Capucins is locals' alternative to Paris Catacombs

 

QUARRIES OF THE CAPUCHINS: THE VISIT

Visiting the quarries of the Capuchins is not easy. Tours are scarce (1 tour every 1-2 months) and usually scheduled only 1-2 weeks in advance. The only way to join (unless you are part of a local association) is to email them and ask to include you in their next visit. Guided visits (2 hrs, in French) are proposed only for small groups (15 people maximum) because they want to keep the intimacy of the place.

Carrières des Capucins is locals' alternative to Paris Catacombs

The meeting point was in front of Cochin Paris Hospital, in the 14th Paris district. We are not far from the Catacombs of Paris. They don’t like to give the quarry’s exact location by email to avoid bad surprises. As you can imagine, the visit starts climbing down some steps (200 steps I think). We are going to Paris undergrond, 20 metres under the Paris streets with a temperature of 13C° and 95% of humidity.

Paris underground

Paris Underground

Paris underground was a reflection of the city above ground. This means that the underground galleries followed the same layout than the Parisian streets and they had the same kind of plaques than on the surface. While some old Paris streets disappeared due to the Paris Haussmann works, they still exist underground with their original street plaques from the XVIIIth and XIXth centuries. Rue des Capucins, disappeared on the surface but still intact underground, is just one example. To help with navigation, the street plaques were positioned according to the cardinal points just like on the surface.

Stone Inscriptions (and some fleur de lis)

During the visit we could see different stone inscriptions. Some stones had for example the Quarry Inspector’s monogram while others talk about different events happening in the city.

Some carved stones were intentionally damaged to erase the fleur de lis , the symbol of monarchy. However a couple of fleur de lis survived and we can still see them in the limestone quarry (first picture below).

some fleur de lis survived in Paris underground

The 4D2 2R inscription on the picture below (second row) is a date of the Republican Calendar (also called Revolutionary Calendar) created during the French Revolution. Indeed, 2R stands for the second year of this Republican Calendar (1793).

some fleur de lis survived in Paris underground

 

Other interesting curiosities

Along the visit we found some other interesting curiosities. The “Capuchins Fountain” (1810) was used to measure the water table in this area. The system used a carved scale with the metric system. This fountain was the first underground monument to be classed as Historical Monument in France (1990).

Paris underground Carrières des Capucins

We could also see an inspection well (1841) and a former extraction well. The quarry of the Capuchins is also decorated with some contemporary sculptures done by the association members. An example is a replica of the “Scala Philosophorum” located at Notre Dame’s entrance, on the main pillar. This is to remind visitors that part of the church was built with stones coming from this quarry.

Paris underground Carrières des Capucins

Paris underground Carrières des Capucins

Les carrières des Capucins is NOT a Paris attraction. However, a Capuchin monk and a quarry-man mannequins welcome the visitors at the entrance of two galleries. This is just a concession to one of the association’s members, who worked with mannequins in the past. He retired long time ago but he still likes to play with mannequins and dress them like in the XVIIth century. Because he is very kind, the association let him do it from time to time . . .

Finally, you can also see a “cabinet minéralogique” (=mineral cabinet of wonder) with the quarry’s different geological layers carved on a scale.

 

Champignons de Paris (Champignon Mushrooms)

At the beginning of the XIXth century, the intensive exploitation of the quarries was banned and the underground quarries were abandoned. At the same time, a Parisian named Chambry discovered by chance the link between the existing quarries in his neighborhood and the spawning of mushrooms on horse manure. The discovery turned into mushroom farming very fast. The customer demand was so high that all the Parisian quarries were transformed into underground culture fields for champignon mushrooms. Quarries became soon as prized as when they were used for stone extraction, with a total production of around 2000 tons of champignon mushrooms a year. Actually some of the first mushroom farmers were former quarry-men. I was not happy to learn about this part of the quarries’ history (and mushroom farming) . . .

mushroom farming at Carrières des Capucins

 

CARRIERES DES CAPUCINS : CONCLUSION

Les carrières des Capucins is an excellent visit to learn more about the city’s exceptional underground heritage. The limestone quarry is really beautiful and the guide is very entertaining, with lots of old Paris anecdotes to tell. If you are a history buff you will have a blast. With no crowds, no lines and a cost of 7 euros (Paris Catacombs costs 13€) it is without any doubt locals’ alternative to Paris Catacombs.

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41 Comments

  • Reply
    Sandy N Vyjay
    09/01/2017 at 3:32 am

    Walking in the streets of Paris, one can scarce imagine the fascinating world that exists in the dark recesses beneath the ground. carrières des Capucins is indeed intriguing, something that is a new find for me. Another Parisian treasure that one needs to make sure to visit.

    • Reply
      WorldInParis
      09/01/2017 at 2:35 pm

      Beautiful words, Sandy . . . I could not describe it better! 🙂

  • Reply
    Corinne
    08/30/2017 at 5:06 pm

    The older I get, the more claustrophobic I get so I’m not sure this is the Parisian site that I will go to first. However, it is interesting everything that is under the city. It’s fascinating.

    • Reply
      WorldInParis
      08/31/2017 at 5:52 pm

      Well, we were at 18m. I did not feel it claustrophobic except for a couple of narrow corridors . .

  • Reply
    Kavey Favelle
    08/27/2017 at 8:02 am

    What a fascinating place to discover. Love how the layout and names followed the streets of Paris above, and that some of the historic ones are still in existence down below even though they’ve long since disappeared above. And the water table measuring fountain is very clever too. The use of the abandoned quarries for mushroom farming makes sense, though it’s fortunate the historical details of the quarries weren’t destroyed during that period.

    • Reply
      WorldInParis
      09/01/2017 at 2:37 pm

      And good that there are non profit associations like this one who clean and take care of all these historical treasures!

  • Reply
    Jenn and Ed Coleman
    08/26/2017 at 7:00 pm

    You know the expression treat you like a mushroom. That’s where they keep you in the dark and feed you a bunch of b.s. I love this tour. The Paris underground, as a greater collection of sites, has always interested me. There is so much to see when you look under the surface.

    • Reply
      WorldInParis
      08/31/2017 at 6:01 pm

      I did not know this expression, ha haaa! I still can eat mushrooms since the visit . .

  • Reply
    Nathan
    08/22/2017 at 10:52 am

    How interesting- I have heard of the catacombs but never of these quarries. I would like to visit both when I’m in Paris although it seems difficult to get on a tour of these. Also, I had no idea that’s where those mushrooms came from. Yuck!

    • Reply
      WorldInParis
      08/22/2017 at 7:04 pm

      The mushrooms part was something that I did not appreciate either, lol. Haven’t bought Parisian mushrooms since that day . . .

  • Reply
    Juliette | Snorkels to Snow
    08/11/2017 at 11:11 am

    Wow! My eyes have just been opened up to another world in Paris! I love reading your local insights and all these incredible things that I had no idea about. What a great read to learn about this underground Paris, with all the same plaques as above. Remarkable!

    • Reply
      WorldInParis
      08/11/2017 at 12:53 pm

      Thank YOU 🙂

  • Reply
    Trisha Velarmino
    08/09/2017 at 3:10 pm

    There’s definitely more to Paris than the Eiffel Tower! I love how you shared the history of the place. I think that’s one of the advantages of having a guide when visiting places, especially the historical ones.

  • Reply
    Ryazan
    08/08/2017 at 9:28 pm

    Wow! this is the first time I’ve known about this place. It looks like it is absolutely worth checking out in Paris. Thanks for sharing this detailed guide.

  • Reply
    Paul
    08/08/2017 at 10:15 am

    This looks so fascinating! I never knew that this existed. I love that it’s not too touristy either, will definitely need to keep an eye out for a tour when we decide to visit Paris again!

    • Reply
      WorldInParis
      08/08/2017 at 2:55 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Paul! This is something to be planned in advance though . . .

  • Reply
    Lara Dunning
    08/08/2017 at 6:51 am

    What a fascinating place. I would love to go on this tour. Too bad they don’t run regularly. When I had that way I’ll try to remember to send them an email.

    • Reply
      WorldInParis
      08/08/2017 at 2:56 pm

      Usually they run tours once a month for privates but it may change . .

  • Reply
    Dave (Silverbackpacker)
    08/08/2017 at 2:17 am

    Exploring underground worlds is so fascinating and you make the Paris Underworld come alive with brilliant , interesting descriptions. I have a growing list of bookmarked places to visit in Paris on my next visit, thanks to you 🙂

    • Reply
      WorldInParis
      08/08/2017 at 2:57 pm

      What a beautiful comment! Thanks for visiting World in Paris and glad to know it is an inspiration for your Paris wish list 🙂

  • Reply
    Brianna
    08/07/2017 at 9:04 pm

    This looks AWESOME! I did a tour similar to this in a small city in Italy. I love seeing a city from underground.

  • Reply
    melody pittman
    08/07/2017 at 6:19 pm

    Interesting place to visit. I took my young daughters to the catacombs in Sicily and they were frightened out of their minds but at the same time, it was their favorite memory of our Mediterranean cruise. ;0 The bodies were close enough for us to touch and the clothes were still so in tact.

  • Reply
    Punita Malhotra
    08/07/2017 at 3:04 pm

    Underground tours like this one are so interesting. Although we haven’t been to this one in Paris, I am looking forward to one in Prague soon. Such a different way to experience a city.

    • Reply
      WorldInParis
      08/08/2017 at 10:32 pm

      Thanks for dropping by . . . can’t wait to read about your Prague experience!

  • Reply
    Siddhartha Joshi
    08/07/2017 at 4:23 am

    Wow…Paris never fails to surprise me! Not just catacombs, there is so much more underneath the city…amazing!

    • Reply
      WorldInParis
      08/08/2017 at 10:33 pm

      yes, yes, yes . . . 🙂

  • Reply
    Toni Broome
    08/07/2017 at 3:34 am

    Thats fascinating, I’ve not heard of these quarries underneath the city. It looks amazing and such a bargain to walk though such an interesting part of the citys history. Without the crowds is good to know too, I’m a bit concerned with the catacombs that being underground and so crowded it could be a bit claustrophovic for me to enjoy it.

    • Reply
      WorldInParis
      08/08/2017 at 10:11 am

      Although I had to queue 30-45 min to enter the catacombs, it was not very crowded below the ground. I think there is a limit of people underneath; hence this must be the reason for the long queues above ground

  • Reply
    Aleah | SolitaryWanderer
    08/07/2017 at 1:09 am

    At first glance, I thought that monk was real. Eeek. I’ve never been to Paris, and if I don’t have much time to spend there, I’d probably be spending it above ground LOL That said, this is an off the beaten path attraction that I would be willing to visit!

    • Reply
      WorldInParis
      08/10/2017 at 9:17 am

      Paris underground is really cool! 🙂

  • Reply
    RaW | Ramble and Wander
    08/06/2017 at 8:28 pm

    I’ve visited Paris 3 times to date but have yet to go and see the Catacombs. Am planning to see it during my next visit and hopefully there’d be a tour for this place as well at the time of my visit. Would be great to have an “underground” theme for my 4th visit, something different from the previous visits.

    • Reply
      WorldInParis
      08/06/2017 at 9:37 pm

      It sounds great! 🙂

  • Reply
    Angela @ Dang Travelers
    08/06/2017 at 8:15 pm

    We missed this when we visited France. Would love to get back and delve underground. Sounds like a unique experience indeed!

  • Reply
    Hugo Cura
    08/06/2017 at 1:53 pm

    This is very interesting! I had no idea this place existed. I visit Paris very often and will definitely email them to see if there are any available tours.

    The part about mushrooms is a bit bizarre!

    • Reply
      WorldInParis
      08/06/2017 at 2:07 pm

      Hey Hugo! If you want to visit them that’s how it works:
      email them showing your interest to participate in their next visit.
      they will save your info and when they schedule the following visit they will email you with the proposed date (usually 1-2 weeks in advance for a visit during the week starting at 5.30pm).
      reply to confirm your assistance. remember that there are only 15 spots available so first arrived first served
      if you can’t make it for that date reply anyway if you want them to consider for the visit after
      Remember that visits are in French

      You will make me know if it works, ok? Good luck!

  • Reply
    Jing
    08/06/2017 at 10:08 am

    It’s fascinating how the underground structures of Paris can be as interesting as the attractions above ground. I did not quite get why you hated that part of the mushroom growing underground. haha! I guess the high humidity was ideal for the mushroom growth .

    • Reply
      WorldInParis
      08/06/2017 at 2:01 pm

      Maybe I did not like the idea mushrooms were cultivated with horse sh*t . . . lol

  • Reply
    Karla
    08/05/2017 at 4:36 pm

    I spent a lot of time in the Paris catacombs and I enjoyed it although I also like visiting less known sites. This would be one of them .

    • Reply
      WorldInParis
      08/05/2017 at 10:15 pm

      Cool to read that 🙂

  • Reply
    Fiona Maclean
    08/05/2017 at 3:31 pm

    How fascinating. Part of Paris I’d never heard of, despite having visited so many times! I love the story of the mushrooms!

    • Reply
      WorldInParis
      08/05/2017 at 10:15 pm

      Oh, nooo. I hate the story of the mushrooms I think I won’t be able to eat more of those mushrooms again, lol

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