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.
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.
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.
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 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).
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).
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).
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.
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) . . .
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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