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Best Paris Underground Tour: Les Carrières des Capucins

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Now that you have read the Underground Paris Guide, we can talk about our favorite Paris Underground Tour, Les Carrières des Capucins. Amongst all the underground Paris tours, the former Capuchins’ Quarries outstands for its beauty and historical importance.

Les Carrières des Capucins is a medieval limestone quarry located under the Cochin Hospital, on the site of the former Capuchin Novitiate. The remains of this interesting network of galleries, 1.2 km long, are approximately 18m below the ground and cover part of the above Boulevard Port-Royal, the Cochin Hospital, and Rue de la Santé in Paris 5, 13 and 14.

This limestone quarry was exploited between the 12th and 17th centuries and it was consolidated in the 18th century. Today, the medieval 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 in 1999 (the whole site).

This unusual and rather confidential Paris underground tour, done under the light of a torch, 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, below the streets of Paris that we see today, the Paris of the 17th century still exists, tucked forever within the walls of Les Carrières des Capucins.

Carrières des Capucins Underground Tour

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The Quarries’ General Inspection

Vaulted Rooms - Carrières des Capucins

The Parisian region is particularly rich in limestone. Since the 1st century C.E, Romans started to exploit 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.

The underground quarries were exploited as long as good quality limestone was available. When there was no more stone to extract, quarries were closed and abandoned.

The history of the 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 18th century, the city’s subsoil and that of its suburbs were extensively excavated, leaving behind huge abandoned and barely indexed quarries. Paris was like a huge “gruyère cheese” and, inevitably, collapse (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 to avoid more accidents. The Inspection Générale des Carrières also proceeded to the quarries’ study and mapping. What we can see today in the Quarries of the Capuchins is the result of their work.

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Carrières des Capucins in Paris

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Carrières des Capucins Underground Tour

Carrières des Capucins Visit

Visiting Les Carrières des Capucins is not easy. There are few tours (1 tour every 1-2 months) and they are usually scheduled only 1-2 weeks in advance.

The only way to join a tour (unless you are part of a local association) is to email them and ask to include you on the waiting list for the 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 is in front of Cochin Hospital, in the 14th District of Paris. Here, we are not far from the Catacombs of Paris, the most popular underground tour.

The visit to Les Carrières des Capucins starts climbing down some 200 steps. We are going to walk 18 meters below the streets of Paris, with a temperature of 13C° and 95% humidity so a jacket or a pullover + sturdy shoes are recommended.

 

Underground Paris

Carrières des Capucins Paris Underground Tour

Paris underground was a reflection of the city above ground. This means that the underground galleries followed the same plot as the Parisian streets and they had the same kind of street signs than on the surface. While some old streets disappeared due to the Haussmannian works, they still exist underground with their original street signs from the 18th and 19th centuries.

In the picture above we can see Rue des Capucins. This street disappeared on the surface but it still exists underground. To help with navigation, the street signs were positioned according to the cardinal points just like on the surface.

Carrières des Capucins Tunnels

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Stone Inscriptions (and a Couple of Fleur de Lis)

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

During the French Revolution, 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 hidden in the galleries of the Quarry. Can you find the Fleur de Lis on the picture below?

Underground Street Names - Carrières des Capucins

The 4D2 2R inscription on the picture below (second row) is a date of the Republican Calendar. This extravagant calendar, (also called Revolutionary Calendar) was created during the French Revolution to avoid any relationship with the religion or monarchy. Indeed, 2R stands for the second year of this Republican Calendar (1793).

Republican Calendar - Carrières des Capucins

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Other Curious Things

This Paris underground tour is full of interesting sights and quirky curiosities. There is, for example, the Capuchins Fountain (1810), which was used to measure the water table in this area and visitors still can see the carved scale with the metric system.

This water basin was the first underground monument to be classed as a Historical Monument in France (1990) while the ensemble of Les Carrières des Capucins was classed as a Historical Monument later in 1999.

Water Bassin Carrières des Capucins

The picture below shows an inspection well (1841) and during the visit, it is also possible to see some of the former extraction wells.

The Quarry of the Capuchins is also decorated with contemporary sculptures done by the most talented members of the association. An example of these sculptures is the beautiful replica of the “Scala Philosophorum” located at Notre Dame’s entrance (Paris 4), on the main pillar. This sculpture has a strong symbology: it reminds visitors that part of Notre Dame was built with stones coming from this quarry.

Scala Philosophorum - Carrières des Capucins

Underground Sculptures - Carrières des Capucins

Inspection Well - Carrières des Capucins

On the way, a Capuchin monk and quarry-man mannequins welcome the visitors at the entrance of two galleries. This is just a concession to one of the members of the association, who worked with mannequins in the past. He retired a long time ago but he still likes to play with mannequins and dress them like in the 17th century. Because he is always very kind to everybody, the association lets him place his mannequins here and there.

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

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The History of the Champignons de Paris (Button Mushrooms)

At the beginning of the 19th century, the intensive exploitation of the quarries was banned and the underground quarries were abandoned.

At the same time, in 1814, a market gardener in Rue de la Santé, called Chambry, had the idea of ​​exploring the old quarries located ten meters below his gardens. Apparently, the well which served as access had filtered horse dung. The man was surprised to discover a superb swarm of mushrooms on it, he harvested them and decided to abandon his vegetable gardens to invest himself entirely in the underground cultivation of the mushroom.

The lucky 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 button mushrooms. Some of the first mushroom farmers were former quarry-men and they entered the closed quarries through the air wells. Quarries became soon as prized as when they were used for stone extraction, with a total production of around 2,000 tons of button mushrooms a year.

Today, the only mushroom farms of this kind are located in the departments of Oise and the Yvelines in Ile-de-France and the access is via gentle slopes or hollows.

Mushroom Farming in the Quarries

Did you like this visit to Les Carrières des Capucins? What is your favorite Paris Underground tour?

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  • 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.

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

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

  • 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.

    • 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 . .

  • 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.

    • 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!

  • 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.

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

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

  • 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!

    • 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 . . .

  • 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!

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

      Thank YOU 🙂

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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!

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

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

  • 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.

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

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

  • 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 🙂

    • 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 🙂

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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

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

  • 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!

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

      yes, yes, yes . . . 🙂

  • 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.

    • 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

  • 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!

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

      Paris underground is really cool! 🙂

  • 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.

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

      It sounds great! 🙂

  • 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!

  • 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!

    • 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!

  • 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 .

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

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

  • 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 .

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

      Cool to read that 🙂

  • 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!

    • 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