Illegal underground: Paris
It is five o’clock in the morning. I am crouching in a tunnel about four feet wide. Cold, silted water floods the passageway up to my knees.
My legs are sore and my shorts are damp and filthy with mud. The harsh, white beam of my headlamp conquers the next four or five metres of the tunnel before fading to black; without the light, I cannot even see the tip of my nose in the inky darkness. I lean to one side and put my hand on the wall to steady myself. The ancient limestone bricks are cool to the touch. I notice an inscription: BOULEVARD ST. JACQUES. It is the name of the street passing twenty metres above me—a strange reminder that I am indeed still in Paris, although this is a side of the city that few Parisians, and even fewer tourists, ever experience.
Any Parisian guidebook will recommend a visit to les catacombes, the underground ossuary where six million human skeletons are stacked together in a mass grave like so many toothpicks. Visitors to this profoundly creepy attraction learn that in the eighteenth century, as the city’s cemeteries ran out of room for fresh corpses, bodies were exhumed and relocated to a stretch of abandoned mining tunnels.
What visitors may not realise is that there are nearly three hundred kilometres of tunnels that are not part of the official tour. These are the famous carrières de Paris, and exploring them is a secret — and sometimes dangerous — Parisian tradition. Lucky for me, the friends who graciously welcomed me when I arrived in Paris in June, 2012 for a month-long working holiday are cataphiles: intrepid hobbyists who illegally explore the sections of the catacombs which are closed to the public.
I knew before I arrived that I would be on the guest list for a subterranean adventure. What I did not know was what to expect when it actually came time to slip away underground. I was definitely nervous. The afternoon before we went in I sat at my computer googling “explore catacombs death” and “trapped underground in Paris” just to make sure that no bad omens would pop up. I didn’t find any horror stories, but I remained anxious. What I did know, at least, was that I would be in good hands. My guides for the night, Alex and Jo, sometimes went under two or three times a week. They had detailed maps of the system and had visited this particular section a few times before. In certain stretches of the mines there are risks of cave-ins and dangerously low oxygen levels, but the area we would be exploring was known to be safe. Nonetheless, when I asked my host, Laurel, what to pack for the adventure the answer was slightly ominous: “You need a flashlight, good hiking boots, and enough food and water to last a day. Just in case we get lost.”
Laurel and I met up with the rest of our crew at a bistro around 11 p.m. to drink last-minute espressos and pore over the maps, but soon enough we were on our way. We came to a bridge crossing the abandoned Petite ceinture railway, which encircles most of Paris. One by one, the seven of us hopped over the concrete ledge, deftly dodging metal spikes meant to keep trespassers at bay. A hidden staircase greeted us on the other side and lead us down to the tracks, which we followed into the gaping mouth of a railway tunnel. Headlamps on, we stumbled a couple hundred metres until someone announced the good news. “We’re here!”
“Here” was a small hole in the side of the tunnel, not much bigger than a rabbit hole.
The entrance was no bigger than a rabbit hole
My nerves came back to me. What am I doing? But moments later, I was pushing my knapsack in ahead of me and wriggling through the hole feet-first. The first stretch of the passageway was only about four feet high. I switched my knapsack around to my front to make some extra room and crawled my way along. Finally, after twenty or thirty metres, the passage opened up to the point where I could just barely stand. We regrouped and set off down the first tunnel. Just like that, my nervousness faded and became excitement. This is going to be pretty fucking cool. For perhaps half an hour we walked straight ahead as the water on the ground became so deep that my companions were wading up to their knees. Meanwhile, I aptly hopped from rock to rock, my long legs helping me stay dry. We travelled up and down stairs carved into the stone, ducked under short arches in some places, and marvelled at the high vaulted ceilings in others.
An underground book exchange
Occasionally, we passed intersections where different tunnels would meet. Without a map and guide, the corridors would be an interminable labyrinth, and there are stories of careless adventurers being lost for a day or two at a time. Most of the fun of a visit to the catacombs, though, is visiting the various “rooms”, sections where tunnels open into galleries that have been painted, decorated, carved, renovated, or otherwise reimagined by cataphiles. Over their 800-year history, the catacombs have been used for Catholic masses, punk concerts, raves, dinner parties, movie screenings, and even as Nazi bunkers and a secret network for the French Résistance in World War II.
Candle-lit dinner in Paris' underground tunnels
On this particular night, we stopped for a candle-lit dinner in the Salle du dragon, a beautiful and spacious room named for the elaborate dragon carving that heralds its entrance. We passed by the “library”, which runs on a take-a-book, leave-a-book system. Equally charming was Salle X, where a table and benches are carved out, allowing us a surprisingly civilised place to share a drink, tell jokes, and even take an early-morning nap to rally our strength for the long trek back to civilization.
Salle X with carved out table and seating
As we crawled out of the rabbit hole around eight a.m. and shielded our eyes against the morning light beckoning us from the end of the railway tunnel, I began to understand why the carrières have such an appeal for brave locals. Despite its beauty, Paris sometimes left me craving a little peace and quiet, but my cataphile friends knew where to find a refreshing and exciting solitude that can only be good for a person’s mind and spirit. After all, the only place in the City of Light where you can wander around for eight hours without bumping into another one of its ten million citizens is in the deep, dark underground.
Soon we were standing on the street again, wet, muddy, and completely dishevelled, congratulating ourselves on our successful adventure.
A pretty, young woman passing by on rollerblades slowed as she approached us and gave me a shy but knowing look. She hesitated for a moment before speaking. “Les catacombes?” she asked. “Oui,” I answered.
May 11, 2013