Catacombs of Paris
The Paris catacombs; sought after, fantasized and known world-wide by explorer types and the average Joe.
This being my first trip to Paris we had to make a visit to the catacombs something I have wanted to do since I was a kid and long before I started exploring. Below is an excerpt from Wikipedia:
“The Catacombs of Paris are underground ossuaries in Paris, France, which hold the remains of more than six million people in a small part of the ancient Mines of Paris tunnel network. Located south of the former city gate “Barrière d’Enfer” (Gate of Hell) beneath Rue de la Tombe-Issoire, the ossuary was founded when city officials had two simultaneous problems: a series of cave-ins beginning 1774, and overflowing cemeteries, particularly Saint Innocents. Nightly processions of bones from 1786 to 1788 transferred remains from cemeteries to the reinforced tunnels, and more remains were added during later years. The underground cemetery became a tourist attraction on a small scale from the early 19th century and has been open to the public on a regular basis since 1874 with surface access from a building at Place Denfert-Rochereau in the extreme southern part of the city of Paris.”
The Mysticism and pop/sub-culture history of the catacombs intrigued me; ‘A network of ancient tunnels running under a modern city?’ Who would not have their interests pricked! The Parisian Police even have their own unit dedicated to policing the tunnels, sealing access points and patrolling this rock carved underworld. The catacombs present themselves as a free art gallery, cinema, party venue, wine cellar, sleeping space for those who make it so. The dedicated explorers that regularly venture to the catacombs are colloquially known as ‘Cataphiles’, digging closed off passageways and making new accesses; these hardcore individuals are passionate about the catacombs and some have been visiting here for decades.
On with our small drop of adventure.
It was a baking hot summers day in the French capital. Shorts, trainers and plenty of water were the equipment necessary for our excursion. We had packed extra food and drink also, as there was a possibility of losing our way in these tunnels so we wanted to be prepared to spend longer than we had planned down there. After a short walk from our access with short broken French/English conversations with locals along the abandoned railroad track we were walking along, we arrived at the entrance to the catas. We changed into our hiking shoes, got our map out and descended into the dark tunnels.
Straight away we were crouch-walking and getting wet socks, within minutes we forgot about the outside world and were fully immersed in the mystical nature of these ancient tunnels. I was thinking about some history I had read before the trip in which the historian mentions the smuggling that happened using the tunnels, I could almost visualise the smugglers carrying crates of contraband deep beneath the streets lit only by carbide lamps and candles. This historical mirage quickly dissipated when we saw the remains of two city bikes covered in thick grey dust.
We reached a crossroads, the map was brought out again and we were planning our next move. As this was a Friday afternoon, traffic in the catas was low as all the regulars were at work and we were largely on our own. In the distance, in the direction we had come in, a small light coming towards us. The sound of French EDM was getting louder as the light was getting closer; if David Guetta was ever to direct a horror film, this would be it.
Our new friend was kitted out with a Bluetooth speaker, waders and an intense knowledge of the tunnels; so much so he had no map with him. After a brief conversation in broken English, he agreed to show us the castle room and some other famous rooms on the way but warned us of the water and to move our phones from our pockets into our bags. Next thing we knew we were wading through thigh deep cold water providing a refreshing cool down from the 35C temperatures above ground. The water was crystal clear until disturbed which made locating larger rocks very difficult and heightened the risk of a twisted ankle or something similar.
Our guide was moving fast and occasionally telling us to mind our heads on low sections of rock, French EDM providing the soundtrack to our adventure. In hindsight, hard hats or bicycle helmets would have been appropriate. We arrived at our first stop, the Castle room, and it was everything I imagined it to be. A whole miniature castle painstakingly carved by hand out of the rock! For no other reason than the sheer joy of it, no art commission or monetary gain down here. We got some food and drink out and sat on the carved stone benches while our guide lit his cigarette and we swapped snacks as a sign of appreciation for his help. A few torch lit photos later our guide gave us some of his candles and a lighter to help the ambiance of our pictures while telling us not to spend too much time in this room, gesturing to the large cracks in the rock ceiling.
We took our pictures, packed up and got ready to leave. Our guide told us of a shaft near where he was ‘working’ where it was possible to get phone signal, so we followed him through more tunnels, ducking, weaving and trying to keep up passing nobody else as we ventured north through the network. We came to a dead-end and thinking our guide had taken a wrong turn I was about to turn around and retrace our steps until he shone his torch to a small hole in the wall and threw his speaker into the opening, then with rehearsed speed he crawled through and dragged his bag through with him. I was next and we passed each other’s bags through the squeeze and emerged into a room mostly untouched by graffiti with a large metal shaft in the middle.
Mobile phone signal was not something I expected to get down here but it was a welcome break from being cut off from the outside world, probably showing how dependent we all are on them in this age. We swapped details with our guide in the hope of meeting with him again on our next trip across the channel. He showed us how to make a lantern out of an empty can and a candle as well as showing us on our map how to get out. He accompanied us to the squeeze section we had entered through, said our goodbyes and got walking again, the sound of the French electronica slowly fading. Smiles on our faces our next stop was ‘The Cellar’. Again, ducking weaving and utterly high on adventure we arrived at the narrow passage to the famous room.
As soon as we had wormed our way into this art gallery of a room, we were awestruck at the quality of some of the pieces and spent a long time snaking in and out of the large stone pillars looking at the amazing artwork. We were in this room for as long as we could trying to get good lighting and stay out of each other’s photographs as much as possible. But the clock was not waiting for us and it was soon time to move on.
As the night was drawing in the traffic in the tunnels increased, one of the most enjoyable parts of this adventure was the friendly party atmosphere in the catacombs. We passed a small room on our way out that was filled with people drinking, eating and smoking, we said hello in passing but were soon called back for a chat which was nice so we tried our best in French but the language barrier was strong so we said goodbye and continued on our path out. This to me was an incredible display of the power of subversive culture. Above ground this situation would never have happened! But underground in this off limits, mystical and importantly free space, inhibitions were relaxed and social class was forgotten allowing for real moments of human connection between strangers. I’m sure if we spoke French we would have stayed for wine and cheese with them!
Back into the cold deep water we pushed on, washing the dirt from our legs as we waded. We passed a well leading down to the lower levels and joked about getting scuba gear one day, which is an active practice in the catas as the lower levels of the network are flooded with water. Once out of the water we passed a group that had their dog with them, another thing I didn’t expect to see in the tunnels. Close to our exit we saw a passage leading off to our right and decided to have a look. Shin deep water this time we saw several wells leading down as well as an empty one that seemed to be around 10 meters deep into the lower levels of the catas, alas we had no ladder or rope gear so had to continue on. We saw stalactites on the walls and took a moment to admire them.
This was our final stretch to the exit now and a small wave of relief washed over me, especially after seeing a news report a few days before our trip about a group of teens who got lost for 3 days in the catas. Nevertheless, this will not my last trip into the catacombs and I look forward to going back underground. Until next time…
A massive thanks to the two I went on the trip with, the memories of the good laughs, microwave food, and badly pronounced french will stay with me forever.
And a big thanks to our guide who, without him, the trip would have been a lot shorter I’m sure.
Thanks for reading.
Until Next Time.