You might think of Paris as the city of love. Romance by the Seine. Kissing outside the Musee D’Orsay. Market stalls selling books and postcards. The Eiffel Tower peeking through a light mist. Huddling to discuss love and philosophy within the warmth of the cafes at St Germaine.
All of that can be yours, but what you might not know is there’s another Paris, an edgier Paris, an underground Paris. And by underground, we mean under the ground.
This is the Paris that exists 20m below the bedrock of the city, where kilometres of random, twisting, occasionally claustrophobic tunnels make up the catacombs.
If you’re ever in Paris and feel like looking at catacombs, which are a mix of former limestone mining tunnels and a massive 18th century burial ground, you can go to the official version at 1 Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, just south of the Luxembourg Gardens. There is an official doorway and convenient stairs heading down, plus lighting, and a cool sign that reads, Arrete! C’est ici l’empire de la Mort (“Stop! Here lies the Empire of Death”), just before you get to carefully stacked and arranged skulls and bones from some of the countless bodies said to be buried in the catacombs.
That’s one option. The other is illegal and not advised.
Every city, including Melbourne, has its cavers and Paris has a snaking system of off-limits underground passages that attracts people of passion.
In Paris these urban desperados are known as the “cataphiles” – the locals who prefer to explore the large, rambling, dangerous tunnels of the blocked-off and illegal-to-access catacombs.
If you connect with the cataphiles, they will vividly tell you what they see and do down there. On a weekend there can be up to 100 people partying in one of the blocked-off catacombs’ caverns.
But on a Monday night, near midnight and deep within the catacomb system, they say there is a good chance they won’t see anybody in the tunnels. Assuming the headband torches hold out and they can see anything at all, of course.
The blocked-off catacombs are part of the city’s reserve water supply, which is just one of the reasons nobody is supposed to be wandering around in there.
Experienced cataphiles wear thigh-high wader pant-boots, and everybody has a head torch and a supply of spare batteries. After all, they can’t afford to mess around when edging illegally through thigh-deep water in a 15th century yellow clay tunnel.
There are many entrances and exits but there is also a constant battle with the gendarmes; the cataphiles live in fear of being arrested as they head into the catacombs. Worse is the fear that the police will have blocked a favoured exit, which cataphiles won’t know about until a manhole cover won’t move, or they find a hole has been filled in.
Given it takes eight hours to work through the maze of tunnels from south to north on the night they explained their world to me, finding the exit had been blocked would have needed another eight hours to retrace steps.As it was past 3am when they arrived at the exit, this was no small threat. Even when the manhole was open, there remained the fear of being discovered as they emerged, covered head to toe in yellow clay and water.
Moving through the catacombs is a feat of physical endurance, they say. While the official version is made for tourist-friendly wandering, the other tunnels are challenging. There are sections where ceilings have collapsed and many places where a cataphile must crawl or worm on their stomach through narrow tunnels. At other times, care must be taken not to step on the human bones scattered along the path.
One circular room deep within the catacombs has a mountain of bones, where hundreds of bodies were dumped and closed off until a hole was knocked in the wall. A cataphile said this room is the result of a plague that hit Paris in the 18th century, and was blamed on the Cimetiere des Innocents, a large cemetery in the heart of Paris. Another version says a wall of the cemetery collapsed after heavy rain, spilling bodies into the neighbouring property. Paris was overflowing with bodies and there was fierce debate about moving the dead. From the 1780s, an estimated six million bodies were dumped underground.
The catacombs cover a vast area under the south of the city. There are all kinds of marvels, they say. A famed French street artist has created angel skeletons that point the way through the tunnels. One room has a wall-sized version of Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa. Another has Heath Ledger’s Joker from the The Dark Knight, and another has Ghostbusters and a yellow clay take on the original Mad Max image. One room has a giant golem and there is a room decorated in tinsel, baubles and Santa Claus figurines.
There’s a German war bunker (Hitler is said to have urinated there), a Resistance bunker and the only official grave in the catacombs. Philibert Aspairt, one of the original cataphiles, disappeared down there in 1793. His body was found 11 years later and properly buried.