One Sunday not long ago, on a Paris street that shall remain nameless, I met up with a mustachioed Frenchman we’ll call Gilles. He wore tattered blue coveralls and carried a four-foot-long iron bar. When no one was looking, he pried open a manhole cover, and we disappeared into the underworld.
Like almost everyone in Paris, I had visited the catacombs before—at least the public part. You enter over at Denfert-Rochereau (where the original d’enfer part of the name, implying hellishness, earns its keep). There, for a modest fee you clomp down a hundred steps till you reach ghoulish chambers filled with human remains. A couple of centuries ago, after local cemeteries began leaking into the water table, workers transported the bones of six million Parisians there, assembling them in tidy, decorative stacks. When you visit now, you find whole galleries dedicated to skulls and femurs, and plaques bear sobering inscriptions about mortality.
But it turns out that those tourist tunnels are just the beginning. Paris is riddled with underground passages. After all, there are 100 miles of subway tunnels crisscrossing the city—not to mention thousands of kilometers of sewer, a subterranean river or two, and millions of utility lines. A century ago they installed twelve hundred kilometers of pneumatic conduits (no longer in service) used for whishing blue envelopes from one Paris post office to another. When you add street tunnels, wine cellars and naturally formed voids, it’s remarkable the City doesn’t collapse in a kind of real-life natural disaster movie.
If you think that situation is bad, you may not be heartened by what follows.
Seventy feet beneath the surface, well below the Métro and the RER, there lies a vast network of mines where limestone was quarried centuries ago. Starting in the twelfth century, people gutted the land for stone as they built places like Notre-Dame. A four-foot-thick layer of limestone extends south of the Seine, and quarrymen labored on all fours to extract blocks with hammer and chisel. Then they rolled slabs of stone toward the open shafts, where men inside hamster wheels winched them to the surface.
Digging cavities beneath your city has predictable consequences: it’s a bit like cutting off the branch you’re sitting on, or getting hoisted by your own petard—both of which lead to trouble. The quarries were shut down after buildings started disappearing into sinkholes, and throughout the nineteenth century engineers and masons were sent in to shore up the weaker bits. What remains is a colossal underground maze that only Minotaurs would find cozy.
We came to the bottom of a column of rungs, where we flicked on our headlamps.
What strikes you first in the quarries is just how orderly they are. Your imagination builds models of dank and cobwebby grottoes, but the passages are generally clean and crafted. Sometimes they grow wider than your outstretched arms, while at other moments you find your elbows knocking at the sides. Crouching is occasionally required, but often a tall-ish American can walk upright beneath stone ceilings that are crazed with cracks, bowing under the weight of the metropolis.
Gilles, as it happens, is something of an expert in Paris’s underground passages—not a simple thing to become, since entering the old quarries is illegal. There are plenty of devotees, known as cataphiles (the women are known as catafilles)—but there’s also an opposing group of cataflics (cata-cops) charged with keeping you out. The process is tricky: as soon as you reach out to a member of the cataphile underworld, they suspect you may be a cata-cop trying to infiltrate their ranks. First meetings remind of how hungry dogs approach each other in the street, sniffing with caution.
Once you get down there, it’s best to stick together. Gilles had told me the story of Philibert Aspairt, the patron saint of cataphiles—a fellow who lost his way in the tunnels when his lantern went out, and whose remains were found eleven years later.
“Don’t fall too far behind,” he advised as he strode off into the darkness.
I trotted to keep pace.
The surface of Paris is divided by roads and neighborhoods; you have your ritzy spots and you have your dumps. So it is, too, once you get under the city’s skin. A few haunts have been taken over for beer-drinking and other festivities. Some of the larger chambers have been converted into subterranean museums, sporting primitive sculptures in the rock, or mosaics—such as one composed of bottle caps that form a portrait of the singer Serge Gainsbourg. In one large cavity legend has it a chamber concert was once given, cellos and violas lowered down by ropes through a manhole.
But then comes the muck. As passageways dip and turn, you find yourself calf-deep in clay-colored water, and every so often there’s a passageway unsuited to the faint of heart (or the overweight).
And what for? Well, to see the secret side of Paris, for one thing. For another, to read it’s history on the walls: everywhere you turn there are traces of people’s passage—penciled markings from a hundred years ago, stenciled numbers left by the engineers, names gouged into the stone and mortar, dates. The catacombs are the unofficial archive of the city.
We were in a tight passage when a vibration began. Then a rumble came, louder and louder. I had the feeling a chasm was about to open, or a boulder would soon thunder down. But Gilles just lifted his head, and his moustache twitched.
“Line Six,” he said.
It was the Métro rolling forty feet overhead. Thus the bedrock shivered every ten minutes, each line singing its own melody.
And so we crept along, running into dead ends, backing up, studying and correcting Gilles’ hand-drawn map, until, six hours later, I found myself at the base of a ladder of iron rungs.
Up we scampered, popping out from a manhole at the edge of the city, next to a supermarket. We were covered with wet and clay, our hair slimed. But Parisians are world-weary. They have seen everything. So the appearance of two beings newly born of the earth itself doesn’t attract much attention. In six hours we had traversed centuries, from the construction of the great cathedrals to the Nazi Occupation. On the surface people glanced at their watches, fretting that the bakery was soon to close.
[Note: My time below the surface was in the company of an employee of the city of Paris. Otherwise, "spelunking" in the catacombs is illegal and can be dangerous. Secrets of Paris does NOT encourage that kind of activity!]
** Read our advice on how to "Skip the Line" at the Paris Catacombes (the legal ones) **
Scott Dominic Carpenter is Contributing Editor at Secrets of Paris. The Author of Theory of Remainders and This Jealous Earth, Scott writes often about life in Paris.