It was only a matter of time before I was consumed by the idea; a forbidden labyrinth consisting of hundreds of kilometres of tunnels stretching into the darkness beneath the vibrant streets of Paris. Passages packed high with human bones that are centuries old and tales of explorers being lost and perishing in an early grave. There was no question about it – I was heading underground in France.
So it was that I found myself on the streets of Paris on a freezing December morning. I had travelled home from Japan to the U.K over the Christmas holidays, but the opportunity for some Parisian spelunking was just too good to pass up. My guide was to be Tomasz – an explorer like myself captivated by ruins and restricted places whose forays into the illicit Paris passages number well over a hundred. We’d chatted over a cold beer in a Nagoya bar a few months earlier and he’d agreed to show me the hidden world under his city.
Down into the Darkness
A short subway trip later Tomasz, his brother Rafael, Adrien and myself arrive at an abandoned railway track. I’m told this place is the chief entrance to the Catacombs, frequently opened and re-sealed in a bitter war between the police and the so-called ‘Cataphiles’ – a varied group of people who have a deep affinity for these underground tunnels. Most of the numerous entrances have been closed now, but I hear that the labyrinth can never be completely sealed off through fear of trapping some unfortunate explorer inside…
Stuffing the thought of potentially being buried alive well into the back of my head, I follow the other guys sliding down a grimy hole into the ground. We weren’t alone on our early morning mission; another group of 10 or so explorers were milling around outside the entrance preparing to take the plunge. I shut my mouth while we pass them; some Cataphiles are rather unfriendly towards ‘tourists’ like myself, and speaking English with the team would surely alert them to that fact.
The tunnel had collapsed just behind the entrance, so there was only one way to go – forward. No problem, I can do that. Following last in our line of four, I adjusted my headlamp and tromped heartily onwards, feeling proud of my preparation. Thigh-high waders, torch and backup batteries, food, water, map and perhaps most importantly, tripod and my trusty camera the Olympus E-P1. (Getting my priorities right, here!)
Adrien in front of me however, had not had the fortune of preparing boots for our trip. Still, he seems perfectly composed even in the knowledge that he might be splashing through waterlogged passages. It wasn’t long before we were. Not fifteen minutes had past before the first signs up wetness revealed themselves. Puddles placed haphazardly all over the floor accompanied by a dripping from above. And to the left in one small alcove, a well, points Tomasz.
“For a while there used to be rumours that it went down for hundreds of feet. But somebody tested it in the end. Nowhere near that deep.” he said. “Probably just a few feet. But still, be careful you don’t put your foot in it, or some of the other hidden holes at the sides of the tunnel.”
Great. Suddenly I have an amazing amount of interest in the colour of my boots. White-beige chalky mud sticking to the green rubber and brown water splashing up my legs. At least my camera is safely around my neck, out of reach of the wa…
I step back, a little dazed, with the team all looking back at me. They seem genuinely concerned, which I’m grateful for but a little embarrassed by. With all the warnings I’d read beforehand about ducking low, I swore to myself that at the very least I wouldn’t hit my head. I’m glad of my beanie hat though – no blood. No damage done. We continue.
La Plage et Les Chatières
Our first stop is La Plage (The Beach), perhaps named so for the large picture of the Japanese artist Hokusai and his “Great Wave off Kanagawa”. It’s one of many fantastic graffiti murals in the huge room. Apparently new paintings and constructions are appearing all the time. Out visit is not long after Christmas and sure enough, dressed in his merry red outfit, good old St. Nick has even found time to visit the Cataphiles of France.
Another famous painting in La Plage is the scantily-clad lady. Around her are scattered several stone tables and makeshift chairs as well. Tomasz begins to regale us with stories of huge parties that have been held down here. Plenty of music, wine and good times. Apparently at the weekends you’re more than likely to meet other people down in the tunnels, but the weekday we had decided to visit on afforded us a relative solitude on our journey – something I was a little glad of having read some disturbing stories on the internet. People running into morphine addicts or nutcases who steal your lights and map just for fun. Yeah.
Tomasz pointed us to our exit from La Plage. At first I wasn’t sure what he was referring to, until I saw the narrow opening between the ceiling and the floor. It’s known as a chatière – a hole meant for something the size of a cat. You can call it squeeze-hole or ventilation-shaft too if that’s your bag, but whatever the translation, these things are uncomfortable!
Removing my rucksack I lay forward on my stomach and begin wriggling forward, occasionally crawling army-style.
“Be careful you don’t knock the ceiling with your body. Some of these chatières aren’t very stable!” came a voice from in front of me.
That’s not really what I want to hear at a time when dozens of feet of earth are above my head…
I push on, dragging my rucksack behind me and eyeing the dirt above me with suspicion. We all make it though and brush ourselves down of the trademark white dirt from the catacombs.
We’re starting to look like pretty authentic spelunkers, now! I entertain myself with the thought, but I’m not quite sure I should be. Better to stay focussed on the challenges ahead.
Getting Lost in the Dark
Tomasz presses on leading the way, stopping to consult his map on occasion and pointing out interesting features in the walls and secret rooms from shafts veering off from the main path we are treading. The Librairie, with its books fellow explorers have left to read in a comfortable hollow; the Galerie des Promos – annual paintings made by the graduating university students of “Ecole des mines”, the Mines ParisTech; Cabinet Mineralogique, a small staircase that used to display stone objects and ornaments and the Mur des Fraudes – tax gates that extended even below the city where guards would stand to stop smugglers. The list goes on and on. I wonder just how old these tunnels are and who crafted all manner of strange rooms and places.
I’m also quickly beginning to realise just why catacombs are considered dangerous places. At least in terms of getting lost anyway. Sure, we think – tunnels. No problem. I’ll print a map and bring a compass. But there is little chance I could navigate this place well enough to find my way out easily even with the map I’d prepared. Experience seems to count for a lot down here, I note, watching Tomasz scouting around to check passages for familiar nooks and crannies. I try in vain to memorise which turns we have taken and how far we have walked, but it soon becomes a blur of tunnels and water, low-hanging ceilings and graffiti-clad walls. Without a map you’d walk for hours – maybe days – before finding anyone.
I stop everyone just after Tomasz has finished explaining some interesting feature we’d passed.
“Turn off your lights guys. I want to check just how dark it really is in here.”
One by one, we all switch off our lights. I don’t know what I had been expecting – perhaps it was the fact that I’d entered with a light and had it switched on the whole time. I hadn’t felt claustrophobic or scared of the place yet. But the moment I clicked my headlight off to plunge us all into pitch blackness, that changed. I realised the true fear catacombs or any sort of underground tunnel or cave system can instill in people.
I couldn’t see anything. Nor hear anything for that matter, except the muffled sound of my team-mates’ breathing. I waved my hand in front of my face. I ran my fingers along the wall in front of me and shifted my feet. With all the holes and uneven ceilings in these passages, it would take an extremely long time to make any sort of progress walking in the dark. If your torch went out you’d be all for dead, lest another explorer found you in time.
The light really was our lifeline, even more so than the water or wine we carried with us.
Shuddering, I kept moving…
Still to come: Exploring a Nazi Bunker, the tale of the first Cataphile, Crossroads of the Dead and of course, the Skull Altar and a mass grave of bones. Be sure to check back! You can follow me on Twitter and Facebook for updates. Or, you can subscribe to the feed.
Title image made using an excerpt from Nexus maps.