Urban Exploration in the Paris Catacombs 3

By Michael Gakuran | | Adventure, Haikyo / Ruins | 18 Comments |

Our journey was drawing to a close, but we still had to pass through a mass grave known as the Crossroads of the Dead. Here, one must crawl atop the crackling, yellowed bones of millions of deceased Parisians to advance. It’s certainly not a place for the squeamish…

This is the Empire of Death


We’d scrambled through tiny holes and passageways full of water on our way from La Plage and explored the remains of an old Nazi war bunker, but the best was still to come. A long walk from the grave of Philibert Aspairt, we finally near our destination. Tomasz pulls out his trusty map and checks a couple of things to make sure we’re on the right track. It’s crucial he does so; we’re all exhausted from trudging around underground all day and a wrong turn now could mean hours of extra walking.

Finally, Tomasz tramps off confidently south and we all follow. I’m surprised at just how warm I’ve been down here. I had expected the same chilling temperatures that the freezing winter months cast upon Paris above, but with a brisk walking pace I find myself plenty comfortable in just a long-sleeved t-shirt. The lack of any bulky coat is especially useful down here as there is often the need to squeeze through chatières and other narrow holes.

One such crevice leads the way inside Le Carrefour Des Morts – the Crossroads of the Dead – a circular tomb modelled from the roundabout on the surface above it. The bones here are from the nearby Montparnasse cemetery. Once through the hole, the unwitting visitor faces a merry-go-round of yellowing, rotten femurs and cracked craniums. The only way forward is to crawl on your hands and knees, taking in tunnel after tunnel piled high with the bones of those long since passed.

Rather surprisingly, there is hardly any smell at all. I try not to think about the people who once lived whose numerous bodies crackle and splinter under my feet. There are no full skeletons here – the limbs having been separated in order to save space in the mass graves. Occasionally I see what looks to be a skull, but turns out to be merely a polished cranium missing its lower parts. I wonder just how deep these bone piles sink…

Tomasz explains that there used to be many more bones in this area. In fact, he’s rather surprised that the amount has fallen so much. Perhaps they’ve been clearing out this area? Or some less respectful Cataphiles have been taking home souvenirs? A trophy skull as a memento of the visit..? While I can see the morbid attraction, the decaying bones are hardly things I’d like to take home. A little like wood, they retain a slight spongy quality, but are mostly covered in a layer of grime I’d rather forget I even touched. I set up the tripod for a quick shot of the group. I’m the only one smiling in the first shot – force of habit I guess – so we shoot another to set a more solemn mood.

(Left to right: Rafael, Tomasz, me and Adrien)

I’m determined to see some real skulls though, so we exit the tomb and look for an entrance to the lower levels of the Catacombs. Tomasz points to a skull mark on the map; he thinks there might be more ossuaries down below. Sure enough, we soon find another maze of tunnels, piled even higher with bones than the Crossroads above. I suppose fewer explorers ever come down this deep…

An inscription on the wall tells us how aged the bones are – nearly 150 years old. Just around the corner, we make another startling discovery – a skull altar likely crafted by some previous adventurers.

Part of me breathes a sign of relief; as fascinating as exploring the tunnels has been, I wouldn’t have felt the journey complete without finding some real skulls. I’d been worried that the swarms of Cataphiles who frequent these tunnels would have hidden all the interesting items. After all, this isn’t the rosy official Catacombs experience for tourists – here we are inside a mass grave looking at bones that have slumbered here for decades. But saying that – those teeth are in remarkable condition!

A hole leading up into the ceiling pulls me towards it. I’m curious and climb up to have a closer look. Seems to be blocked off, but perhaps at one point it offered access between the upper and lower levels.

I wonder who the skulls belonged to. Men? Women? Children perhaps? How did they die and when? Did they ever imagine that some 150 years later their bones would be disturbed..?

I shiver. I’d been caught up in the exploration and discovery so much that I hadn’t really considered the situation. I’m suddenly awash with guilty feelings that make me feel far dirtier than all the mud covering me. These were real people… Isn’t this wrong that I should be here..?

The Banga and the Castle


After keeping Tomasz and the guys waiting for long enough while I snapped my pictures, we return to the upper level and press on. A couple more locations to visit before heading to the exit. The first is the dreaded Banga – a passageway flooded so high it reaches waist height. In order to get through safely we must straddle the walls either side and shift ourselves along slowly. My camera swings violently around my neck as I slip a little and regain my balance. My boots are only thigh-high, so a wrong step here would be unpleasant indeed.

I notice some interesting fossils embedded into the ceiling along our route from the Crossroads. I wonder what kind of animals these were..? Or perhaps they are not animals but plants, or even some other sediment that got pressurised..?

We finally reach our destination of Le Chateau (the Castle), a magnificent sculpture resting down in its own chamber. Along the years, visitors have brought trinkets with which to adorn its walls – action figures from generations long gone and the empty metal cases from old, used candles. We light a few new ones and sit down to take our final break. Adrien is completely soaked from wading through the Banga in his trainers. Steam rises from his socks as he attempts to dry off.

After toasting with some beer and wolfing down a few more chocolate biscuits, we make towards our exit. Unfortunately for Adrien, this means braving the Banga again. Oh well. There’s just one more stop on our list, right before we wiggle out of the same exit we entered through. Apparently at one point the route to see this guy was completely blocked off, but fortunately for us, it’s open. Behold, Le Passe-Muraille (the man who can walk through walls)!

The modern-day fairytale goes something like this: One day a man discovers that he can walk through walls. Empowered, he uses his newfound ability to get his own back on people and for petty theft. Eventually, he also woos a woman’s heart with his special talent. But tragedy befalls him when, one day, he becomes stuck in a wall he is passing through.

This isn’t the only statue of this man, (perhaps there wasn’t only one man!) but our friend also lives here the Catacombs. He’s seen better days though – a recent act of vandalism ruined the statue, but Cataphiles patched him up with bandages and a smart hat. He’s still quite a sight to stumble across in the dark tunnels, especially if you aren’t aware of his location!

**********

It isn’t too long before the tunnels turn cold again and we feel the first gusts of fresh, winter air blowing in our faces. It feels great. My legs ache, my clothes are completely filthy and my torch batteries dim, but the four of us emerge victorious from the caverns and tunnels below Paris. It’s as if nothing has changed. The streets remain as dark as we left them early in the morning and the disused railway track empty.

We part ways in front of the station and I thank Tomasz and his friends for an amazing day. It couldn’t have gone better. I’m greatly indebted to them for guiding and taking care of me in the labyrinth – it was truly a huge and worthwhile experience that I couldn’t have done alone. I’m also grateful to Cardinal Awol for all the advice before heading to France.

I’m warmed by the urbex community. Meeting fellow like-minded explorers and sharing new experiences with complete strangers, all linked by a fascination for going places one is not supposed to go and having adventures. A big part of any expedition seems to be the people we meet. I feel like I have a new appreciation for this pursuit. It’s not all about finding locations and shooting some great pictures – it’s about sharing that experience with somebody.

I wonder what the rest of the Parisian community thinks as Rafael and I head back on the subway. We’re covered head to toe in the trademark white Catacombs dirt and sitting in our waders. We exchange small talk in English amongst the background noise of French and sink lower into our seats. It’s been a long day. Fantastic, but packed so full of unusual events that my brain doesn’t quite know where to begin processing it.

A good night’s sleep should help that, I think. Just a few more stops until my hotel…

**********

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A zoom-able map of the Catacombs by Nexus
More information on the Catacombs

18 comments on “Urban Exploration in the Paris Catacombs 3
  1. Maggie the Aviatrix says:

    Excellent reading! I read this over a year ago, but stumbled upon it again today. I leave for Paris in 11 days and will go exploring myself. Think the guys I am going with were quite reluctant because I am older and not a local. Hope it goes without a hitch, I am looking forward to it!

    Cheers, and explore on!

  2. Laura says:

    Jeez! Years later and I keep rereading this! I’d really like to see the inofficial parts of the catacombs one day. I’ve been to Paris just a few weeks ago and took the official tour… (Stupid me forgot to bring a tripod and the lighting there is horrible.. well, at least they have light^^)
    I was really fascinated by the view, all these piled up bones. The best were probably the parts where the bones were piled up to make symbols.. hearts made of skulls, and crosses and stuff…
    I’m just (as always) being haunted by my fate of being a girl. It’s not easy to find people with the same interest, and even harder to find trustworthy guys to go Urbex with (really, I wouldn’t wanna be alone with some creep somewhere)
    But still I’ll try to find loads more people to share my interest with and maybe finally find someone to go to Paris to the Catacombs with me to see the REAL thing! (I think the official part is made pretty for tourists, and that ruins it a bit^^)
    Anyways, so happy I can live through the experience a bit through reading your blog! Thanks a lot! :D

  3. Sarah says:

    Wow! I was looking up info on the Catacombs on the net and came across your website. I’ve been sat here for a good few hours now reading your adventures. Keep up the exploring! I’ve done a little bit of exploring myself… Abandoned Hospitals and theatres etc…
    I loved reading your article, next time i’m in Paris I’ll be sure to give the Catacombs a go ;)

  4. Johanna Nilsson says:

    Truly fascinating series! You tell your story in such an intriguing way, which made me want to keep reading and reading.
    I’ve never been to Paris, but when I eventually visit the city I will make sure I enter the Catacombs the proper way. This way.

  5. I stumbled upon your blog…love the exploration! Great job and keep it up. :-) Pattie

  6. Anonymous says:

    “But saying that –those teeth are in remarkable condition!”I was thinking the exact same thing! :)

  7. Brendan says:

    I just stumbled upon this blog because i was looking for information! This had to be one of the best, and most informative, blogs i have ever read! It really makes me want to go and explore like you did!

    If i wanted to do this, what do you suggest?? As far as who do i contact, etc??

    • Gakuranman says:

      Thanks Brendan. Your best bet is to try and contact other urban explorers on message boards and see if you can find anyone going to or living in France. Having your own website and photography is usually a good idea to help reassure people you are interested in the hobby :).

  8. Olivier H says:

    Great! The sea-creatures like imprints in the rock are indeed remains of sea-creatures. Paris used to be undersea millions of years ago.

  9. In the four-person group shot, I know the second from the left, Tomasz. We met through futsal. He was in Nagoya up until recently as an exchange student. It certainly is a small world. Great shots.

  10. Sabine says:

    This was an awesome series.
    I’ve visited the part of the Catacombs that everyone else goes to in Paris, and just went to the Bone Church in Kutna Hora, Czech Republic 2 weekends ago, but this is way cooler ~ definitely the road less traveled!
    PS – Love the group shot.

    • Gakuranman says:

      Thanks Sabine. I was meant to check out the official tour as well, but we missed the last entry just before I was due to return to the U.K. I’m sure I’ll have a chance to check it out in the future :).

      The bone church sounds great! I’ll have to look up other sites with catacombs for future adventures. Keep on exploring yourself!

      • Sabine says:

        Not really related to catacombs or ruins, but one of the places I really loved in Japan was the old Taya Cave by the Josenji Temple near Kamakura. I went there 2-3 years ago and found it really fascinating. They give you a small candle at the entrance and although most people still have a good portion of it left when they leave, mine was completely gone before I exited, that’s how long I stayed in it. Your life and excursions are way cooler than mine :), so you probably have already checked it out a long time ago but in the event that you have not, I thought I’d recommend it. Lots of dark corridors and chambers, some pretty neat carvings in the walls, and all you hear inside is the sound of water. It’s not something that may appeal to your adventurous side in the sense that it’s not an off-the-beaten-path place and it’s really not THAT big, but it is really interesting in its own way, few people visit it (at least I saw very few people when I went) and you can get some pretty neat photos inside.

  11. What a great finish! It’s been a treat to read and thank you for sharing your discoveries and dusty/muddy wanderings! :) As always, I look forward to more and am working my way backward through what you’ve already posted.

    Your thoughts on guilt for being there kind of struck me, though. It got me to thinking. If I were a part of that pile, would I want to be left alone in the darkness, or would I mind being occasionally warmed by the light of the living? I really don’t know. I tend to think the sentimental preference would be a reflection of the former person. Maybe the crabby old man next door to the baker wants to be left alone. But maybe the baker who served and sustained people in life, would like to see them again. Or maybe, the bones are just bones, which will eventually become more dust, and nothing of a shape or form for people to rest their imaginations/superstitions/worries/guilts/pleasures on. It’s a little like the problem with the Royal House. What do you do when you suddenly find yourself looking through a window into the past?

    • Gakuranman says:

      Cheers Christy. Please do enjoy the backlog. It’s just a small section of all the travels I’ve made – most never make the blog because I lack the time or the sites are not as thrilling as this. I’m sure you’ll see them some day though.

      As for feeling guilty about touching old bones, your thoughts were interesting. I hadn’t really considered it in that way – perhaps the dead wouldn’t mind the warm touch of the living every now and again..? And perhaps bones really are just bones. Dead matter in a state of decay, the souls of the living having long since moved on. If you think of it like that, an old photo might hold more of the original person that this jumbled collection of skeletons. Hmm…

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