Paris, France

24hrs below Paris

Date May 2007
Posted August 2010
Venturing into the Paris Catacombs
There's not enough room to stand up, so a half walk, half crawl is required, bag being dragged along behind. I'm last, and the others are waiting round the corner. Reaching them comes with the realisation that my spare torch has detached itself from my belt, so back down the tunnel to find it... I've been underground for all of a minute, and I hate it.

Paris Catacombs, Paris, France (2007) courtesy of

With a couple of slight adjustments made we're moving along the tunnel deeper into the network. A few corners here and there and we take a left. Behind me the sound of European pop music reverberates, moving closer in the darkness. It gets louder and louder, passes the end of the tunnel we're in and disappears into the gloom. Ahead, the voices of the others indicate that we've reached our first landmark - a concrete sculpture of a man who appears to be emerging from the wall. Bags off, cameras set up for some photos and suddenly I realise how much the place is growing on me. The air is cool, there's room to stand up, and the initial complications of getting into the long-disused mine tunnels are long forgotten.

Back along the corridor and the five of us embark on our first proper journey: a long walk to the so-called Goat, or Ram Room. Roughly a kilometre to go, so everything's packed back in the bags and we set off, relying on Oxygen Thief's map reading to prevent us from ending up hopelessly lost in a network of disused limestone tunnels and caverns that stretches for hundreds of miles under the streets of Paris.

Paris Catacombs, Paris, France (2007) courtesy of

At times the ceiling of the tunnels is so low we have to stoop again. The waders prove their worth when splashing through deep puddles of water. With time to spare the Goat Room is reaching, again marked by the throwing off of the bags and sitting down for a quick breather. Despite initially feeling uneasy at the thought of being so far underground the nerves have worn off along the way and it becomes a little relaxing to be beneath the streets.

And so the first part of our journey continues, visiting the 'feature rooms' in the southern part of the network. One includes a miniature castle built out of limestone; another contains an array of flowers brought in from the real world. Above us and around us as we walk are a multitude of passages, tunnels and cracks in the limestone, all leading off to some other part of the Catacombs. Ensuring that nobody is left behind our procession ventures deeper and deeper into the historic quarry tunnels.

Unlike tunnels I've explored before, where unexpectedly meeting other people would be unnerving to say the least, stumbling upon groups of French 'Cataphiles' is a pleasant experience. More often than not the greetings are accompanied by choruses of 'Salut!' to which we reply. Our first meeting takes place in a small alcove, where OT discusses possible exit points from the Cattas in perfect English. A French guy with a 6D Maglite suddenly bursts out of the darkness, laughing in French with the others. The word 'anglais' is mentioned - clearly we're the butt of someone's joke.

Paris Catacombs, Paris, France (2007) courtesy of

Onward then, heading northeast now. Although not in a hurry we're due to meet French explorer 'Rug' at our overnight rest spot at 1am. Negotiating twists and turns, junctions and floods, the sound of music suddenly materialises again. Another corner and we've entered a party held inside a big room decorated with paintings of mushrooms and naked women - La Plage. The inhabitants are more French Cataphiles, drunk and welcoming. The table is covered with bottles and cans of beer and wine, the room is lit by candles. Some of them come over to greet us.

With time getting on and not wanting to keep Rug waiting the journey continues, the darkness seeming a little lonely as the sounds of the party melt into the gloom. Passing the 'swimming pool' we enter some sections that bring us up to our thighs in water where care must be taken not to trip over hidden rocks. A few near misses ensue but nobody ends up wet and soon we're halfway to our destination, but not before the first crawl. The passageway is a couple of feet high, and so like the name suggests it's passable only by crawling.

Paris Catacombs, Paris, France (2007) courtesy of

Shoving your bag along in front of you is a necessity, following the person in front (this time Tank) and wondering how much further? Round a corner and then a short drop down into the main passage. Not being entirely trusting in the structural integrity of the tunnels is natural, but shoving aside the mental image of collapses is recommended. From here entrance is made into the 'Cube Room'.

This room is particularly interesting. It takes it's name from the cubes of rock littered about, and also has a kind of well or fountain that can be accessed through a passage, down some stairs. No photographs here as we'll be back tomorrow, and so it's a few minutes late that we enter the cavern that'll be our room for the night. Rug's there already, we exchange greetings, have a chat, light some candles and bring out the beers.

Paris Catacombs, Paris, France (2007) courtesy of

Tank's chosen some kind of whisky beer - this is how lager tends to be found in French supermarkets: either of good quality (Zero is handed a Heineken earlier swapped for a Hoegarten) or high-alcohol hobo style like my 8% 'burger beer'. With bags unpacked, food is consumed, sleeping places 'shotgunned' and (for those with the luxury) hammocks constructed. Rug's excited though, and wants to check out some nearby rooms, so we agree to a little excursion before trying to get some sleep. Chess volunteers to stay behind and guard the kit.

Following Rug and his enthusiasm it's into the 'Bunker' area which is (as the name suggests) part of an old wartime bunker. A search for a hidden room (quietly excavated by a small group of dedicated diggers) requires a good bit of crawling, during which we become temporarily lost as least once. In these confines it's easy to let the imagination run wild - become caved-in here and nobody's going to be finding you. At least not for 15 years or so.

Relieved to be back out in standard sized tunnels but tired and plastered in muck, we get lost in the Bunker. It's not a problem, the way out is there somewhere, and the map would help if we could be bothered. Rug's laughing, we're going in circles but eventually find the room. Chess is still alive and the kit's all still there.

Paris Catacombs, Paris, France (2007) courtesy of

I can hear voices, getting louder, and they're not English. Eyes opening, I'm looking out of some kind of hole. There's yellowy light and it's getting brighter. Surfacing from the dream reality clicks and the surroundings become clear: an underground room, somewhere beneath Paris. The room is full of French people, more entering from the tunnel system, and I am sitting up in a small alcove in the rocky wall. Extracting myself from the hole that is my bedroom, I attract a few nods of welcome from our French visitors.

One of the visitors is clearly drunk. They take him to a bench formed out of the rock and he drifts off to sleep, snoring comically. It turns out our new room-mates are the PAP, a group of Cataphiles who spend large amounts of time down here. They'd come to the room hoping it would be empty, but finding us decided to stay for a chat and a beer. They're friendly and again we swap stories of explores and locations. Yet again I find myself embarassed by their mastery of our language, and my pathetic efforts at speaking theirs. The whole experience is surreal.

Paris Catacombs, Paris, France (2007) courtesy of

After an hour or so they leave, one guy staying behind to share our room, and soon everyone is asleep. This slumber is disturbed several times, shivering violently in the cold and eventually the need of an emergency foil blanket. This helps a bit, and next thing it's 11am and I've had 5 hours sleep. We get up and self-heating meals of meatballs in tomato sauce are on the menu. There's a lot of ground to cover so quickly we're done with eating, have the bags re-packed and are returning to the endless miles of darkness.

The first feature of the day is an immaculately carved monument adorned with the remains of a human skull and a few leg bones. The tombstone is in memory of a monk, Philibert Aspairt, who got lost in the caverns whilst searching for treasure centuries ago. His body wasn't found for a whole decade. If the thought of being lost down there is sobering, the mood is lightened by myself, Tank and Zero arguing about camera shots and getting in each other's way. Last to take some photos, I'm left alone as the others leave the room.

Paris Catacombs, Paris, France (2007) courtesy of

By the time I've finished packing up darkness is all around me save for the few tea lights we'd used to illuminate the gravestone. I can't hear the others and despite knowing they're silently hiding round the corner to spook me there's a small comfort in that I packed a copy of an up to date map. Thinking for the briefest moment that they just might have walked off not knowing I wasn't behind them, I leave the room and point the torch down each of the connecting passages. Before I get to the last one there's laughter and my beam picks out four figures. Joke over, it's back to the serious task of finding the entrance to the Val de Grace caves.

Built under the Val de Grace hospital the caves are one of the remotest parts of the Catacombs network and are rarely visited. They're in bad shape and only one way in exists. I'm aware of this as we enter, remembering for a moment that should our crawl into this sub-network collapse, we're in big trouble.

Now inside Val de Grace, we go to another arch, the so-called Salle aux Ballons (Balloon Room, which, as it happens, contains no balloons) and start heading north back to where we came in and completing our tour of this sub-network. The rooms and walls here are crumbling and in poor shape. I'm guessing collapses aren't too rare here, and with only one way in (and out) I'm relieved to have left.

Paris Catacombs, Paris, France (2007) courtesy of

For some reason the tunnel ahead is beginning to mist up. This fog envelopes our group and with it suddenly (and far more alarmingly) comes an unwanted scent - smoke. From where it's coming isn't clear. OT reckons somebody has let off a flare, maybe because they were spotted by the Catacombs Police who often descend into the tunnels to look for explorers. It's so thick now we can hardly see anything and the torch beams are so diffused they're not much use. I feel discomfort rising, scared we'll suffocate, but try to keep a lid on it.

Checking our route it's a case of sit and wait or continue with caution. Still lots to do so we start walking. For a while I lead and it's hard going, watching the floor and the ceiling for obstacles that'll appear with just a moment's notice. Heading north there's a bit of confusion at a couple of junctions but we're soon on track again, checking ourselves against the map. Suddenly the smoke thins, disappears and we're by the entrance to an old air raid shelter. Outside workers have been busy not long ago removing copper cables from quarry tunnels used as ducts but there's nobody here today. Inside the shelter we find old toilets and mosaic floors, all from WW2. The staircase to the surface has long been blocked, and most of the walls are covered in grafitti. After a quick tour of the shelter we're back in the corridor, aiming for the Cube Room again.

Paris Catacombs, Paris, France (2007) courtesy of

Having initially journeyed south to north we're now going east to west. It's back through the deeply flooded corridor by the swimming pool and back to the crawl by the Cube Room. Inside the Cube Room we take photos. OT and Tank go on ahead as they've photographed this bit before and there isn't much space. With the job done I follow the sound of their voices and enter another crawl, twisting and turning before a hand grabs my bag and pulls it through. Following the bag and turning to retrieve Zero's bag, and it's back on our feet.

Everything in order, there's got another long trek ahead. Prior to visiting 'the bones' beneath the cemetary we need to check that our exit manhole is open. We walk for quite a while heading anywhere but near the bones, but this has to be done. Several crawls, stoops and detours later and there's daylight. Only a spec, way above, but it's daylight. Strange how accustomed you become to a lack of it, and so it seemed almost strange up there high above, blinking now and then as somebody on the surface walked over the lid, not knowing about the five grimey figures looking up from a long way down below.

Paris Catacombs, Paris, France (2007) courtesy of

OT volunteers to test the lid. He climbs up and has to wait: somebody is standing on the lid. It won't budge so he returns. It's risky opening the lid when we're not ready to leave as it may not close properly, plus we'll be spotted by the people in the street. We turn and head back to the main corridor and work our way to the bones.

If the overnight room was strange, this is stranger still. I've just crawled into a circular corridor, stretching off from which are piles of human bones. They're under my feet and all around. Bits of skull, leg, pelvis. All shapes and sizes of bone imaginable, all once part of a living breathing person. But it's anything but macabre, and I don't feel intrusive or disrespectful. It's a stark reminder that our time to live on Earth is finite, that eventually we'll be there with the rubble and dirt, and that in the grand scheme of things we actually mean very little.

Today though I am not the bones - instead I'm alive, so I'm taking the opportunity to photograph my surroundings before exiting the room, back through the crawl to where OT and Tank are discussing our plans to make roads for an exit. One way or another we need to leave the 'Cattas', and time is running out. We need to be out by 5.30 to make sure we get our Eurostar in time, but with the stuck manhole things aren't looking good.

Paris Catacombs, Paris, France (2007) courtesy of

A group chat results in a swift decision being made, and we're sticking to it. Despite the fact it's a long trek across the network, we're going to leave where we came in. We know it'll be possible to get out there, and it's preferable to going back to the manhole, getting everyone up the ladder just to find it won't open. Worse still we try opening it and have an accident. So we bag-up, check nothing is left behind and traverse a series of small corridors which take us back to the main route towards out exit. It's going to be a long walk, but it has to be done.

Cable racks on the walls are snagging our bags, the ceiling dips now and then and forces us to crouch and crawl, we splash and wade through more water and there are lights ahead. Getting brighter, they're suddenly right in front of us. It's another group of explorers, local of course, and we have a brief chat before continuing. After what seems like forever, we reach our waymarker and it's a right turn. Another long walk, more turns, water and obstacles and I know we're getting close. There's a cool breeze and I can almost smell the outside world.

Paris Catacombs, Paris, France (2007) courtesy of

Bent almost double, my bag's in my hands, almost too heavy to carry. I know it's not far but it's still hard work. Close behind are the others, and a couple of Cataphiles who caught up with us in the last tunnel. Reaching the end of the passage, my attention turns upwards and the climb begins. At the top I drag myself and my bag out of the hole and out of the way. Behind me the others emerge. I breath the 'fresh' city air and check the time. 17.30 on the dot. We'd made it.

(Big thanks to all involved who made it such a memorable trip, especially Chess, Zero, Tank and OT)
Show a little love!