It was a cozy spot, as far as underground rest stops go. Inside an alcove shaped by enormous piles of rocks, we sat on a stone bench that curved around a makeshift table. For five hours, we'd navigated by headlamp through Paris's subterranean galleries—sometimes crawling on hands and knees, other times contorting our bodies to avoid deep pools—and this was our first chance to rest and watch the steam rise from our damp clothes.
Adventure Guide: Paris Underground
"This is an astonishing place," said John Law, 47, passing around his flask. "We'll remember it fondly—if we get out alive."
Embarking on this journey had been an act of defiant stupidity. We were four strangers to Paris, who, with only one guided trip to orient ourselves, had descended alone into the city's sprawling underground without a proper map. So far, we had not fallen into any shafts, met any bloodthirsty gangs, or been apprehended by the police force that has patrolled the tunnels ever since entry became illegal in 1955.
But my three companions were certainly not strangers to urban adventures. Now
a self-employed businessman, John had been one of the founders of the San Francisco Suicide Club, a group that organized events inside off-limits bridge towers, vacant hospitals, and abandoned high-rises during the late 1970s. Next to him sat Rob Schmitt, 40, a commercial and theatrical rigger who had recently shown me a rabbit hole in a California hillside that dropped 50 feet (15 meters)
into a World War IIera bunker. Christos Pathiakis, 37, faced me across the candlelit table. When he wasn't working his day job as a television editor, he had a penchant for going on strolls through New York City's subway system, documenting abandoned stations and other curiosities.
Just to get to this table, we'd passed a confusing series of chambers, crawl spaces, and locked stairwells. As far as we knew, the only portal to the surface was the one we had entered through. We were now faced with a decision: Be sensible and backtrack to our exit or plunge even deeper into the unknown?
"It takes five hours to get out from here, if we don't get lost," Rob said, studying our sketchy map. "How much farther can we go?"
With our supplies—two sandwiches, some chocolate, several cans of beer—we could survive a few more hours before having to cannibalize each other. Our headlamps had plenty of batteries. No reason to worry yet.
"We're not leaving until we find the ossuaries," I said, stating the obvious. It was the prospect of exploring the fabled underground cemeteries that had drawn us into this subterranean city in the first place. At the heart of the roughly 170-mile-long (274-kilometer) tunnel system—quite possibly the world's largest maze—entire chambers were said to be filled with skulls and bones.
The others agreed. Getting out was of small importance compared with the bizarre sights that might lie ahead. We began to pack up. But just as we leaned over to blow out our candles, a bedraggled man, wearing a green bandanna and gloves made from ripped tube socks, materialized in the glow of our candlelight. In a menacing German voice, he demanded our passports.
The Paris underground, often referred to as the catacombs, has been luring curious visitors for centuries. The City of Lights is built atop a vast realm of darkness: enormous gypsum and limestone quarries that were mined beginning in the 12th century for the construction of Notre Dame, the Louvre, and other edifices. Burrowed haphazardly beneath the surface city, these quarries became increasingly unstable over time. When a street collapsed in 1774, Parisian authorities investigated the galleries and reinforced weak areas. As they did, the investigators marked the tunnel walls with the names of the corresponding ground-level streets. These two-century-old signs are still used for navigation.
The freshly mapped underworld would soon have many uses. From 1785 until the 1880s, the quarries received bones from Paris's overflowing cemeteries—the public Les Catacombes museum, housed deep inside a blocked-off section of the quarries, alone contains the bones of some six million citizens. During World War II, the passages were occupied not only by the French resistance but also by Germans, who left their traces in a military installation called the Bunker Allemand. Since then, artists, performers, graffitists, and others have added to the catacombs' multilayered history. "Regardless of where your research takes you, there are always new things to discover about subterranean Paris," says Ingmar Arnold, a Berlin-based underground historian. "Wherever you walk, you can never be sure you're not passing across something mysterious—behind every corner there could be a great secret."
One of these secrets was unexpectedly revealed in September 2004 when the Paris police discovered an illegal cinema beneath the Palais de Chaillot. Patrolling officers had stumbled across the hidden amphitheater, fully equipped for movie screenings. For an illegal setup, it was remarkably sophisticated: Next to a screen and projector sat a bar and restaurant outfitted with several telephones and Internet access. The complex was protected by a closed-circuit-TV security system that set off a recording of barking dogs whenever an intruder passed by.
Soon the people behind this operation were revealed: La Mexicaine de Perforation, or, loosely, "the society of tunneling Mexicans." ("Mexicans" because LMDP members frequent a Paris bar named Le Mexico.) Made up of explorers with pseudonyms such as "Lezard Peint" and "Olrik," the organization secretly retrieved its projection equipment and began taunting the police. "The authorities, the police, town hall, they don't know a hundredth, a thousandth, of what's down there," Lezard Peint told the London Guardian. Apparently there were many other subterranean playgrounds for the LMDP, whose stated mission is not only to explore forbidden locales, but to appropriate them for cultural events—screenings, lectures, games.
This struck a chord with me. In the late nineties, I had begun exploring the New York City underground, venturing into the subway system, water tunnels, and other spaces both active and abandoned. My interest was not in documenting these places; instead, I was scouting venues where my more daring friends and I could stage unusual banquets and scavenger hunts. Our first event, organized under the name Dark Passage, included a formal dinner party in a subway tunnel, next to passing trains. Subsequent gatherings were held in asylum cellars, cemeteries, bridges, rail tunnels, and an enormous brewery ruin—any neglected place that provided a mentally and physically stimulating environment.
After 9/11, when terrorist concerns made explorations in New York less appealing, I traveled to other underground areas, visiting tunnels and military relics in places such as Poland, Berlin, and Vienna, Austria—a city whose magnificent sewers were immortalized in Orson Welles's film The Third Man. Subterranean adventurers often network through Web sites and events, which made it easy for me to hook up with local experts.
In January 2005, Olrik of the LMDP came to visit New York. Over drinks, he told impressive stories. Thanks to a certain set of keys, he said, LMDP could emerge from the catacombs for after-hours visits of Notre Dame, the Paris Opera—even public pools for midnight swims. But he spoke most excitedly about entering the Métro system, where hidden galleries stretched alongside the active subway tunnels.
"You should come to Paris," he said.
When we arrived in Paris last summer, Olrik led us to a substation, its entrance wedged between busy sidewalk cafés on a crowded street in the city center. Wearing a white dress shirt and jeans, his demeanor entirely professional, he attracted no attention. He pulled out his keys, and moments later John, Rob, Christos, and I stood inside one of the largest power supply stations of the Paris Métro. "Take a look around," he said casually, as if it were his living room. In a hall beyond the massive control boxes, a series of rungs descended
eight stories into the subway. On the way down, as we paused to look at electrical equipment and the undersides of escalators, Olrik unlocked maintenance doors into the Métro tunnels so we could watch passing trains.
The next night we made our first foray into the catacombs. Michael Jasmin, 37, a French artist who was working on a video of the underground, had offered to show us around. Michael and some of his Parisian friends led us to an abandoned train station, where an opening in the wall presented an invitation to the netherworld.
Following Michael, we dropped into an uncomfortable passage, its ceiling so low that we had to crouch and waddle like ducks. It was colder than outside and smelled of damp earth. Behind me, the others slipped in the mud, laughing; everyone was cursing and giggling in the same breath. Soon we reached a larger gallery, where we could again stand upright, breathe, and make jokes. But Michael was all business. Facing us in a helmet, coveralls, and rubber boots, he cautioned us not to stray.
"You will get completely lost," he admonished. "This place is not like a labyrinth, it is a labyrinth."
We followed as he turned one corner after another, past numerous branches that hinted at the immensity of the underground realm. Some of the sites were recognizable from books I'd seen, such as Caroline Archer's recently published Paris Underground. Especially familiar was The Beach, a complex of heavily graffitied chambers with sand-covered floors.
When we surfaced hours later, we knew that we'd seen only a minuscule part of the network. We'd also failed to find any of the fabled ossuaries. Barely outside, John, Rob, Christos, and I began plotting a return. We would go the next night, on our own.
There are plenty of stories of people getting lost in the catacombs. The most famous concerns a man named Philibert Aspairt, who disappeared in 1793. He wasn't found until 1804, his corpse clutching a set of keys, mere feet from the exit that had eluded him in the dark. Aspairt, at least, had keys. We had only a compass, a flimsy map from the Internet, and the not very reassuring information that nearly every manhole to the street had been welded shut by the police. Still, we thought that our backup system—leaving chalk marks, jotting down street names, and, at complex intersections, taking digital photos of someone pointing in the right direction—would get us out. We hadn't, however, devised a plan for what to do if confronted by a belligerent stranger.
"Zeigen sie ihren ausweis!—Show me your ID!" commanded the man in the green bandanna as he towered over our table.
In his ragged outfit he didn't look like a cop, much less the Nazi he was impersonating. But to my native German ear, his accent was convincing.
"And if we refuse?" I replied in German.
He showed surprise for only a moment before resuming his act. "Don't you know it's illegal to be here?" he asked sternly. "What are you drinking? Mind if I sit down?"
My friends stared at him, not understanding a word. Mud-stained and fierce, he looked as if he had lived inside the Earth his entire life. Over a denim vest, he wore a necklace of shark teeth. The necklace seemed to have lost some of its teeth, and so had he.
In broken English he introduced himself as Rahan. He was French, but had worked on ships in Germany and now roamed the catacombs, sometimes not surfacing for days. Out of his rucksack he pulled a bottle of murky liquid ("vodka and vitamins"). Christos bravely took a sip.
As I spoke with Rahan, I noticed that John wasn't his usual self. Later he'd tell me that his mind was racing with horrifying scenarios of how our visitor, while pretending to help us, would lead us into a festering den of other Rahans, who sat among stalactites, gnawing on the pelvises of disappeared travelers with their remaining teeth.
"Where is your guide?" Rahan asked. John and Rob exchanged apprehensive glances. I noticed that Rob, the largest man in our group, was hovering protectively over our map, which still lay on the table. If this prankster decided to snatch it, Rob would pounce.
When we asked Rahan for directions to the ossuaries, he pulled out the mother of all maps, which detailed every gallery and stairwell beneath Paris. The laminated chart, covered with burn marks and stains, had obviously accompanied him on many explorations. "The bones are here," he said, indicating a structure considerably north of us, duly marked on his map with a skull. "But your map shows the wrong way."
After about 20 minutes of bantering, we were all enjoying Rahan's company and gladly accepted when he offered to take us to a few special sites—a room containing a sculpted castle illuminated by tea lights and the adjoining "castle garden," where plastic vines and flowers draped across stone walls. Then he pointed us in the direction of our exit and readied to take his leave.
"But which way are the bones?" Rob asked, looking at our map, which, it seemed, left off the entire castle area.
Rahan made a dismissive gesture: We were stupid for even trying. We barely had time to thank him for his help before he dissolved back into the dark. The four of us, clueless as to our whereabouts, headed farther into the catacombs. Before we'd see daylight again, we would find the bones.
The deeper we went, the more abandoned and desolate the corridors seemed. Some tunnels were too flooded for us to pass through, forcing us off our route and into smaller side branches, where our diminishing chalk supply could not keep pace with the galleries' confusing twists and turns. Before long we encountered some graffiti artists who told us about an open manhole ahead, but we were in danger of running out of chalk before we found it. If we did run out, we would be forced to either turn back or greatly increase our risk of becoming hopelessly lost. Yet Rob, with his uncanny instinct, soon steered us down a corridor marked "Cimetière." There, a rusted gate beckoned toward the necropolis. As we passed through, a thighbone emerged into the beams of our flashlights. And then we saw our first skull.
Here was the tunnel complex that Rahan had shown us on his map, where previous explorers had sledgehammered through some of the gallery walls. Peering into these makeshift windows, we discovered that entire passages had been sealed to serve as receptacles for the dead.
We crawled through a narrow corridor that dripped with mold and entered the heart of this ossuary. There, a central room, filled with stacks of bones, opened onto small tunnels on every side. The entire area was saturated by an ocean of broken skeletons. It was impossible to move without crawling over piles of bones several feet deep—they crackled beneath our weight. In one eerie chamber, a sculpture made of femurs rose from the scattered heaps. Only John and I climbed into that central room; turning off our lights, we crouched on bones in utter darkness, each paying respect in our own way.
After a few hours of reckoning with the dead, it was a relief when Rob discovered the manhole the graffiti artists had mentioned, down a tunnel just beyond the center of the ossuary. While we clung to the iron rungs beneath him, John climbed until he was nearly 50 feet (15 meters) above the corridor. Then, with a mighty, precarious heave, he shoved the manhole cover onto the sidewalk. Fresh air, at last.
We surfaced at 7 a.m. at a residential intersection, having spent a dozen hours in the dark. A summer storm was pouring rain onto the street and no one seemed to notice us. As we placed the cap back on the hole—sealing off the netherworld below—it felt strangely good to be alive.
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