This story appears in the February 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine.
The cab glides through Saturday morning. The great avenues are quiet, the shops closed. From a bakery comes the scent of fresh bread. At a stoplight a blur of movement draws my attention. A man in blue coveralls is emerging from a hole in the sidewalk. His hair falls in dreadlocks, and there is a lamp on his head. Now a young woman emerges, holding a lantern. She has long, slender legs and wears very short shorts. Both wear rubber boots, both are smeared with beige mud, like a tribal decoration. The man shoves the iron cover back over the hole and takes the woman's hand, and together they run grinning down the street.
Paris has a deeper and stranger connection to its underground than almost any city, and that underground is one of the richest. The arteries and intestines of Paris, the hundreds of miles of tunnels that make up some of the oldest and densest subway and sewer networks in the world, are just the start of it. Under Paris there are spaces of all kinds: canals and reservoirs, crypts and bank vaults, wine cellars transformed into nightclubs and galleries. Most surprising of all are the carrières—the old limestone quarries that fan out in a deep and intricate web under many neighborhoods, mostly in the southern part of the metropolis.
Into the 19th century those caverns and tunnels were mined for building stone. After that farmers raised mushrooms in them, at one point producing hundreds of tons a year. During World War II, French Resistance fighters—the underground—hid in some quarries; the Germans built bunkers in others. Today the tunnels are roamed by a different clandestine group, a loose and leaderless community whose members sometimes spend days and nights below the city. They're called cataphiles, people who love the Paris underground.
Entering the quarries has been illegal since 1955, so cataphiles tend to be young people fleeing the surface world and its rules. Veterans say the scene blossomed in the 1970s and '80s, when traditional Parisian rebelliousness got a fresh jolt from punk culture. Going underground was easier then, because there were many more open entrances. Some cataphiles discovered they could walk into the quarries through forgotten doorways in their school basements, then crawl onward into tunnels filled with bones—the famous catacombs. In places only they knew, the cataphiles partied, staged performances, created art, took drugs. Freedom reigned underground, even anarchy.
At first the surface world barely noticed. But by the end of the '80s the city and private property owners had shut most of the entrances, and an elite police unit began patrolling the tunnels. Yet they couldn't manage to stamp out cataphilia. The young couple I saw climbing out of a manhole that morning were cataphiles. Maybe they had been on a date; some of the men I've explored the quarries with met their future wives in the tunnels, trading phone numbers by flashlight. Cataphiles make some of the best guides to the Paris underworld. Most Parisians are only dimly aware of its extent, even though, as they ride the Métro, they may be hurtling above the bones of their ancestors.
Philippe Charlier sets his plastic shopping bag on a battered chair and rubs his hands. It is cool and dark in this tomb. Water droplets gleam on the ceiling, and the air smells of mold and damp earth. The dead surround us, stacked like cordwood, walls of eye sockets and the scrolled ends of femurs. Charlier reaches into the bag, which is full of bones he'll borrow, and slips out a skull the color of parchment. Chips of bone and dirt tumble out. "I love the patina—not all white and clean," he says.
Six stories above us, in the cafés of Montparnasse, waiters are brushing off tables, setting out chalkboard menus. It is nearly lunchtime.
Charlier reaches again into his bag and finds the front plate of another skull—a face. We stare into it. Beneath the sockets the bone is pitted and sunken. The nasal opening is enlarged and rounded. Charlier is an archaeologist and forensic pathologist at the University of Paris; the face in his hands may as well be contorted in a grimace. "This is a sign of advanced leprosy," he says cheerfully. He hands me the face, dives back into his bag. I think of hand sanitizer.
On normal days the catacombs would ripple with sound—the echoed voices and uneasy laughter of tourists who sometimes endure hour-long waits to enter. But today the place is closed. Charlier can browse the bones in peace.
Some six million Parisians reside here, nearly three times the population of the city above. Their skeletons were exhumed from overcrowded cemeteries in the 18th and 19th centuries and literally poured into old quarry tunnels. Some of the more recent date from the French Revolution; the oldest may hail from the Merovingian era, more than 1,200 years ago. All are anonymous, disarticulated. All individuality forgotten.
But Charlier picks story fragments from their bones: the diseases and accidents they suffered, the wounds that healed or did not, the food they ate, their surgical practices. From down here Charlier can see what life was once like in the sunlight. He rummages in his bag.
"Ah!" he says, squinting at lesions on a vertebra. "Malta fever!"
Our breath gathers in clouds along the ceiling. Water plunks in the distance. Charlier considers the chunk of spine. Malta fever, or brucellosis, strikes people who come into contact with infected animals or their secretions, such as milk.
"This person was maybe a cheesemaker," Charlier says.
I look down the corridor. We stand in a kind of library; ten thousand more stories like the fromager's lie within view. When Charlier rides the Métro back to his office, a few of them will be in the plastic bag at his feet.
"They've prepared a small hole for you," the inspector says, holding the van door. He grins. "You're going to suffer!" He slides the door shut.
We rattle down a quiet avenue on a warm spring morning. Men and women walk to work beneath the deep green canopies of the chestnuts. In the suburb of Arcueil the driver pulls over on a busy street. At the roadside his colleagues are slipping into blue coveralls and tall rubber boots, putting on helmets. We join them at a manhole beneath an ivy-covered embankment. A dark shaft falls away at our feet.
One by one the members of the team switch on their headlamps and step down the ladder. They are from the Inspection Générale des Carrières, the IGC. It is their job to make sure Paris doesn't collapse into the quarries that riddle its foundations. At the bottom of the ladder we squat in a narrow passage, while Anne-Marie Leparmentier, a geologist, measures the oxygen level. Today there is plenty.
We head off into the passage, bent over like trolls under the low ceiling. The limestone walls sweat, and water sloshes around our boots. Fossils of sea creatures peel out of the stone, and in a slick of mud we find a rusty horseshoe—a relic from an animal that worked down here more than a century ago, hauling stones.
Modern Paris sits atop massive formations of limestone and gypsum. The Romans were the first to harvest the stone; their bathhouses, sculptures, and arena can still be found on the Île de la Cité and in the Latin Quarter. Over the centuries, as Roman Lutetia became Paris, quarrymen burrowed deeper and wider, carving out the stuff of the city's great buildings—the Louvre, for example, and Notre Dame. Open pits evolved into networks of underground galleries.
In the beginning the quarries lay far beyond the city limits. But as the city grew, parts of it sprawled directly above old tunnels. This progression happened over generations and without oversight. Quarrymen labored in an unregulated world of torchlight, choking dust, and crushing accidents. When they exhausted a quarry, they stuffed it with rubble or simply abandoned it. At the surface, no one paid much attention. No one realized how porous the foundations of Paris had become.
The first major collapse occurred in December 1774, when an unstable tunnel crumbled, swallowing houses and people along what is now the Avenue Denfert-Rochereau. More holes opened over the next few years, sending more houses tumbling into darkness. King Louis XVI commissioned an architect named Charles Axel Guillaumot to explore, map, and stabilize the quarries. Slowly teams of inspectors worked through them, shoring them up. To make their job easier they dug more tunnels to connect the isolated networks. Around the same time, when the king decided to close and empty one of the city's packed, putrefying cemeteries, Guillaumot was asked to put the bones somewhere—and so some Parisian quarries became the catacombs.
Today Leparmentier and her team continue the work of Guillaumot's first inspectors. Nearly a hundred feet below the street, we pause before a pillar, a stack of five or six boulders from the early 1800s. "Don't touch," Leparmentier says. "It's a bit fragile." A large black crack bisects the ceiling the pillar is still holding up.
Small collapses still happen every year, she tells me; as recently as 1961, the earth swallowed an entire neighborhood in the southern suburbs, killing 21 people. Leparmentier makes some notes. Another tunnel runs beneath us. She makes a plunging motion with her hand. Someday this pillar might fail, and the tunnel we stand in may collapse into the one below it.
We go deeper. At the end of a corridor we sit and contemplate the small dark hole I was warned of hours before. It's barely as wide as my shoulders. No one is sure where it goes. A young member of the team stuffs himself into the hole, his legs kicking the air. I glance at Leparmentier, and she shakes her head, as if to say, No way am I going in there. But she also waves her hand: Be my guest.
Some cataphiles go underground only occasionally and stick to well-known routes. The hard core go oftener and farther. I find my next guides, two dark-haired young men in blue coveralls, lounging in sunlight on a park bench in a quiet neighborhood, with a scuba tank and other dive gear beside them. Mothers pushing strollers eye them uneasily.
Dominique is a repairman; Yopie—he'll only give his cataphile nickname—is a computer graphics designer, father of two, and an accomplished cave diver. We gather the gear and head beneath a bridge, where cool air sighs up from their secret entrance. As we approach, a mud-covered man climbs out like a spider. He's just been setting up a bachelor party, he says.
Most of the underground has been mapped. Guillaumot's early, intricate maps have been updated many times by his successors, and cataphiles make their own maps. Some, like Yopie, go to great lengths to fill in the remaining blank spots. We wade past many tunnels before we find the object of his desire today: a black hole.
Pits and old wells dot many of the tunnels. Some are deep and water filled, some open onto hidden rooms. Yopie has dived into dozens, but he says no one has entered this pit. The water is still as ice, but our light doesn't penetrate far before scattering into emerald oblivion. Yopie checks his regulator, mask, and harness. Then he straps on his helmet, flicks on two headlamps, and drops in.
A few minutes later he surfaces in an eruption of bubbles. The pit was only about 16 feet deep, nothing at the bottom. But at least his map can now be improved.
We spend several more hours wandering through crypts full of moldering bones and galleries of immense, bright murals. We pass the spot where, a few days earlier, I'd taken some wrong turns with a pair of cataflics—the cops charged with chasing the Yopies and Dominiques of the underworld. Yopie takes us to a room that isn't on any map. He and friends spent years lugging in cement and rearranging limestone blocks to build benches, a table, a sleeping platform. The room is comfortable and clean. Niches for candles are carved into the walls. The beige stone glows warmly. I ask Yopie what draws him underground.
"No boss, no master," he says. "Many people come down here to party, some people to paint. Some people to destroy or to create or to explore. We do what we want here. We don't have rules. At the surface…"
He waves his hand and smiles. Lights a cigarette. "We say, 'To be happy, stay hidden.'"
In Les Misérables Victor Hugo called the Paris sewers the "conscience of the city," because from them all humans look equal. In a small van full of sewer workers about to begin their shift in the 14th arrondissement, Pascal Quignon, a 20-year veteran, is talking of more concrete things—the pockets of explosive gas, the diseases, the monstrous rats rumored to dwell under Chinatown. His father worked in the égouts before him, his grandfather too.
Beside a bookshop in a narrow street we zip into white Tyvek bodysuits and pull on hip waders, whitish rubber gloves, and white helmets. All this white seems unwise, a potentially horrible canvas. Warm, thick air fountains up from the open manhole. Quignon and his colleagues say they notice the smell only when they come back from vacation.
"Ready?" he asks.
In the vaguely egg-shaped tunnel, an endless stream of wastewater burbles along a channel in the floor. On both sides run large water pipes. One carries drinking water to houses and apartments, the other nonpotable water for cleaning streets and sprinkling parks.
Some of the tunnels here date to 1859, when Hugo was finishing Les Misérables. Where tunnels intersect, blue and yellow signs indicate the names of the streets above. I splash along trying not to think of the dark current at my feet, trying not to get anything, anything, on my notebook. Quignon and his partner, Christophe Rollot, shine flashlights into crevices and record the locations of leaking pipes on a handheld computer.
Rollot scrapes his boot through the water and slides it up the wall. "If you look, you can find a lot of stuff," he says. Sewer workers say they have found jewelry, wallets, guns, a human torso. Once Quignon found a diamond. Under the Rue Maurice Ripoche, I feel a jet of water wash over my foot. It came from one of the descending pipes. Someone has just flushed onto my boot.
Beneath the Opéra Garnier, the old opera house, is a space that many Parisians dismiss as a rumor. As the foundation was laid in the 1860s, engineers struggling to drain water from the sodden earth ended up simply impounding it in a reservoir 60 yards long and 12 feet deep. This underground pond, which figures in The Phantom of the Opera, is home to several plump fish: Opera employees feed them frozen mussels. One afternoon I watch firefighters practice underwater rescues there. They emerge shining like seals in their wet suits and talking of a leviathan.