Ten minutes later, I stood in three inches of sewage, looking up a manhole shaft that rose three stories above my head. Some of the ladder rungs weren’t broken. The water dripping down from above ran in sinister trickles down my arms, before being absorbed by my gloves. Francois and Lawrence went first, Sophie and I followed, and Sebastien brought up the rear. After an exhausting and slippery climb, Francois shouldered the lid of the manhole off, and I crawled out onto the street and lay on my back.
It would be another two days before I had a chance to re-enter the catacombs, by myself this time. I spent two full days (and slept two nights) documenting and photographing as much of the system as I could. It was during this time that I found the ossuaries proper, as well as getting the chance to visit some of the out-of-the-way attractions. I met a few people, one interesting fellow by the name of Spinoza, who offered me a tract. A tract, he explained, is a piece of poetry, or wisdom, or a drawing or a photo, that cataphiles leave in the tunnels for whomsoever might pass through that way next. The one he gave to me, translated into English, reads:
“Is it true that all Cataphiles are Scataphiles? You go into a hole, you play around in the mud, (?)even the plaque that you have taken is not to remember your girlfriend.(?)”
“He writes songs in his own way, and he sings in his own way. And you, what do you do yourself, in your way, when you run in the dark?”
Other than that, I was for the most part alone, and didn’t encounter anything extraordinary. Though I must say it’s a rare and profound experience to be able to spend such time as I did in that silent and absolute dark.
We came to the entrance to the bunker, which turned out to be a small hole in the passage wall, about shoulder’s breadth in width, and at the height of our heads. Sebastien led the way, diving headfirst through the hole like a diver into a pool. I followed, with Sebastien pulling my arms, and Sophie pushing me through from behind. Upon landing, I found myself in a small brick room, at the end of which was a massive iron door with a wheel on the front of it, which looked like something suited better to a U-Boat than a bunker. After everyone had made it through the hole, we passed through the door (“Oh! Bryce, would you mind to close the door behind you?”, Sebastien joked), and entered The Bunker.
The space had been used by the Germans during WWII, for reasons that none of the cataphiles were sure of. It may have been exclusively a bomb shelter, it may have been a communications hub (there was a remarkable amount of forties-era wiring), or something else entirely. Currently, it was creepy. There was what looked like a rusted iron toilet in the first room we entered. The light sockets on the ceilings were, of course, non operational, but the switches on the walls were rusted eerily into the off position, and the cyllandrical glass fuses remained in the fuse boxes. Every major room was separated by a massive iron door, with a locking wheel in the center. One or two of them were shut, and all of them were immovable. The place was huge, Francois dared me to try and find my way out without him. I couldn’t. At one point, Sebastien took me into the rear of the bunker, where there were a series of tiny brick rooms, with a hole in the floor, and nothing else.
“What do you suppose these are?”, he whispered.
“Look like toilets to me”, I suggested.
“Toilets, or showers, or cells for prisoners… we don’t know.”
On the walls throughout the complex were stenciled signs in German, such as “Rauchen Verboten” (No smoking), or “Ruhe” (Quiet). Red, Blue, and Black arrows marked the directions to the three original entrances, all of which have been long since sealed up.
We sat in a circle around the small table and, as if by magic, there appeared a selection of mixed nuts, baguettes, fruits, beer and wine. The lantern was lit above us, and candles were placed on the table.
“This beer,” Sophie informed me, “is special, it’s made from… hmm… ‘strawberry’? But not red, blue strawberries… I think?”
“Blue-berries!”, Sebastien exclaimed, in typical fashion.
We must have spent nearly an hour there, chatting in an amusing mix of French and English, drinking two-euro wine and comparing maps. Sebastien explained to me that where we were was just the “southern district” of the quarries, and that there were several larger systems that existed to the north of the Seine, as well as to the west of where we were. Unfortunately they were harder to get into, so our tour was only going to cover the southern quarries.
“Sebastien, where are we headed tonight?”
“Ze ‘Rats’ Bar’!”
Exhausted, we finally entered another room, similar to the Lantern Room, and sat down on a motley collection of discarded office furniture. This was the “Rat’s Bar”, the hangout for a Parisian gang in the eighties, and now a popular rest stop on the way to “The Bunker”, which was to be our final destination for the evening. Sebastien invited me to leave my pack and take a look around, which I did. There was a staircase leading down to a well, two back rooms which would have made comfortable sleeping spots, and a carved spiral staircase leading up to the surface. I climbed the staircase, which unfortunately ended in a steel door. On the way down I tried to make a guess at our current depth. It took twelve full rotations to go from top to bottom, and since the levels of the staircase were about eight feet apart, I figured we were somewhere around 90 to 100 feet beneath street level. Sebastien wasn’t kidding when he said, “All down from here”.
When I rejoined the group, Francois asked if he could borrow my knife, and then asked us all to sit down, turn off our lights, and shut our eyes. I wasn’t exactly comfortable with this, but the others seemed okay with it, so I hesitantly followed suit. I heard a shaking sound, and felt something wet dripping onto my arms and face. After a minute or so, Francois said, “Okay, open your eyes.”
“Starry Night”, he added.
Sophie and Lawrence followed, and then I did the same, with Sebastien bringing up the rear. Once inside, I found myself crouched in a small damp passage, about three feet lower than the level of the railway bed, and no more than five feet high. There was half an inch of foul looking water on the floor, and garbage everywhere. Welcome to the catacombs. I had about a moment to look around before I realized that Francois and the others had dashed ahead, and were already nearly out of my sight. I ran after them down the passage, as fast as I could while bent half over. This first part of the journey was unremarkable, we passed maybe a dozen side passages, but Francois just continued to lead us straight along, parallel to the railway. After about fifteen minutes of this, we came to a slightly larger room, with the remains of what Sebastien told me was an old telephone repeater. Here were turned right, and, as Sebastien said,
“It is all downhill from heere!”
The passage sloped rapidly downward, underneath the railway (which was, remember, already forty feet below street level). Large metal brackets stuck out from the wall, which once held massive telephone cables, and still did through some sections. The ceiling had come up a bit, so I was able to run after them (there is no walking allowed in the catacombs, apparently) without so much discomfort as before. After about ten minutes of this, the water, which had been only an inch deep at the worst parts, began to grow deeper. The ceiling came back down, and the water was spilling over the top of my boots. Sebastien came up behind me and said,
“Oh, watch out, the water is about to get a little deep.”
In about five minutes, I was up to my knees in freezing cold water, bent over almost so that my face was in it, in a tiny carved limestone hole about eighty feet beneath the streets of Paris. Thankfully, though the going was slow, it didn’t last long. We soon emerged into the quarries proper, and were able to stand on dry ground, dump out our boots, stretch our backs, and proceed with the adventure. Sebastien stopped me here to explain the carvings on the wall,
“See this? This is important. The date is the date the quarry was inspected and solidified, so in this case, 1777. This is one of the older ones. The letter after the date stands for the general inspector of the quarries, at the time. This is G, for Guillamot. He was inspector from 1777 until 1806.”
I was incredibly impressed with his knowledge of the history of the place, and from what I could understand of Francois, he was telling the same thing to the other two. We ran on after this for some time, through a wide variety of passages, most of which were dry and comfortable. I could stand up fully in most of them as well, which was nice, though the running and my wet feet were causing me great discomfort. At one point, Francois ran ahead, but Sebastien directed me down a short side passage to show me a small room where, at the back, someone had carved a four foot high castle out of a block of limestone. It had a drawbridge, moat, towers… even a little Lego man standing at the gate. “This is called, The Castle”, Sebastien informed me. We turned around and hurried to catch up with the others.
At another point, Sebastien stopped me to show me some graffiti that had been scrawled on the wall with the end of a burnt stick. “J. Deprez – 1794″ accompanied a crude drawing of a guillotine. “Vive la nation” appeared in several places.
On occasion, Francois would stop, and he and Sebastien would argue heatedly for a minute or so about which way to go, until one of them would concede and we’d set off in the new direction. For the most part, though, they knew the place remarkably well: never checking a map and choosing correctly between literally hundreds of possible routes. I had to come back here with a little more time to explore. We took a left turn, and found ourselves in a small room, with two circular benches around a table, and an iron lantern hanging from the ceiling.
The quarries underneath Paris date back to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; the limestone from which was used to build the majority of the larger buildings in the city, including many of her most notable churches and historical structures. In the late 1700′s, due to frequent cave-ins, there was appointed an office of General Inspector of the Quarries, whose duty it was to solidify and partially fill in the existing maze of quarries, mines, and access tunnels under the city. It was also around this time that, due to the deplorable condition of Paris’ overflowing cemeteries, it was decided to remove the remains of over six million deceased Parisians into the newly renovated tunnels. This gave birth to the Paris Catacombs, a network of over 300km of passageways and shafts, on multiple levels, between ten and thirty meters beneath the heart of Paris.
Into the dark
Our first attempt to find a way into the catacombs under Paris had ended in dismal failure. What I thought to be a tree-lined walking path to an abandoned metro tunnel turned out to be a row of hedges behind a cemetery, and a stone wall. So much for Google Earth.
Two days later, Sarah had gone home, and armed with infinite time, I was determined to find my way in. I sat down at a McDonalds and carefully copied onto my Paris street map every possible entrance I could find. I then spent the next four hours walking across the city, checking manholes, doors, and utility corridors for any possible access into the catacombs. While I found a few possible entrances, they would require a crowbar, and cover of darkness, so I continued searching. At one point I was walking along a small avenue and looking for two manholes which were supposed to be opposite eachother in the street, yet weren’t there. I looked carefully at the map, and realized that they were actually at the level of the railway tracks, which were to my left at the bottom of a forty foot wall. I went back to a bridge which crossed the tracks and looked down. They seemed inaccessible, yet in the fading light I could just make out the figure of someone down there, spray painting something on the wall. He must have made it down somehow, so I started looking around more closely.
I soon found a door, unfortunately I can’t say where (sworn to secrecy), that was unlocked and led down a staircase to track level. I got to the bottom and turned under the bridge, there were two people sitting there. I was a little nervous, until I saw the headlamp on the head of the woman, and the “stuff-sack” the man was carrying.
“Bon Soir”, I said, to the two of them.
“Oui. A little.”, the woman responded.
“Are you going… under ground?”
“Ahh, yes. In to les Cats”
“Would it be alright if I came along? I’ve never been, I could use a tour.”
“Yes. Do you have a light?”
The man said, “What is ‘tour’?”
We made introductions, and between a combination of broken French and English, I learned that they were Sophie and Lawrence, and that she had never been down, and Lawrence had only been once, but they were waiting for their friend, who would be a guide. I couldn’t explain “tour” to Lawrence, until Francois showed up, who spoke slightly better English, and said,
“Un guide! But of course!”
“Ahh, un guide! Why did you not say so?”, laughed Lawrence. We were waiting for one more person, who showed up a moment later,
“I am Sebastien, and…. I speeeek zeee Eeengliesh Vary Well!!”, he exclaimed at me, laughing; though he actually turned out to be the best English speaker of the bunch, and promised to explain to me everything he could as we went along. We then set out, walking down the railway tracks into a massive dark tunnel. I fell back to walk next to Sebastien, as he told me,
“This used to be a railway that went around the entire city. It has been abandoned for a long time now, but if you want, you can still walk all the way around the city through these tunnels.”
We switched our headlamps on about fifty feet in, it was going to be all dark from here. Francois scooped some water from a puddle into the fuel pack of his carbide lamp, and lit it. The tunnel was filled with a brilliantly bright light. We walked like this, the five of us, for probably about twenty minutes, passing some eerily deserted train stations and maintenance houses. Eventually we came to a large pile of rubbish, mostly alcohol bottles. In the middle of the pile was a hole at the base of the stone sides of the passage, maybe two feet in diameter, and it was through this hole that Francois tossed his pack, then slid in, feet first.