First of all, a disclaimer: this isn’t dangerous if you’re prepared. But nor is entirely safe. You have to be fully aware of what you’re getting your self into. But anyway, everything that’s fun has an element of risk. That’s why it’s fun.
If you’ve not heard of the catacombs beneath Paris, then you might be heading to google right now. This isn’t a morbid museum though. This is a network of disused quarries that lie largely underneath the 14th arrondisement of the city. Mined from roman times to the 19th century, the limestone was used to construct the buildings that are marvelled at by visitors and locals alike. Unfortunately, the engineers didn’t plan for the fact that their buildings might begin to fall into the holes they dug. When the buildings began to subside, the mines were backfilled, and now beneath the streets, largely in line with the road layout, there is a network of almost 200km of inspection tunnels. These are adorned with WWII and Cold War bunkers, aquaducts, discarded bones from over filled cemeteries, and a burgeoning underground culture and community. The cataphiles, as they are known, are a loose knit group of Parisians who dig new tunnels, take care of the network, and regularly have a damn good get together, with cheese, red wine and baguettes a plenty. This is France after all.
How Do I Get There?
Hold your horses. Did you read the disclaimer at the top? This isn’t a tourist attraction and you’re not going to get a guide. (Infact, if the cataphiles suspect you’ve paid a guide, expect a smoke bomb heading your way while you’re down there). What you need to do is a bit of research, find out what areas you want to see, grab a map and plan it out. If you go at a weekend, then some of the more travelled areas are bound to have people around too. During my time, we bumped into Germans, French, and Americans all out for the same explore. So if you want to see the catas, obviously first of all you’ve got to get to Paris. Eurostar, National Express, easyjet, it’s pretty simple and cheap in this day and age. You sleep in the tunnels, and provided you’ve got all the equipment, it doesn’t have to cost more than the travel.
Nice one, so what do I need?
Motivation, and a map and compass. But seriously, most visitors choose to spend at least a night down there, and many tunnels are flooded. The absolute basics you’ll need are:
- A map
- A compass
- Waders (some tunnels are flooded to waist height)
- Helmet (you will bang you head)
- Torches (x3)
- Spare batteries
- Food and water for the time you’re down there
- Sleeping bag (if you’re spending the night)
- Wet wipes
I can’t recommend sleeping in the catacombs enough. The tunnels don’t have a weather system, just a constant climate of around 10 degrees and high humidity, which can leave you with the curious feeling of being sweltering one minute, and shivering the moment you stop. Sleeping on the rock floor isn’t particularly pleasant, the ground sucking all the heat from you in a matter of minutes, and some people choose to take a hammock for the full five star service. Time passes beyond recognition when there is no sunlight, and the feeling of waking up after 6 hours sleep and it being pitch black is nothing if not surreal.
The tunnel network is between 10 and 30 metres beneath the city streets, and the tunnels for the most part follow the roads above. Ideally you’ll be wearing waders the entire time, and this isn’t as strenuous as you might think. It’s definitely worth it, as one minute you’re crawling on your belly through an injected tunnel 50cm high, and the next you could be waist deep in water. Lovely stuff.
Navigating is fairly simple with a map and compass, but don’t expect your phone or GPS to work. There are some staircases which lead up to street level, blocked off with glass bricks. These are your only chance of seeing daylight while you’re down there, and also see a lot of footfall as the only areas where you can text your mum and tell her you’re alive, or your mates and tell them you can’t get pissed up tonight, you’re experiencing something. You should also be aware that tunnels come and go, as they are injected with concrete and re-opened by the cataphiles. No map can be guaranteed to be accurate. As long as you’re aware of where the entrances (and exits) are, you’ll be OK.
So where are the entrances and exits?
Good question. Access to the catacombs is illegal and if you’re caught you’ll be fined 80 euros. Now some might say that Disneyland costs £200 to get in, and therefore this is an economic and legal risk worth taking. You’re absolutely right of course. Who the fuck would want to go to Disneyland when you could be sat 30 metres beneath Paris, deeper than the sewers and the metro, in a bunker once used by the French Resistance? You’re right. But the point is, entrances are largely kept secret. It’s not unknown for the cataflics (the catacombs dedicated police force) to patrol the main entrances and spring on people. You can access the catacombs through the sewers and manholes of the 14th arrondisement, but these are regularly welded shut. For the sake of not entombing anyone however, there is a well known access point on a disused railway. I won’t say anything else here though.
It sounds interesting, but what’s actually down there?
Well, if you like seeing shit few other people are gonna lay their eyes on, this is the place.
There’s 2 bunkers from WWII (one belonging to the French Resistance, one the Germans). These are less than 1km apart, but apparently neither were aware of the others existence.
These also some stunning graffiti. An area called La Plage is good for this. It’s also worth checking out the Castle Room and Lantern Room. Fairly self explanatory on what’s inside, and these are all well known social areas.
Then of course, there’s the Ossuaries. When the cemeteries began to overflow in the 18th century, the bodies of up to 6 million Parisians were moved into the tunnel network. The bones are there to this day. Imagine a tunnell 10 feet high, 100 feet long, and stacked 9feet deep with femurs, hips and humerus’s. Yep, you’ve got to crawl over it to get out. But this is not a morbid or sinister experience. Even if occasionally you might come across a complete human skull.
There’s also the Philbert tomb, which holds sentimental value for many cataphiles. Philbert was the first person to enter the network over 200 years ago, in search of treasure. Unfortunately for him, his candles ran out, and he was found 11 years later on the staircase leading up to his exit. A timely reminder for every explorer to take spare batteries. On the anniversary of his death, cataphiles hold a huge party in his honour.
Architecturally, there are some fascinating rooms, including the Carthusian Monks fountain (which must be below some sort of factory due to a strange aroma of glue when I was there), Salle Z, the cube room, and the aquaduct.
Finally, keep your eyes peeled for tracts. Small scrolls of paper hidden in the rocks and left by cataphiles. These will give you everything from a history lesson to party dates and directions – if you can read french of course.
So next time you’re thinking about whisking your girlfriend away for a city break. Leave her at home and have an adventure instead. The catacombs are part mine explore, part history, and partly a quite literal underground social scene.
Part of the catacomb network overlayed on Google Maps
Nexus Catacomb Map – An A0 version of this is used down there
For the less adventurous, about 2 of the 200km of tunnels are open to public, but where’s the fun in a being a tourist?
And though you might not get the full experience epitomised by the catacomb culture, remember that this is about seeing and doing shit other people don’t. Cataphiles could be described as a loose art movement. It’s about not giving a fuck what other people’s idea of a good time is, getting down there, digging new tunnels, carving new scultpures, adding new graff (in the appropriate places)
You don’t have to travel to Paris to see this off limits kind of shit. There’s definitely tunnels beneath what ever city you’re sat in. Hunt them out. If you see an empty building that looks interesting, jump the fence, have a look. What’s the worst that can happen?
Don’t damage anything and you’ll be all right