THE PARIS CATACOMBS  The Paris catacombs; sought after, fantasized and known world wide. This being my first trip to Paris we had to make a visit to the catacombs something I have wanted to do since I was a kid and long before I started exploring. Here is a short copy and pasted paragraph from Wikipedia: "The Catacombs of Paris are underground ossuaries in Paris, France, which hold the remains of more than six million people in a small part of the ancient Mines of Paris tunnel network. Located south of the former city gate "Barrière d’Enfer" (Gate of Hell) beneath Rue de la Tombe-Issoire, the ossuary was founded when city officials had two simultaneous problems: a series of cave-ins beginning 1774, and overflowing cemeteries, particularly Saint Innocents. Nightly processions of bones from 1786 to 1788 transferred remains from cemeteries to the reinforced tunnels, and more remains were added during later years. The underground cemetery became a tourist attraction on a small scale from the early 19th century, and has been open to the public on a regular basis since 1874 with surface access from a building at Place Denfert-Rochereau in the extreme southern part of the city of Paris." However we were not interested in tagging along to a tour group and bored with stories of the ghosts and ghouls of the tunnels, we wanted to experience them on our own terms. After a small walk from our access, short broken French/English conversations with locals along the way we arrived at the entrance to the catas. We changed into some more appropriate footwear, got our map out and descended into the tunnels..
Straight away we were crouch-walking and getting wet socks, within minutes we forgot about the outside world and were fully immersed in the mystical nature of these ancient tunnels. I was thinking about some history I had read before the trip in which the historian mentions the smuggling that happened using the tunnels, I could almost visualize the smugglers carrying crates of contraband deep beneath the streets lit only by carbide lamps and candles. This historical mirage quickly dissipated when we saw the remains of two city bikes covered in thick dust. The map was brought out again and we were planing our next move. As this was a Friday afternoon, traffic in the catas was low and we were largely on our own apart from a small light coming towards us in the distance. The sound of french EDM was getting louder as the light was getting closer, a month before our trip a friend had a run-in with a robber in the catas and the realization of how alone and far away from any form of state-governed authority we were; if David Guetta was ever to direct a horror film, this would be it. We got chatting and we soon realized that we weren't going to lose our cameras and sustenance. Our new friend was kitted out with a bluetooth speaker, waders and an intense knowledge of the tunnels; so much so he had no map with him. He agreed to show us the castle room and some other famous rooms on the way but warned us of the water and to move our phones from our pockets into our bags. Next thing we knew we were wading through thigh deep cold water providing a refreshing cool down from the 35C temperature above ground.
Our guide was moving fast and occasionally telling us to mind our heads on low sections of rock, French EDM providing the soundtrack to our adventure. We arrived at our first stop, the Castle room aka le chateau, and it was everything I imagined it to be. We got some food and drink out and sat on the carved stone benches while our guide lit his cigarette and we swapped snacks as a sign of appreciation for his help. A few torch lit photos later our guide gave us some of his candles and a lighter to help the ambiance of our pictures while telling us not to spend too much time in this room, gesturing to the large cracks in the rock ceiling.
We took our pictures, cleaned up our rubbish; which is the done thing in the catas, packed up and got ready to leave. Our guide told us of a shaft near where he was 'working' where it was possible to get phone signal, so we followed him through more tunnels, passing nobody else as we ventured north through the network. We came to a dead-end, thinking our guide had taken a wrong turn I was about to turn around and retrace our steps until he shone his torch to a small hole in the wall and threw his speaker into the opening, then with speed he crawled through and dragged his bag through with him. I was next and we passed each others bags through the squeeze and emerged into a room mostly untouched by graffiti with a large metal shaft in the middle.
Mobile phone signal was not something I expected to get down here but it was a welcome break from being cut off from the outside world, probably showing how dependent we all are on them in this age. We swapped details with our guide in the hope of meeting with him again on our next trip across the water. He showed us how to make a lantern out of an empty can and a candle as well as showing us on our map how to get out. He accompanied us to the squeeze section, we said out goodbyes and told him of our exiting night ahead wandering around on the tracks of the Metro system. He was going to spend the evening tunneling in the catas and taking shrooms with a friend. We squeezed back through the access and got walking, the sound of the french electronica slowly fading. Grins from ear to ear our next stop was the cellar, another famous room. Accessing the room was through another crawl section so back on our bellies we were making our way into this famous room.
As soon as we were in the room we were awestruck at the quality of some of the art and spent time weaving in and out of the roof support pillars looking at the amazing pieces, the room is constantly being refreshed with new artworks some of which span entire walls and take days to complete. We were in this room for a long time trying to get good lighting and stay out of each others photographs as much as possible. But time wasn't waiting for us and it was sadly time to move on. Next time I will have to spend a lot longer in this room.
As the night was drawing in and people started to finish their week of work, the traffic in the tunnels increased. One of the most enjoyable parts of this adventure was the friendly party atmosphere in the catacombs. We passed a small room on our way out that was filled with people drinking, eating and smoking, we said hello in passing but were soon called back for a chat which was nice so we tried our best in French but the language barrier was strong so we said goodbye and continued on our path out.
Up till this point I was fairly confident in our direction and recognized our path from earlier. Doubt was quick to enter my mind and I halted our group and we got the maps out. For around 10 minutes we consulted the map as I was adamant that we were heading in the wrong direction. A vote of 2 - 1 we pressed on despite my guy feeling but it was the correct route after all! This small experience really goes to show how one wrong turn really could get you lost in the vast network and cements the need to do your homework before venturing in. Back into the cold water we pushed on, washing the dirt from our legs as we waded. We passed a well leading down to the lower levels and joked about getting scuba gear one day. Once out of the water we passed a group that had their dog with them, another thing I didn't expect to see in the tunnels. Close to our exit we saw a passage leading off to our right, and decided to have a look. Shin deep water this time we saw several wells leading down to the lower flooded levels as well as an empty one that seemed to be around 10 meters deep. We saw stalactites and took a moment to admire them.
This was our final stretch to the exit now and a small wave of relief washed over me, especially after seeing a news report a few days before our trip about a group of teens who got lost for 3 days in the catas. We bumped into our guides friend and exchanged pleasantries but the language barrier was very strong and we were tired so we turned the last corner and smelt fresh air. The adventure was exiting, daunting, terrifying and exhilarating all in one. This will not my last trip into the catacombs and I look forward to going back underground. Until next time...
A massive thanks to the two I went on the trip with, the memories of the good laughs, microwave food, and badly pronounced French will stay with me forever; a reason that motivates me to keep doing this thing.
And a big thanks to our guide who, without him, the trip would have been a lot shorter i'm sure. très bien None of these pictures are real.