Under Paris, France, is a network of ancient quarries mined for building stone. It was dug for centuries during the middle Ages. Later on, as Paris kept growing and needed a solid ground for sustaining its constructions, most of the quarries were filled.
Nowadays, a small part of these can be legally visited. This part has been turned into an underground ossuary at the juncture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. If you happen to visit Paris and are okay with the possibility of queuing for two hours, I greatly recommend you to visit the place. After being greeted with a stone sign that says “Stop! Here is the empire of death,” you will walk chilly galleries, amongst bone walls, skulls-surrounded round pillars, masterpieces of stone architecture and a lot of other tourists. Were there not too many of them, the visit would be a true memento mori.
Yet the official Paris Catacombs are but a small part of the whole underground network. More than a hundred kilometers of man-made galleries run south of the Seine. The official tour guide won’t tell you much about these. Indeed, these galleries are forbidden to go. Some subterranean aficionados, called cataphiles (catacomb-o-philes), go there more or less secretly. Part of them have actual construction skills and open or reopen entrances to the large, non-official underground network. Entrances are usually closed by the authorities. That does not prevent, though, the cataphiles from returning twenty meters underground—exploring, chilling, partying, practising photography and so on.
Cataphiles call “tourists” as those who come to the network for the first time or do not know it well. I have been a “tourist.” Then I came back, again and again, and I turned into a cataphile. When I was a “tourist,” I was still a boy. Today, with more than a hundred visits under my belt, I believe the experience of the remblai (backfill) and châtières (crawling spaces) made me more of a man.
1. A challenging environment
Tunnels are a long walk. Some of them are small. Some are indeed so small that they are called châtières, because only a cat could walk them on feet. A fair proportion are inundated, and let me tell you that water there is quite cold (and magnificently pure as long as you don’t walk in).
Entrances are often challenging to reach or open. Sometimes, an entrance is easy to open, or you can even go through it without the least opening effort, but will have to walk a long way in a forbidden zone to access it; sometimes, the entrance is close to reach but you have to lift a heavy manhole cover before descending a long ladder.
The “Catacombes” environment is akin to what a place for expeditions look like. It has not been made all flat and uniform so that fat, lazy men can drive through. It is not riddled with MacDonald’s, Starbucks or other quick-consumption scourge. The underground network alternates between beautiful rooms, historical and geological curiosities, and obstacle course. It is a place one explores in the fullest sense of the term.
2. An improved physical condition
Walking for hours, crawling in châtières, climbing ladders, walking again, lifting manhole covers will put you in shape. Burning fat, better cardio, better proprioception… someone who does a full visit, north to south (or the reverse), is more than a good walker. You know you can trust your body when you manage to lift a +100kg manhole while being drunk early on Saturday.
Once a year, the cataphiles organize a “catasprint”: guys with a good condition and a thorough knowledge of the network can participate to a track game, where they must go from A to B, B to C, and so on, without knowing where C is before they get to B. If you prefer going at your own pace, there is nothing like sipping a fine beer while breathless runners keep going in and out the room you are squatting.
3. A better sense of logistics
Dark tunnels going everywhere. Meandering paths. Here and there, an engraved or enameled street sign. The first time you go there, you quickly lose sense of where the entrance was. Feels quite scary, but also exciting and challenging. When you come back, you get accustomed to the surroundings and start remembering the relative position of the tunnels.
If you are motivated enough, you can find a map on the Internet (or, in exceptional cases, below: my first map was a present from a seasoned cataphile), study it, print it. Doing so, you realize that many tunnels actually follow the paths of the streets. Then, honing your sense of orientation in the catacombs, you start noticing how it improves in general. For me, Paris stopped being a loose patchwork sewn by subway lines and turned into something I could have a real mental map of.
Eventually, in foreign cities, I had an almost intuitive sense of where each district and main streets were and of the directions, to the point of sometimes helping local girls finding theirs.
Along the same lines, going regularly to the catacombes accustoms you to organize. You must think about your bag, what you will put in—remember that there is no shop down there, which means you have to bring your own alcohol; I once ran dry at 3 AM and have found it thirsting enough not to let it happen again—, what entrance you mean to use, what path you intend to go forth.
If you gain an intuitive sense of orientation, know to pack a bag and can trust your own ability to wander down there with a relative safety, you become more confident.
4. Memento mori
Modern society revolves around the pretension that we are “progressing.” One of the oldest dreams of humanity, a dream which found a renewed vigour in modernism, is of suppressing death. As a result, we have witnessed the rise of overmedicalization, therapeutic obstinacy, a subtle anguish of being completely annihilated at the end of our lives and a consequent use of diversions that mask the inescapable. The Earth is overcrowded, depleted, death is more present than before thanks to sensationalist media, and it means absolutely nothing.
In contrast, a more traditional point of view gives sense to death. If we are more than mere bodies and “emergent properties” (that is, consciousness without a soul), then perhaps death is not only the end of a hedonistic party, but something more positive. While it recalls us the vanity and impermanence of the purely earthly, it is also embedded into life and cosmos themselves.
The traditional point of view is much easier to get in the Catacombs. Away from the neatly cleaned official ones, under the Montparnasse cemetery, are caches with many bones. “Look at them well, because one day you will be the same!” I once had an awkward moment when I found a skull that still had its teeth. The teeth, I did realize, still looked alive, just like mine. I got a strange feeling of communion with the dead. This is the memento mori: remember that you will die once.
The entertainment culture is full of fake characters and immature celebrities. There, under Paris, with all the earth and dust you can imagine, amongst a paradoxical mixture of cataphile circulation and speechless bones, one finds the very real remnants of real—and nameless—ancestors. Entertainment cuts you from your roots and self-knowledge; in contrast, dwelling among these piled bones recalls you where you come from, what you are, and where you will eventually go.
5. A special social life
Cataphiles are overwhelmingly masculine. A few exceptions aside, most girls I’ve met there were following the lead of a male guide. If you want to take advantage of the place for having sex, the better thing to do is bringing down a girl you already know. Having sex in a room where many visitors pass is an exciting thrill.
The place is good for camaraderie and meeting with random people. In Paris, bars are expensive, overcrowded, and all too often full of smug bobos. Under Paris, people are scarcer and of a more sympathetic breed. Visitors always say bonsoir to other visitors. Being in a small stone room with another group invites to socialization. It is not impossible to make new friends there. From the low-wage student to the telecommunications CEO, one can meet with a wide mix of social backgrounds.
If you are lucky, you may be invited to a rave party. Some places underground are large enough to host more than a hundred individuals. There, seasoned partygoers bring a whole sound system and lights to supply them by stealing power from the grid.
6. Craftsmanship and works
There is always some work to do in order to maintain or improve the underground network. Some tunnels are covered with graffiti and in need for a rub with an iron brush. Excessively visited rooms crawl under garbage. Someone must clean, but Paris officials won’t care. Only the cataphiles do.
If you’ve got manual skills, tools and some patience, you can restore a decaying room or even build a whole new one. Carving a stone so that it can be put into a bench, a table, or a new wall; making mortar; lifting a stone before hitting it with a mallet… These works are manly stuff. And when you spent hours rubbing, cementing, hauling huge bags, you can be proud to drink a beer or wine while sitting on a bench you helped to build.
Maintenance and building as practiced by the cataphiles stem from a true care for the place. The bobos love to talk about ecology, pretend to care about nature, whereas their laziness and snobbishness have them repelled at the idea of actually dirtying their hands. Just like old-fashioned land work, helping to maintain or improve the Catacombs network is genuine care for a valuable environment.
7. The pleasure of initiating
When one has enough cataphile experience, one can start to guide other people down the tunnels. You don’t need to be inducted for becoming a guide—knowing the entrances, the paths, and owning the proper gear is enough. Then, you can have the immense pleasure to plan your own one-night trip and show the network to your friends. This is something one learns to do, just like craftsmanship.
Le mot de la fin
Going down to the Catacombs really got me out of my comfort zone. By hitting the underground one night per week for more than a year, I became a bit more enduring, more able to sustain swallowing a lot of beer cans and overall more confident. If you happen to visit Paris, at least try to make it through the queue as to visit the official, museum-status Catacombs. Or, better yet, try to find a local ready to lead you deeper. Guides usually don’t take payments, but bringing alcohol, food, and genuine curiosity will greatly help sealing the deal.
Of course, it must be recalled that going to the unofficial underground network without a written authorization from the General Quarries Inspection is absolutely forbidden. Being caught wandering inside the network or trying to access it is punishable by a fine of 60 euros. If you go there, you do so at your own risk and should be held fully responsible if you end up losing yourself in the labyrinth. After all, who said that masculinity was without at least some risk?