Paris, the capital of love, at least on the surface…
280 kilometers of Catacombs
Entry to the catacombs is restricted. The part open to the public is only a small part of a vast network of tunnels that extends for about 280 kilometers. The tunnel system is complex, and although some tunnels have plaques indicating the name of the road above, it is easy to get lost. Some passages are low or narrow, while others are partially flooded. There are telephone cables, pipes and other obstructions that can hinder advancement, and occasionally collapses, though rare. Good guidance is essential, and many occasionally refer to a map. Because of these dangers, access to the catacombs without official escort has been illegal since November 2, 1955. There is a 60 euro fine for people captured by the E.R.I.C. – the special police patrolling the mines (colloquially known as “cataflics“).
The police arrest up to 100 cataphiles a week, in a game that almost resembles hide-and-seek.
Entrance to the Parisian catacombs
There are secret entrances all over Paris, and sometimes it is possible to enter the catacombs through sewers, the metro and some manholes.
Some unofficial visitors hold the keys to some official entrances. On rare occasions people use these access points and enter the catacombs illegally – for example, to meet clandestinely, to organize parties, or simply as urban explorers.
In September 2004 the French police discovered an underground cinema run by les UX – a French art movement that tries to convey its ideas using underground locations.
The cataphiles often come down for a day, a night, or even a week to explore, photograph, paint murals, create maps, clean rooms, and dig chatières (very narrow tunnels, which can only be crossed by crawling).
Cataphiles, keepers of order
Why don’t the police enforce the law? The answer is simple. The underground police only enter the catacombs 3 times a week, and have to wander 300 km of tunnels. It’s a pretty tough mission, and the cataphiles can help. The cataphiles are the guardians and take care of the underground.
They call the police to warn them that they are going to clean entire areas, and if they see areas about to collapse, they call the inspectors. The cataphiles also take care of anyone who is alien to this reality, and who unconsciously happens to be inside this underground world. If they find some kids looking for adventures, or anyone lost in the underground labyrinths, they worry about bringing them back to the surface to avoid possible misfortunes and unpleasant events.
On the other side of the coin, some cataphiles let themselves go to actions and vandalism.
Sometimes they manage to enter the museum area, and have all the fun they want without paying the ticket. By digging the rock and cutting the iron bars and replacing them with fake ones, they managed to enter the official part of the museum for months without anyone knowing.
On the 31st of October, cataphiles organize the famous Cata-Halloween party. Between 300 and 400 people gather in the basement and they need electricity to power stereos and other electronic devices, so they often cling to the local light.
In 2002, in a subway station in the 16th district, people started complaining that the light appeared and disappeared. The police decided to investigate and retracing the path of electricity ended up in the catacombs. At first they were surprised because they found a telephone in one of the corridors, and at a certain piano-bar equipped with speakers, televisions, video projector and everything else. The electricity panel was powered at the expense of the municipality’s electricity grid and the metro station. The police decided to come back with a whole team to evacuate everything.
The cataphiles had cameras watching the area, and realizing this, they ran to clean up and retrieve the electronic equipment and various objects. Days later, when the police came back, all they found was a note saying “Ne cherchez pas“, namely “You’ll never find us.”
The cataphiles responsible for this are a specialized group, the Urban Experiment Group (UX). They are the head of the underground society of artists, who organize artistic performances, installations and meetings.
The secret pools, Plongeur
There are Cataphiles who call themselves “Plongeur”, or underwater. The centuries-old galleries, often flooded and forgotten, are a water playground for many of them.
If you want to get an idea you can take a look at this video: https://vimeo.com/128245532
Sordid reality or morbid fantasy, the story of cat skulls in the catacombs is chilling. It is the book by Emile Gerards, Paris Souterrain, which reveals a disconcerting discovery in 1896: hundreds of cat skulls cover the ground in underground quarries. Two naturalists realize that there is a common well between the catacombs and the courtyard of a restaurant of the time, famous for its rabbit gibelotti. The specialists explain that cat meat would taste like rabbit meat. “Can you imagine a restaurateur who unscrupulously cooks the neighborhood cats by passing them off as rabbits and then throws their heads underground in order to hide his/her misdeeds? “they conclude.
The underground cinema
It is under the Trocadero, 18 metres underground, that a 400 m² underground cinema was discovered in 2004, accompanied by a psychedelic-style dining room. It was discovered that about fifteen people, aged between 20 and 40, who called themselves “La Mexicaine de Perforation“, organized private screenings in the forbidden catacombs of Paris. The Trocadero festival programme included “Ghost in the Shell”, David Lynch and Bertrand Blier. Lazar Kunstmann, one of the members of the group, came out of the shadows and recounted his explorations in his book “La culture en clandestins” in 2009. His gang also began the underground restoration of the Pantheon clock in 2006.
La Salle Z
Famous in the 80s for the evenings that were organized there, the Z room is one of the favorite places for cataphiles. Some say it is named after an old far-right group called “La Cagoule“, who used to gather in this basement in the 1930s. Others would say that it is due to its geographical location, since it is located in the southernmost quarries of the network. With a ceiling height of almost 4 metres and wide vaults supported by massive pillars, this popular place for cataphiles has been abandoned over time as access has become more complicated. It is also said to have been a former World War II bunker, with German inscriptions still visible. “There are rusty electrical installations and chemical toilets”, explains the expert Gilles Thomas.
The first bomb shelters were built in the basement of the capital as early as 1934. Located at the level of the quarries, about 20 metres underground, they are often abandoned today.
For example, the basements of the Lycée Montaigne (6th arrondissement), the Luftwaffe headquarters during the war, hide a bunker requisitioned by the German occupation forces in 1942.
It is one of the mystical places in the forbidden catacombs. “La Plage is a former brewery in the basement of the 14th arrondissement. Some basements were used as production areas and traces of lime or black paint still show this today. According to Gilles Thomas, the brewery (after its closure) was injected with sand. That is why today the floor of this quarry is covered with sand and why it is called “Plage” (Beach). On one wall of the hall, an imposing fresco imitating the famous wave of the painter Hokusai, was drawn in the 80s by Dan, a member of the cataphiliac group “The Rats”. The fresco is regularly cleaned and restored.
La salle du château
Fairy-tale, the hall of the castle is an alcove where the artists sculpted a small one metre high castle and benches carved in stone in the 2000s.
Gilles Thomas tells that the production company of ‘Bachelor’, a reality TV show where a rich bachelor meets suitors, contacted him for advice:
“They wanted to shoot a sequence, the “Ceremony of the Rose”, in the castle hall. The problem was that they didn’t realize that the ceiling wasn’t more than 1.50 meters high!
The ritual of the “Ecole des Mines”
The Ecole des Mines, near the Luxembourg Gardens, originally trained the elite of civil engineers for the “Mines de Paris”. The students were initiated into the underground mapping of the Parisian quarries. Until the 1960s the school even had direct access to the quarries.
“The students would gather every year for a ritual baptism and fresco painting in the Galerie des Promotions,” says Gilles Thomas.
The paintings made before the 1980s have been deleted, but the walls of this large corridor are still covered with frescoes.
The “Gestapo des ondes”
In the early 1980s, a group of cathaphiliac students from Assas took the nickname “The Gestapo of the radio waves”. Rumors circulated that right-wing extremist groups were hiding in the slums of the city. Inscriptions at street level in Assas mention their rivalry with other informal groups, such as “The Rats”.
“In fact, they were not at all neo-Nazi activists as you might think. They were among the first groups to start drawing paintings in the galleries,” says Thomas.
In 1990, a TF1 report broadcast shock images filmed in the quarries. Occult ceremonies, a gang of skinhead brawlers, the program “52 sur la Une” wanted to show the dark side of the capital’s basements.
After a Nazi salute, a group of skinheads, “la Sécuritaté”, boasts of robbing those who cross their path. In another scene, a gang of fascist thugs sing a Nazi song and brag about hunting the communists in hiding. The report also shows ritual candlelight ceremonies and fake morbid black masses.
In fact, the latter sequence was falsified and reproduced by extras, as revealed in an article in “Libération“. What credit, then, must be given to the news of the report? Urban legends around the catacombs are often fuelled by the fantasies that this closed, dark and uncoming space can arouse.
“Newbies are intrigued by cataphile activities and think that underground, illegal or suspicious activities are inevitably taking place. But there are no more orgies, black masses or voodoo activities in the quarries than there are on the surface,” says Gilles Thomas.
For more maps of the underground visit the French site
Philibert Aspairt was a French porter at the Val-de-Grâce hospital during the French Revolution. He died in the catacombs of Paris after entering them with a ladder in the courtyard of the hospital itself. The reasons for this are probably due to the fact that he had learned that alcohol was hidden inside the quarries and he wanted to appropriate it.
His death was due to two big mistakes: he sneaked into the old quarries without a map and brought only a lamp which he accidentally broke halfway through.
He found himself in complete darkness, where the only noises he could hear were his heartbeat and the echoes of his footsteps.
His body was found only 11 eleven years later, in 1804, only 200 meters from the exit. Philibert was by now crazy and too tired to feel the air blowing from the exit, and the bats flying close by.
The corpse was buried at the place where it was found, before a survey could be carried out to ascertain the cause of death. He was recognized by the hospital keys on the belt he was wearing.
On the tombstone of his grave lies the following inscription:
IN MEMORY OF PHILIBERT ASPAIRT, LOST IN THESE TUNNELS ON 3 NOVEMBER 1793; FOUND ELEVEN YEARS LATER AND BURIED IN THE SAME PLACE ON 30 APRIL 1804.
Every time the cataphiles pass in front of his grave they leave a candle to light his grave, ask for protection for their explorations, pour alcohol because poor Philibert died sober and have annual parties in his honour.
Warnings from an expert guide
For the catacombs, I try not to bring the Parisians, because they have a tendency to return to the catacombs without my guidance, thus hurting or damaging the place.
The catacombs are a fragile place, but they are often damaged by people who just think it’s nice to be underground, but don’t appreciate their real beauty.
So it is the responsibility of every cataphile to make sure that they trust the people they carry.
The other responsibility is to warn people and let them know what they will be exposed to:
– It’s a very humid environment, with a constant temperature of 12°c.
– You have to dress accordingly, but never carry something too bulky, because then you have to carry it for the duration of the exploration.
– It is better to have a backpack to keep your hands free and a torch for your head. As for the light, it is better to bring more than one if something happens, extra batteries and some candles for when there will be a break.
– You’ll have to crawl through narrow areas and you’ll come out very dirty. Inevitable will be to go through water. About halfway through. That said, you will need something that dries quickly, or even better, fishing boots that cover your legs entirely.
– The ceiling in some places can be very low, so it’s good to have a hat or a hood to avoid banging your head (it’s one of the biggest dangers).
There is no point in exploring the catacombs for less than 5 hours, and you usually stay a minimum of 8-9 hours. It seems like a long time, but there is a lot to see. The people underground are peculiar, and the catacombs are such an unusual environment that you lose track of time.
The exits like the entrances to the catacombs are not many, and you need to know the exact location and understand where you are and how far away you are from them when you want to leave exploration.
There is a risk of being discovered by the police. In this case you will have to pay 60 euros each, which could become 125 euros if you are ever caught in a particular area.
There is also the danger of contracting leptospirosis. This is very unusual, but it can happen. So you will need to do a check 21 days after you go down into the catacombs. If you happen to have a fever, you should go directly to the hospital and tell the doctors that you have been exposed to an environment where you may contract leptospirosis.
It is best to be a small group to get started, to be faster and explore as much as possible.
Think of the visit as an underground excursion with some obstacles and some breaks to catch your breath, relax, eat, drink, socialize with other people, tell stories, play games and of course explore. Think of it as a team, and each participant should feel comfortable.
*If you want additional information, or reports of some exploration, you can visit this site in French: http://vincentdetarle.free.fr/catho/catacombes.html
For more information about the history of the catacombs, and its other secrets, you can have a look at the article before this one https://www.urbexstalker.com/2020/04/05/the-catacombs-of-paris-museum/