PARIS, France — The city of lights has an old, dark secret. Beneath its bustling streets, a pitch-black labyrinth of centuries-old subterranean galleries and caverns remains a magnet for spelunkers and street artists, disillusioned youth and thrill seekers.
With a rendezvous at midnight, this excursion wasn’t an ordinary visit to the tourist-tailored catacombs, the underground ossuary in south Paris filled to the rafters with femurs, tibias and skulls. The skeletal remains of about 6 million Parisians found their final resting place there after they were moved from overcrowded cemeteries for sanitary reasons in the late 18th to mid-19th centuries. Rather, our visit would take place in the miles of off-limits catacombs.
The adventurers who agreed to take me underground had plenty of warnings: Their primary concern was that we would encounter the special police who patrol portions of the 285 kilometers that make up Paris’ underground network and whose main task is to keep out intruders and protect the historical treasure trove that tells the story of the city’s origins. Members of the brigade circulate regularly during high traffic periods, like on weekends, or if they read on the internet about a gathering. Fines start as low as 35 euros, but one of my guides said he had to pay 110 euros when he was caught. And back down he went.
The pre-descent talk turned to rumors and urban legends, like the notorious rave parties known to attract large crowds who cause damage, leave litter and attract police. One member of the group had heard the more sinister tale of a serial killer who decapitated victims and discarded their bodies in the Seine and in the underground quarry.
A sculpture and graffiti left by wanderers underneath Paris' streets.
Asked if they were aware of any nefarious activity, such as rapes or worse, one of our guides said confidently that as with any closed community, anyone involved in such acts would be “smoked out” immediately. “People talk,” said 24-year-old Cesar, who has been visiting the underground for about six years. Robberies have been known to occur but he had not had any problems.
Thus reassured we tried unsuccessfully to slip underground at several locations, including through a manhole located about a block away from a police station, that had been sealed. Did it mean there had been a police crackdown? Luckily, someone had a car so we piled in and drove to another entrance. Clad in high rubber boots and wearing headlamps, Cesar and Thibaut, who started exploring regularly in September, led the way.
Carefully avoiding shards of glass, five of us entered through an uneven hole in the ground into the otherworldly maze where we would spend the next several hours. With adrenaline coursing through my veins, we proceeded single file on a quick-paced march to what seemed like nowhere in particular. Falling behind was not an option since each person relied on the light of the person in front to illuminate the way.
Before long, we were hunched over in narrow spaces, wading in knee-deep waters, bumping our heads against low ceilings, breaking a sweat. Attempts to keep my sneakers dry by stepping gingerly in the footsteps of the person in front were futile. The only alternative was to roll up my jeans, grin and bear the cold, murky water. The temperature inside is usually between 55 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
After twisting and turning through various halls, we happened upon nine other explorers who looked to be students in their mid-20s. They gathered under a candle chandelier, smoking and drinking beer, some wearing hard hats. The groups exchanged information. Did you see the police? How did you get in? How will you get out?
We carried on together after minutes of bantering at the foot of a miniature stone castle. Along the way, a lone guy wandering around with a map joined our ranks, now 15 strong, describing how he’d gotten drunk and decided to come down for a tour. We passed a chamber christened “the beach” because of a mural of a blue ocean, and waves on the wall. A large SpongeBob SquarePants mural didn’t seem out of place. Nearby, the date 1895 was inscribed on a marker. The amount of graffiti told its own story.
Our eventual destination was a room that required each person to climb a wall and dive headfirst into a hole barely large enough to fit one person. Once inside the cavity, members of the group lit candles and passed around snacks, including a loaf of bread found earlier on a street bench, cheeses, sausages and cookies, as well as beer and a bottle of wine. The jokes flowed as easily as conversations about Iraq, French government and history, and the young peoples’ helplessness to change the society. The young man who had been exploring alone brought ravioli and had enough supplies, he said, to last three days — just in case. Just because you get in doesn't mean, you'll get out.
Amid the legends, one story stood out, going back to the time of the French Revolution. Philibert Aspairt was a doorman at Val de Grace, the military hospital where President Nicolas Sarkozy was treated this summer after his malaise. One night in 1793, the story goes, Aspairt descended into the quarry alone and was not seen until 11 years later when a team tasked with studying the topography of the underground discovered his gnawed remains grasping a set of keys, just meters from an exit.
A widely visited tomb erected in his honor bears this inscription: “In memory of Philibert Aspairt, lost in this mine on 3 November 1793, found 11 years later and buried in the same place on 30 April 1804.”
Emerging into the morning light, Thibaut marveled at the shock of color of the outside world. I marveled at our coup: no police, no rats and no one left behind.