Terror by torchlight

Tales of the city: PARIS Rotting catacombs are a playground for French youth
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The Independent Culture
"Tonight we're going to break into an atomic refuge over on the other side," says Luc, wielding a large pickaxe and staring into a hole in the ground marked by a flickering candle. "First, I am meeting up with a few mates for a bit of fun down there, and then we are going to dig around the iron door of a refuge I found on my last trip to see what's behind it," he says with a grin.

A night spent roaming the catacombs deep under the streets of Paris is an intoxicating and daunting experience. Unfamiliar shadows loom along the disused tracks of an abandoned railway tunnel in the south-west of the city. Distorted voices echo in the distance and the beams of torches flash nervously in the dark.

The group suddenly thins out and voices fade as each "cataphile" disappears into the earth deep under the tracks. Head first, they slide into a crack a foot wide and drag themselves on their stomachs for a few yards, until eerie silence returns. Damp tunnels and labyrinthine galleries stretch out for miles into the dark, criss-crossing each other in a tangled web of passages. A few steps is all it takes to feel helplessly lost. "Stick to me, stranger, if you want to get out again because our catacombs don't take too kindly to newcomers," warns Alain, a 26-year-old student who has already used this entrance 28 times.

Carved out between 1100 and 1810, "les cata", as regulars call them, were originally quarries used to extract limestone to build the French capital. They owe their tenebrous name to the 6 million corpses from disused church graveyards and French revolution executions which were dumped into its maze of galleries in the late 18th century. Until recently, 11,000 square metres of neatly stacked skulls, shin-bones and ribs known as the Empire of Death were open to the public and attracted more than 160,000 visitors each year.

A human bone on the mantlepiece used to be a fashionable must for any self-respecting cataphile, not least because it was strictly forbidden to tamper with the human remains. This craze came to an abrupt end a few months ago, when Paris's necropolis was sealed off from the rest of the tunnels because the bones were rotting.

The police have been unable to control access to the remaining 280 kilometres of tunnels. All 296 entrances have been sealed and a special police unit has spent the past 16 years imposing fines of up to 900 francs (£118) on the few wanderers it catches during its underground patrols. But the mystery and mystique of its narrow passages and vast caves has proved too enticing. Cataphiles young and old dig new holes and cut through the locks at night to roam around and hold parties and raves.

"Ultimately, it is impossible to stop people from going underground," says a member of the specially trained catacomb squad who has been on the beat deep in the bowels of Paris since 1984. "We do our best to dissuade them, but the place is far too big and the entrances too many."

Cataphiles share a few well-guarded secrets. Most confidential of all is which entrances they use to get into "the labyrinth". An game of cat and mouse keeps police busy as they place new locks and slabs only to find them removed a few weeks later. Old hands will take newcomers on a nocturnal ramble, but only if they are introduced by a mutual friend, and on the clear understanding that the entrance used should be kept secret. The dress code is simple: the tattier the better.

This clandestine underground world breeds numerous tales of decadence and excess. Its remotest corners are allegedly the setting of black masses, wild orgies and sado-masochist festivals. Its long tunnels are a hide-out for violent skinheads who attack anyone who dares wander on to their turf. "There is even supposed to be a gang called, `If I catch you, I'll skin you', but I have never come across it," says one regular.

While these may all be myths, the reality is no less surreal. Obscure messages, paintings and graffiti cover the walls. Faces carved out of the limestone gape at passers-by. Narrow winding passages lead into a series of caves which have been christened by the cataphiles. "Manix" and "Redos" are packed with groups of young enthusiasts huddled around a circle of candles. Music, joints and drinks are plentiful. Covered in white dust from the limestone, they look like survivors of an air-raid.

The most famous cataphiles are known by a series of colourful code names, and tractes, cryptic messages and poems are left in secret cracks in the stone. Halloween is the cataphiles' most cherished celebration, when the labyrinth fills with painted faces, macabre costumes, drums and fire- eaters.

As we scramble through the tunnels, words of comradeship are exchanged at each encounter; the flash of a torchlight in a newcomer's face is the only formality before he or she is asked to join the circle. "Welcome to our world, man! If you are going down to Manix, shout out for Small Lutin and tell him Le Cid is sent you and he'll show you a good time," shouts a voice from a group sitting along a narrow tunnel lined with red candles.

"Why do I come down here? Four words, mon cher: the pleasure of travelling," he adds, smiling.

Mark Franchetti