What lies beneath

The discovery of a 'cinema' below the streets of Paris has drawn attention to the ancient network of tunnels beneath the French capital - and those who haunt these hidden depths. John Lichfield reports
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Beneath the city of light, there lies, unknown to many Parisians a parallel city of darkness, a city of shadows. A tiny part of this subterranean city - the official catacombs - is open to the public. The greater part, a 300km network of 18th-century passages and medieval quarries, 80ft underground - below the sewers, below the Métro, below the car parks and the air-raid shelters - is supposedly sealed off and banned to all but a handful of authorised people. Supposedly.

Beneath the city of light, there lies, unknown to many Parisians a parallel city of darkness, a city of shadows. A tiny part of this subterranean city - the official catacombs - is open to the public. The greater part, a 300km network of 18th-century passages and medieval quarries, 80ft underground - below the sewers, below the Métro, below the car parks and the air-raid shelters - is supposedly sealed off and banned to all but a handful of authorised people. Supposedly.

For more than a century - intensively in last 30 years - the tunnels, the "secret catacombs", have become an adventure playground more extensive than the Paris Métro, a labyrinth of innocent fun and discovery for a legion of urban pot-holers and thrill-seekers known as cataphiles.

Armed with a lantern and overalls, they climb down into the depths to explore, to paint, to create elaborate carvings on the walls, to hold parties and concerts and play cat-and-mouse (or cat-and-mole) with the special catacomb police patrols. Entering this labyrinth has been illegal since the 1950s.

In recent days, this hidden, mostly innocent world has been (to the chagrin of many cataphiles) dragged into the open. The Paris police announced that they had discovered, deep under Trocadéro, across the river from the Eiffel Tower, a subterranean cinema in a cavern 60ft long by 60ft wide, with seats, a screen, a bar, bottles of whisky and illegal cable connections to the city's mains electricity supply.

A few days earlier, there was a brief flurry of alarm when the prison service announced that it had discovered "tunnels" underneath the high-security Santé prison in south-eastern Paris. Was this an attempt to stage a Great Escape? Was it a terrorist plot to blow up the crème of the French criminal classes? It rapidly emerged that the "tunnels" were only a few feet long and were not really underneath the Santé. They had merely been dug "in the direction" of the prison from one of the passages in the vast maze of catacombs under the city's Left Bank. Mainstream cataphiles believe that the digging may have been an attempt by an "extreme" group of anarcho-cataphiles to achieve one of the holy grails of cataphilia - to break in to the Santé prison from below (just for the hell of it).

The "cinema" under Trocadéro is also something of a mystery. Police spoke darkly, at first, of a possible connection with ultra-right-wing groups or satanic rites. Then, more prosaically, the authorities began a formal criminal investigation for the "theft of electricity".

Both police and cataphiles are now coming around to the conclusion that the "cinema" was a spoof, set up by a group of underground jokers - maybe the same group as the Santé prison jokers - to annoy the police and tug the strings of the media. A bad idea, the mainstream cataphiles say. A very bad idea. Every time something of that kind happens, it provides an excuse for the authorities to clamp down on cataphile activities and, worse, "inject" concrete, rubble and power-station ash into some of the tunnels to close them down forever.

Since the revelations of recent days, police have redoubled their activities underground and dozens of cataphiles have been briefly arrested. Some, to their amusement, have found themselves being interviewed by the anti-terrorist police.

So what are the catacombs, and who are the cataphiles? The network of passageways and artificial caverns began as quarries to provide the limestone for Notre Dame cathedral, the Louvre and other buildings in Paris, from the 12th century onwards. In the late 18th century, when streets started to collapse into the forgotten voids below, an elaborate system of inspection tunnels and bulwarks was constructed deep under the city.

Since the freelance exploration of these catacombs began in the early 19th century, there have always been dark rumours of satanic or criminal or extreme sexual activity underground. In 1944, the tunnels and quarries were used by French Resistance forces. In 1968, they were used by students hiding from the riot police. In the 1980s, there was a brief outbreak of ugly skinhead activity in the catacombs.

Now, the vast majority of cataphiles (there is believed to be a hard core of about 300-500) are young and male, often students, whose most criminal act underground is to smoke the occasional joint. There are also female cataphiles and older cataphiles, including, as he admitted recently, the minister for youth and sport, Jean-François Lamour. All have appropriate, subterranean nicknames such as "petroleum" or "la taupe" (the mole).

Why do people do it? "Excitement. Adventure. Camaraderie," says "Morthicia", a 30-year-old photographer, and one of the relatively few female cataphiles. "There is a lot of nonsense spoken about what goes on down there, but the truth is that the atmosphere is very mellow. As a woman, who often goes down alone, I have never had any trouble. The men are very chivalrous. The only time I was really scared was when a group of men started running after me, without saying anything. It turned out to be the police. I was given a fine, but it was included in the next presidential amnesty and I never paid a centime."

Morthicia goes down dressed in overalls, and boots but no helmet, usually with a miner's lamp and her camera. She is a member of a society - Organisation pour la Connaissance et la Restauration d'Au-dessoubs-terre (OCRA) - dedicated to preserving and restoring the subterranean mysteries of Paris. "I go because I am fascinated by the history of Paris and because it is an adventure," she says. "Some people go down for a couple of days, even a week at a time. Others have parties down there. I once had a fondue party underground for my birthday..."

One of the most knowledgeable people about "underground" Paris is Gilles Thomas, co-editor (with Alain Clément) of a wonderful book on everything which exists below street level in the French capital, Atlas du Paris Souterrain (Parigramme, €45.43). He says that medieval Parisian property developers dug underground because it was easier than transporting stone long distances. The quarries were used until the 15th or 16th century, honeycombing the area just outside what were then the southern limits of the city. By the 18th century, Paris had sprawled over this ground and houses and whole streets began to collapse into the long-forgotten cavities below. In the 1770s, the decade before the Revolution which saw the removal of his head, King Louis XVI created a "quarries inspection service", which built a maze of tunnels to reach, maintain and shore up the old stone workings. Hence, the "catacombs".

"The tunnels were built to be big enough for a man to walk through with a wheelbarrow," Thomas says. "In other words, about 1.8m high and 1m wide."

From the late 18th century, the redevelopment of Paris demanded the removal of medieval cemeteries around the city's churches. A 1.6km stretch of the new tunnels was turned into an ossuary, which to this day stores six million skeletons (mostly those of unknown ancient Parisians, but also the great tragedian Jean Racine and many victims of the Revolutionary terror of the 1790s, including Robespierre, Marat and Charlotte Corday).

From 10am to 4pm most days, for a fee of €5, anyone can visit this small section of the old Paris mineworking and inspection tunnels and see the skulls and bones, which are packed in as neatly and tightly as cigarettes in a packet.

Cataphiles, like Morthicia, say that the "open" catacombs and the officially "closed" tunnels are broadly the same: narrow corridors linking somewhat more spacious areas, propped up by pillars of stones, where the seams of limestone were mined 600-900 years ago. There are three or four "secret" entrances remaining of the scores which once dotted the Left Bank, which contains 90 per cent of the catacombs. Several of the ancient colleges of the Latin Quarter once had spiral staircases down into the catacombs from their basements. These are now, theoretically, closed up, but a handful of other points of access remain.

Of the original 300km of passages, some have been destroyed or cut off by the deep basements of new buildings such as the Tour Montparnasse and Gare Montparnasse. Others have been deliberately blocked. None the less, at least 200km of tunnels survive, in two main "circuits" under the Left Bank and in a smaller network on the Right Bank around Trocadéro (where the "cinema" was found).

Once the cataphile climbs through a manhole and scales down a ladder or - in one much-used entrance - crawls through a narrow space where the quarries come close to the surface, he or she can mostly walk upright. Only occasionally do they have to stoop or crawl. The tunnels below largely follow the pattern of the streets above. There are street names carved or painted at the intersections. There is no real danger of getting lost.

Most cataphiles are young, "Morthicia" says, but you don't have to be. She once took a British underground-exploration society down there "and they quite honestly were mostly granddads. You see sensationalist stuff in the press sometimes - you know how journalists exaggerate - saying that the catacombs are used for satanic masses, drugs parties or far-right gatherings.Well, excuse me, but I've been going down for 10 years and I've never seen any hint of anything like that. Every time stories like that appear, it seems to be taken as an excuse to close entrances or block tunnels."

Thomas is convinced that the "cinema" deep below Trocadéro was an elaborate "prank" staged by a group of cataphiles who wanted to draw attention to themselves. "There are always people who like to make an exhibition of themselves. I think this 'cinema' has been greatly exaggerated, just like the tunnels near the Santé prison," he says.

In response to cataphile activities - or often to hysterical exaggeration of cataphile activities - the modern French state has been nibbling away at the greater catacombs, blocking long stretches of tunnel. Thomas says that such a response is heavy-handed and dangerous - more dangerous than whatever pranks the cataphiles get up to.

"The tunnels were created to allow visual inspections of the quarry workings and access for maintenance work," Thomas says. "The dangers that they feared in the 18th century have not gone away. By blocking tunnels, the authorities are potentially causing much more serious problems than they are solving."