Going underground: Exploring the Paris Catacombs

Saturday 30 October 2010 00:00
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Cataphiles are Parisian urban explorers who illegally wander the Catacombs, a term popularly used to describe a vast network of underground galleries, tunnels and crypts under Paris. Originally built after the French Revolution to house the remains of destroyed tombs during the expansion of the city, the Catacombs are testimony to over two centuries of the city's historical heritage. For example, they were used as shelters by the French resistance during the Nazi occupation of Paris in the Second World War.

Beginning in the late Sixties, Parisians known as Cataphiles began restoring some of these spaces, and organising ossuaries to make way for more innovative creative spaces or themed neighbourhoods.

The Catacombs (or les k'tas as they are known locally) were formerly a network of stone mines. Nearly 80 yards below the city's cobblestones, there are no lights, electricity or even sound. There are no living creatures or fantastic urban legends in the Catacombs; however, it is estimated that as many as 300 Parisians visit the Catacombs weekly, entering via secret entrances throughout the city. Visiting them is illegal and considered trespassing, although it is mostly tolerated by locals. If caught, trespassers face a small fine.

A small portion of the Catacombs is open to the public or tourists. Entrance to the official Catacombs is restricted, though, and only consists of a tiny part of an extensive network of underground tunnels which spans more than 300km (about 186 miles) in length.

Some passages can be very low, narrow, or partially flooded. Because of these dangers, accessing the other parts of the Catacombs has been illegal since 2 November, 1955.

Secret entrances do, however, exist throughout Paris via the sewers, the Métro, and certain manholes. Cataphiles are, in a sense, a community, since they share the same spaces, even though they are divided into certain networks or underground neighbourhoods. They may not necessarily pledge allegiance to where they actually live, above in the city, but Cataphiles may choose to visit repeatedly the same network down below.

Rivalry and alliances between networks do exist – and "tourists" or non-Cataphiles are rarely welcome. There are three rules that a Cataphile must follow and respect.

They are as follows:

1) "What comes down must go up". This is a rule that applies to littering, and is thoroughly respected and enforced by Cataphiles.

2) "Never speak of the above". Most Cataphiles use aliases to identify themselves. What someone does for a living or where he/she goes to school is rarely discussed in the Catacombs. Many of the plaques placed in the tunnels indicate the name of the street above, but in some cases they are purposefully misleading.

3) "Never trust anyone". There is a given notion that a good Cataphile is not only someone with a sense of adventure and above-average navigational skills, but also someone who has been sufficiently exposed to life in these underground quarries, or to communities that visit the Catacombs regularly.

In short, since the Catacombs are made up of complex tunnel systems ranging on several floors, covering an entire city and with only a few existing entrances or exits to the world above, it is advisable to never trust anyone, any signage or any online maps.

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