Ever since becoming interested in UrbEx, I had heard the legends of the Paris Catacombs. It seemed to be some distant dream, the unobtainable pinnacle of UrbEx protected by cataflics and catophiles alike. But a few weeks ago, a phone call from Hydra handed me the golden key. A friend of ours in Paris (who is consequently one of the best photographers I have ever seen) invited us for a four day trip deep into the catacombs, a trip which was to cover dozens of kilometers, sleeping, eating, dreaming and crawling through the various galleries.
The trip began with a 8 hour coach ride from London, across the channel on the ferry, and into Paris at 7am. After spending the morning rounding up supplies, we crawled into the catas in the afternoon, finding them pretty much empty on a Friday. Although my gear was carefully minimized and I was in good shape for the explore, the catas required a different sort of stride than I was used to. It was low, head turned to one side, many times through deep water, waddling quickly after our guide who had endless energy and an incredible drive to explore.
The galleries underneath Paris seem to go on forever, punctuated by brief stops in various rooms (chatières) which have been lovingly dug out and maintained by the cataphiles who care for this place.
We slept in a tight chamber which became increasingly cold as the night wore on. At some point, about 2am, an explorer woke us up, looking for a place to sleep himself. He asked if we could wake him when we left but was not very amused when we started crawling at 7am again! We ran into a few other groups of people over the weekend, mostly people going down casually to party. The most interesting person we met however, was a cataphile who demonstrated the proper use of a smoke bomb to evade subterranean authorities. When we finally exited the room where he lit it, we had to feel our way along the walls and our torches only made it worse!
One of the things that struck me about the experience was the constant reminders of death. I guess this is inevitable, given that we are in a place full of the bones of the dead, a place underground where the dead are though to dwell, a place where one could die anytime. It seemed that everywhere you look, there is a skull, real or iconic, a death mask, a memorial or alter. Perhaps this is what makes this place so sacred, perhaps this is why the days I spent in the catacombs felt like a dream, like the sleep that the Buddhists call a “small death”. Perhaps this is why, for the last two days since I have been home, the catacombs still live in my dreams.
The end to our catajourney was somewhat comical. After days underground, we thought it would be funny to pop out of a manhole cover in the sidewalk and walk home. Unfortunately for us, the cover was incredibly heavy and we spent far too long trying to move it. Eventually, the police drove by and noticed the cover being moved and stopped to find out what was happening. After some assurances that we were safe and not up to mischief, they opened the cover for us, allowing for a safe exit from our 100 foot underground wander.
Our guide was an expert blagger and chatted up the police who eventually just wanted to ask questions about what was below and see our pictures and video. They even left us take some pictures of our exit and scrape with the gendarmes on our way home. I have to say that this experience, being American, was as surreal for me as the explore and I have an entirely new love and respect for France. Now maybe I should spend some time seeing it above ground!