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Down and Out in Paris

By Faye Litherland

It started as most things do with several beers at the pub and a discussion about limestone quarrying techniques.  Having only visited the Wiltshire Limestone quarries up to that point I was very interested in the stone used for other famous cities and that is how the trip to the Paris Catacombs was born.  Tim Ball had wanted to go for ages, but lack of time and planning had put it on the back burner.  I had a mission………

The Paris Catacombs were quarried to provide the stone to build Paris.  Initially Paris was in the centre around Notre Dame, and the catacombs were on the edge of the city.  As Paris grew it eventually started to expand over the catacombs and the government became concerned about the potential for collapses in the area.  Therefore in 1777 a program of consolidation and inspection was started.  Before an area was built over, the area below was filled in and strengthened to support the structure above and passages left for access and ongoing inspection.  This support structure was then marked with a unique designation, which is still visible today.  An example of one of these designations is 29T 1877.  29 is the wall number, T is the designation letter of the inspector for that wall and 1877 is the year of inspection. Therefore we can tell that this particular wall was built in 1877 and was the 29th wall that Inspector Designation Letter T inspected in that year.  We could go even further and look back through the records to find out who held that letter in that year and find out more about them.  This consolidation continued until Paris grew to the point where even its graveyards on the edge of the city were needed for building land.  At this point some bright spark in the city government decided to remove all of the bodies from the cemeteries and transfer them to the catacombs.  This would free up the cemeteries for building.  The lower levels of the catacombs were filled with the bones of the dead and still are.  Opportunities for dramatic poses and proclamations of “Alas poor Yoric, I knew him Horatio - a fellow of infinite jest” abound.  There is a section of the Paris Catacombs which has been converted into a tourist attraction, but that wasn’t what we wanted to see.  We wanted the wild untamed Catacombs experience, not the sanitised for the masses, glass walled tourist trip version.

There are a couple of problems with visiting the non-tourist parts of the Paris Catacombs.  The major one being that it is illegal and getting caught will land you in hot water with the gendarmerie and in receipt of a fine. The other problem is finding an open entrance.  The entrances get located by the Gendarmerie and closed up, and then another one gets opened etc.  Hence it is essential to have someone with local knowledge.

So, the question is, how does one find people involved with illegal and clandestine activities in the French capital?  Obviously they don’t advertise in the Paris equivalent of the yellow pages.  There was only one place to go I sent a message to “Root” who runs the website and he put me in touch with someone called “Paulo” who put me in touch with a Frenchman who goes by the name of “Oxs” (a nickname from the Asterix cartoons).  After many emails the date for our catacombs visit was fixed and then all Tim & I had to do was get to Paris and wait on a street corner, on a certain date, at a certain time, dressed in old clothes and wellies and with no underground equipment visible.  He would find us.

Tim & I had no idea what to expect, but had been warned to take a few beers to share, but nothing in a glass bottle.  So there we were, on a street corner on the outskirts of Paris, looking like we had crawled out of the gutter with my tatty old rucksack containing our caving helmets, lamps, six beers and my photography equipment.

True to his word, at the agreed time, Oxs arrived accompanied by a large bottle of unidentified spirits, which he insisted on sharing with us as it was in a glass bottle and had to be finished before we went underground.  As you can imagine, we strenuously resisted for all of a few seconds. We then had to wait for his friend “Source” to arrive as he was struggling to park.  Eventually we were all gathered and ready to make our way to the entry point.  There was no messing about for this part.  We were told that we would walk casually towards the entrance and then go down as fast as possible and seal it behind us.  I had expected the entry point to be down a back alley somewhere, but as we were crossing a busy roundabout opposite a bus station, Oxs pointed down and said “we are here”.  I was stunned; we were about to effect an illegal entry into the bowels of Paris in full view of lots and lots of witnesses.  Oh well, I had left a call out for someone to find me and bail me out of jail if I didn’t get into work by the following Wednesday.  Down we went and Source secured the hatch above us.

We made our way down a series of ladders for about forty metres passing through the newer sewer and cable run levels until we reached the catacombs level.  We were standing around sorting ourselves out when we heard someone else coming down the ladder.  I saw a look of amusement in Source’s eyes and then we witnessed the French sense of humour at first hand.  They waited until the other people were on the ladder and committed to the descent.  Then Source blew his whistle as loud as possible and yelled the equivalent of “Stop, Police” in French.  The descending stopped and turned into rapid ascent at which point our French guides burst out laughing and the poor frightened victims made their way down to join us. 

This is the spirit of the Catacombs.  With the exception of a few pairs of explorer friends (they call themselves Cataphiles), none of us had met each other previously, but within minutes we were all sharing beer, wine, food, cigarettes, experiences and other things. There is no language barrier underground.

I had expected the Catacombs to be tunnels full of bones and not much else, but there are open areas too where the first consolidations were made using arches rather than infill. Some of these areas have been beautifully decorated to make “rooms” where the walls are decorated with murals of original art and copies of works by Dali and Botticelli to name but a few. Artists from the surrealists, cubists and renaissance are all represented.  These rooms are where the party happens.  We moved from room to room during the night, joining and leaving various groups as we went, drinking, smoking and partying to the ever present music supplied by someone’s stereo, as our guides Oxs and Source became more and more incoherent and unsteady.

Eventually the party crowd thinned out and soon it was just Tim & I, Oxs, Source and a guy called Oxalite who we had collected at one of the parties.  We made our way to another room where there were stone benches built into the walls.  Candles were lit and lights were turned off.  It was time to sleep.  I was so exhausted that I did manage to sleep quite well on the cold stone although Oxs noticed me shivering in my sleep at one point and put a space blanket over me.

We slept for probably four hours and then we were off again.  Our guides were considerably more sober by this time and I was starting to have some confidence that we would get out alive.

With the night’s party over it was time for sightseeing.  As well as having visited the bone deposits during the night we had also seen the wall inscriptions from the consolidations.  We then visited an area which was used by the Paris School of Mines. Each year the students had painted murals on the walls and these could be traced back through several decades. Unfortunately this practice has now been stopped due to health and safety concerns.  We also visited the site where a body was discovered, now called the Tomb.  A man had become lost in the catacombs about two hundred years ago and was only found twenty years later.  He was identified by his clothes and a key, which was found on the body.  He died only metres from an exit.  His body was removed, but an inscription was placed at the site as a stark reminder of the perils of wandering around without a map and enough light.  During the Second World War part of the catacombs was used by the Nazis and we visited one of the old bunkers, which is still mostly intact.  We also visited the sales room for the quarries and saw the “Bancs de Pierre de Cette Carriere”.  This is a set of display steps, which has the different types of available stone displayed, a bit like a colour swatch but for limestone.

Tired, dirty and happy we decided it was time to leave the catacombs after over twelve hours underground. Here again normal safety practices went out of the window.  We all huddled forty metres above the ground on a ladder of questionable vintage, while Source opened the manhole to the street level above.  Our instructions were clear.  Get out, walk away and take the next right into a side street and then wait. Don’t look back and don’t run.  We managed to exit without being chased by the Gendarmerie, falling off the ladder or dropping any of the good citizens of Paris down our open manhole.  Tim & I said our goodbyes in the safety of the side street and then made our way back to our hotel followed by an interesting smell and a lot of curious stares.

Several nights later we found ourselves on a train bound for Nemours.  We had been accepted into Oxs confidence and he wanted to show us a site, which is unique to Europe, an old underground sand quarry with sand of such purity that it was used for telescope lenses.  Still not sure what to expect, we arrived on the platform in Nemours to wait for Oxs.

He had said he would cook us dinner so we had assumed we would be going to his house before the quarry visit.  How wrong can you be?  I found myself in charge of carrying two baguettes through a sand crawl with the strict instruction not to get sand over them.  Tim was in charge of the cheese.

The sand quarry was truly amazing.  The sand vein was located between two rock bedding planes which meant that there was no contamination from vegetation or soil unlike other open cast sand quarries.  I was amazed by how extensive the workings were. There were very few artefacts in the quarry although areas of pit props were evident and there was one section of railway track.  It was not long before we were tired of walking through the deep sand on the floor and decided to have dinner.  This was cheese fondue with copious quantities of wine.  Oxs had been steadily making his way through the wine all evening and yet, to our amusement, declined some of the beer Tim & I had brought because he was driving!

We got a few hours sleep that night at Oxs’ apartment and he very kindly dropped us off at the edge of Paris the next morning on his way to work.  We made our way back across Paris to our hotel to be stared at yet again by the clean, non-sandy Parisians.

So is Paris the most romantic city in the world?  I am not sure, but it is definitely good for a dirty weekend!