Boisdale Life’s fearless Editor-at-Large, Paddy Renouf and the artist Tom Maryniak not only break the law, but risk a cold dark death exploring the Paris catacombs and the ‘City of the Dead’
Did you know that under the streets of Paris is an underground metropolis with an alternative community that regularly explores its myriad of pitch-dark tunnels and passageways, leading from quarries and caverns, through a vast network of sometimes flooded corridors, on past deep wells and elaborate shrines, into catacombs and ossuary’s containing the bones of some 6 million Parisians?
I didn’t, until the artist Tom Maryniak told the story to me. It immediately appealed to the romantic renegade in me and I wanted to find out more. Who were these people? Did they actually live down there and abide by their own rules? Were they a Lord-of-the-Flies community; weed smoking hippies or a group of urban defectors?
Over the coming weeks I am introduced, via the internet, to a sympathetic and promising guide. We shall call him Jean Doe. He would help as much as he could but he stressed, that they didn’t want unnecessary attention.
Jean explains that under Paris there are spaces of all kinds; canals and reservoirs, crypts and bank vaults, wine cellars transformed into nightclubs and galleries. Over time, I gain his trust and he finally admits that the only way for me to understand fully, is to see it for myself. He will take me on a night-trek. I tell Tom. He sends a text saying simply “I am coming!”
Jean explains early on, that members of the community like to keep locations of the dozen entries and exits, as well as their own identities, secret. This keeps out vandals and weirdos, but there is another reason: to enter and explore this world is not only dangerous – it is also illegal and has been since 1955.
A week later, Tom and I arrive in Paris and make our way to the appointed café near a Metro station, somewhere in the South East of the city. I must admit that after a lunch at La Fontaine du Mars and cocktails at the Hemingway bar in the Ritz, my nerve nearly fails and I almost wimp-out. The very thought of going underground illegally with two strangers, with whom I had only communicated with on Facebook using Google Translate, suddenly seems insane.
What if we have an accident and break a leg in some dank corridor in the bowels of the earth with no lights… or fresh water… miles from an exit? Would these two characters even care?
Jean Doe and Jim Doe arrive 20 minutes late. I confess that I am increasingly shy of the idea. They tell us in broken English that we need have no fear and they would only expose us to a small part of the entire matrix and we could make our decision to power-on, or chicken-out after the first hour and a half.
We had been told to bring hats, waders, torches, spare batteries and some light-waterproofs. Now we are advised to take care as it is slippery underfoot and to not shine torches in people’s eyes as it would ruin night vision. We are also told to look out for potholes and rusty, jagged metal spikes from the ceiling as well as the deep underground wells.
After a kilometre march, Jean turns to address us: “I have to say this once more – entry to these Catacombs is illegal and if we are found by the police, we might be arrested and will certainly be fined. It is only right that I once more make you aware of this. Now, behind me, is a bridge. We will climb over the ramparts and lower ourselves to the embankment below.”
We three silently follow climbing down the embankment and tentatively step our way along the disused railway line. We suddenly stop. “Right, we enter the catacombs from here,” says Jean. I look around but cannot make out any obvious entrance. Then I look down and see by my left foot what looks like a badger’s set. We are all silent for a moment. “Okay, I’ll lead,” says Jean, “Jim will take up the behind position. Just follow me down”. I look at the keystone above the rabbit hole we are about to surrender to and Dante comes rushing back to me ‘abandon all hope, ye who enter here’.
I shove my bag ahead and slither down a narrow slope, finding myself clumsily upright again, next to Jean. The air is humid, almost fetid at a constant 15 degrees. Shortly, Tom and Jim are alongside us too. Jean and Jim had changed into waders before entering, with Tom and I sheepishly looking at each other as we were supposed to have brought some too. We are ludicrously under-dressed. We switch on our head torches and there sitting in an alcove is a Sikh with a tan turban sporting a head torch of his own. He smiles referring to a hand-drawn map, with grubby fingers. He tells us he is alone and it is his first foray into the Catacombs.
We reach a little chamber, the size of a domestic wine cellar, where with the four of us huddled around, John and Jim pull out a long thin chopping board and very sharp small knife. Jean delicately slices a saucisson with ritualistic care of a good host. Just as I am thinking about how I wished I’d brought some wine, he offers a hip flask containing the most delicious home made rum-based banana cocktail. In the flickering light on the cavernous walls we settle down to be educated about this underground world in which we are trespassing.
Our guides are what are known as Cataphiles. They are not just people who explore the Catacombs; they are people who love Catacombs and it becomes apparent that we are in the largest network of Catacombs in the world, as well as the largest necropolis. We are in a vast, random, city of the dead.
The 18th Century saw Louis XVI encounter a problem caused by over crowding of the graveyards in Paris and he ordered that all the dead be heaved and carted into the vacant space below. The result is that, the remains of 6 million mortals were dumped in disused lime quarries. Many of the bodies are partially decomposed, reducing into large deposits of fat, specifically margarie acid. During the exhumation of these bodies, these fat deposits were collected, and used in the production of candles and soap.
There are apparently over 186 miles of tunnels to explore and since the network is so vast it has been impossible over the centuries to dig deep foundations for new buildings. That’s why Paris is counted as among the most low-lying capital cities.
Refreshed and fascinated, with a certain trepidation we pack up our chattels, scuttling off, splashing, wading and skidding our way down man-sized tunnels to ‘something’ they both wanted us to see. Jean puts on some fantastical techno-trance ambient music echoing off into the black and declaring us alive in the sacred silence.
You don’t realise how scary it is, having a whole mountain on top of you, until you’re in the dark as we were in those tunnels. At moments, it feels like a cross between ‘Lost in Space’ and ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’. Later, five or six kilometres in, John switches off the lights and lamps and cuts the music. I have never known darkness like it. You start to hear the silence. Bad planning would mean flat batteries and that would most certainly lead to peril and you would possibly never find a way out. Unbelievably, there are as many passages underground, heading off randomly and crisscrossing your path, as there are roads and avenues above.
At times the fear is spine chilling but after our last 15 minute rest in a catacomb full of damp and furry bones, we start on the last 20 mins and the air starts to get fresher, almost a gentle breeze, until John gestures to an upright iron ladder which scares me more than ever as I have 14 metal pins in my shoulder and no confidence in holding my body weight.
And so, after 12 kilometres we emerge from a manhole at 2am in a very fashionable street near to the Seine. No sooner than we replace the covers, our two guides run off into the night. Were they ever there?
Feeling a bit like Alice emerging from her acid trip, we are left to re-acquaint ourselves with the Paris we know and love. The most obvious problem is that we are covered head to toe in chalky coloured clay, saturated up to mid-thigh, every step a loud squelch and steam rising from our jeans. But doesn’t stop us grinning from ear to ear and soon we were both laughing. Once we get our bearings we hail a cab to the nearest bar.
EPILOGUE: Two weeks after our sojourn the papers report on two young males who had got lost down there for three days and were rescued by special police and dogs but with hypothermia. Yes, it is fun and fascinating and scary and thrilling, but it is by no means a leisure activity. You have been warned.