March 2018

Venus in the Cellar. Photos © Bérengère Berra

Various paintings inclucing Salvador Dali's reproductions in the Cellar, near Rue de la Tombe-Issoire.

Beneath rue Saint Jacques. Mushrooms grow beside tree roots hanging from the ceiling arches.

The Dead Crossroad near rue Emile Richard, beneath Montparnasse cemetery.

The Salle du Chateau located beneath rue Alphonse Daudet.

Inside a Chatière, leading to the bunker beneath rue d'Assas.

Paris Underground

Very few tourists know that when they stroll around Paris, others may be lurking only 40 metres underground beneath their feet. The French capital hides an unexpected treasure known to only an exclusive and initiated elite.

For years and years, I have been strolling through these tunnels under the city of love. Hereafter, I will describe the experience I made as a Catacomb wannabe, when I first discovered the hidden treasure on my own, in a dangerously naive way. Luckily, I met a cataphile, who knew his way around the tunnels and helped me to become one of these professional strollers myself…

A young man is walking in a 10 metre deep trench and following a pair of very old railway tracks. They are out of service and hidden by the wild vegetation of a wasted land. His only equipment is a pocket lamp and some beers. He doesn’t yet know that he is approaching the gate of the mighty catacombs of Paris. The rail tunnels become longer and darker. A growing fear has already started to form in the pit of his stomach.

Suddenly, a dark deep hole in the ground appears from the shadow, and then a stream of light, pours out. Clad in a green hat, blue suit and gum boots, A guy called Indy jumps out, like a Jack in the box. He is muddy, unshaven, and looks a bit like a drunken punk. A large smile spreads across his face. He seems to know the place, to be used to it, like a kind of ready-made tourist guide.

After a quick handshake, the boy admits he is already lost. The muddy guy laughs: 230 km underground, hand-dug galleries are running under the city of lights. There is no way to go down there without a perfect knowledge of your road.

Beers against knowledge, the deal is done. The tourist and the cataphile disappear, consumed by the darkness.

The galleries are scrolling out under their quick step. There is something from ancient Egypt in the air. Every inch of stone shows the marks from the former pit worker’s pickaxes. Every wall is covered with decades of graffiti, testifying, bearing testimony to the previous explorations, for the ones who know how to read them.

The ground is half flooded, and the boy’s shoes and pans get wet. First room: La salle du chateau, the castle room: a circular table, rooflight and four gargoyles. Around a massive pillar, an outstanding castle has been built. The light of a few candles are flooding out from the towers. According to the guide, everything here is hand made by the cataphiles. First pause, first beer. The march sets off again.

Modern kind of galleries, rub shoulders with older ones. They pass through the Cellar, a room where two Dali paintings face a Venus, a place where the walls offer artistic expressions at every corner. Another long trek again, the next stop is the Cabinet Mineralogique. Built in the 17th century, it was used to display the public’s fascination for geology. Over the entrance, stands a huge stone block marked 1811. Second and third beer.

The visitor and his guide meet two other explorers there. It’s a busy place. They wear a kind of ghetto-blaster on their backpack with some punk music on. The chat revolve around police patrols, light empowerment and secret areas. Seeing the tourist boy, every body falls silent. The secrets must be stored here. It’s time to go, the time passes so quickly in the deep dark. Next stage : the boneyards under Montparnasse cemetery.

The remains of more than six millions Parisians rest silently, buried in the galeries. The two explorers arrive at the Dead Crossroads. A hole on the wall leads them to a small room. Under their feet, the ground is composed of eight meters of bones. Walking there sounds like crushing rotten wood. Hundreds of Parisians of diverse social backgrounds, aristocrats and unknown commoners, have their remains mixed together in this huge boneyard.

On the road again. The cataphile guide walks very fast. He wants to reach the World War II German Bunker as fast as he can, under the Lycee Montaigne, in the 6th Arrondissement. Inside, a time travel is offered to the visitors. On the wall, German inscriptions still warn against smoking around ammunition. A swastika on the wall testifies that this was a place largely frequented by skinheads in the 80’s. But the Bunker is not the goal.

Not far from there, a medieval underground chapel from the XIVth century awaits visitors. A holy water font gushes out from the front wall, disrupting softly the religious silence that still hangs in the room.

This contemplative path leads them to the last step of their trip. Hidden in an alcove stands the grave of Philibert Aspair. He was the porter of the Val de Grace convent during the French revolution. He got lost in the labyrinth, and his body was found and buried in 1811, more than ten years after he disappeared. He becamed a kind of holy saint for the cataphile community, reminding everyone of the modesty and caution they should observe in these historical hand-made tunnels.

The two explorers start a long walk back to the daylight. It’s probably the early morning outside. Darkness and tiredness tend to hypnotize the walkers. Arriving near the entrance, a fresh wind jolts them suddenly from their stupor. Coming back to light and civilisation has something of a new birth.

Muddy and exhausted, the unwary tourist goes back home for a long sleep. Paris showed him it’s hooded face, and will never look the same again. He feels glad to share the secret: under the paving stones, lies one of the last places of complete freedom of the world’s most visited capital.

Marc De Boni

February 9, 2010 by admin · 1 Comment 


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