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Underground among Paris’s millions dead

Catacombs mix history, mystery, and adventure

Cataphiles, those obsessed with the catacombs of Paris, wear waders, headlamps, and layers of clothing when they explore. Cataphiles, those obsessed with the catacombs of Paris, wear waders, headlamps, and layers of clothing when they explore. (Rachael Woodson)
By Caroline Kinneberg
Globe Correspondent / January 23, 2011

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PARIS — There are two kinds of gruyere in France: the literal one, an odorous, holey family of cheeses produced near the Swiss border; and the figurative one, the gruyere parisien, equally as earthy, porous, and complex. It refers to the tangle, deep under the city’s streets, of metro and train lines, sewers, and ancient quarries that extend much farther and are much more active than most Parisians realize.

The quarries have lived many lives. Originally providing limestone that remains the basis for the city’s classic streetscapes, they housed mushroom farms once rock extraction was halted. Sections of the mines not used for champignons de Paris were taken for a very different purpose. Because of the city’s exploding population, mass graves were overflowing, causing putrid odors and spreading deadly infections. From 1786 through 1814, the city emptied its graves and transferred bones into the quarries, including those of Robespierre and Rabelais, some of France’s most important historic figures whose skeletons remain anonymous among the others underground. Now a municipal museum called the Catacombs of Paris, the ossuary is the world’s biggest necropolis and one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions.

“Stop! It is here, the empire of death,’’ reads an epigraph from poet Jacques Delille that has marked the Catacombs’ entrance since they opened to the public in the 19th century. During summer tourist season, lines often wrap around the block and people easily wait an hour before entering. Why do 300,000 visitors per year choose to ignore the sign and step into the exceedingly creepy subterranean cemetery? “It evokes the stories of hundreds of millions of Parisians,’’ says Danièle Pourtaud, deputy to the mayor of Paris in charge of patrimony, referring to the 6 million people buried in the Catacombs. “It’s simultaneously a historical account and, it’s delicate to say a work of art, but a mise-en-scène.’’

Creative types have long drawn inspiration from the ghostly atmosphere. The French photographer Nadar, for instance, developed the use of artificial lighting in photography in the 1860s with images of the Catacombs. Today, tourists patter along the same hauntingly beautiful paths and rooms, past walls of bones stacked like Jenga sticks and engraved, dramatically lighted memorials.

But the 45-minute, self-guided ossuary tour only covers 2 kilometers of the 300-kilometer-long quarry system (about 186 miles), which has been off-limits to the public since 1955. And this is the gruyere the cataphiles can’t get enough of.

Just as cinephiles are obsessed with the cinema, cataphiles — “catas’’ for short — are obsessed with the catacombs. (Officially, “catacombs’’ refers only to the ossuary, but most people use the term to refer to the entire quarry network. In this article, “Catacombs’’ refers to the ossuary and “catacombs’’ to the entire network.) Sébastien Thomas, 28, who works as crew chief in public water treatment, created a Facebook group for cataphiles to connect the night crawlers. Known by the pseudonym Chapodepay (the phonetic spelling of chapeau de paille, or “straw hat,’’ something he never descends without), Thomas agreed to take this reporter along with two friends on a very unofficial tour of Paris, 50 feet below its surface.

Our rendezvous is on a Friday night in the southern 14th district, and we enter through an easy-to-miss hole in a defunct railroad track overgrown with grass. The tunnels below ground are mostly uncomfortable: Some are filled thigh-high with clear water, others low enough that we must walk either with our heads ducked or like a duck, in a kind of half-squat waddle. We’re prepared with thigh-high waders and headlamps. The temperature, as in the ossuary, is around 57 degrees Farenheit, so although we work up a sweat maneuvering the labyrinth, the second we stop we throw on layers.

Thomas walks with a three-ring binder of plastic-covered maps in hand, a man obviously experienced with the French bureaucratic system. The printouts come from an encyclopedic, government-endorsed website (www.carrieres.explographies.com/indexus.htm) about the catacombs produced by a cata named Nexus.

A special group of police is dedicated to monitoring the catacombs (they are unofficially called “cataflics’’; flic means “cop’’), but the typical penalty for being caught below is a symbolic fine of about 35 euros ($46). According to Pourtaud, the government’s biggest worry is for cataphiles’ safety, not degradation of the catacombs.

Altogether, the cataphiles are a respectful bunch — far from the killer on the loose in the 2007 horror flick “Catacombs’’ starring the singer P!nk. The worst crime in the quarries happened in the ossuary in 2009, when intruders took axes to bones, stole skulls, and forced the museum to close for three months for renovations. Pourtaud compared it to robbers snipping relics from the Met. “We still haven’t found the culprits,’’ she said, “but they’re not necessarily cataphiles. Cataphiles love the underground space, the atmosphere, and these people just came to destroy.’’

We pass several signs painted on walls that read, “I love my catas, I clean up,’’ mimicking the ones above ground (official variants being “I love my city/neighborhood/dog’’). Underground galleries are also decorated. A room named La Plage (the beach) features a sand-covered floor, a crane-and-wave fresco modeled after Hokusai’s “The Great Wave,’’ as well as, inexplicably, a folding chair. Another graffiti-covered gallery named L’Abri des Feuillantines was built to shelter government higher-ups during World War II’s Vichy regime; the bunker is immense, with toilet stalls and a rusty urinary.

We cross paths with about 20 people, all of them cordial. Some say they come for thrills, others for a break from the real world. The catacombs are rarely empty, but Thomas knew tonight would be especially busy when he spotted men on the metro wearing clothes dirtied with white limestone powder.

The most people he ever saw underground was during last summer’s World Cup final (between Spain and the Netherlands, in Johannesburg). “It was a party for those who didn’t care about the game,’’ he says. “About 250 people showed.’’ And the weirdest thing he’s seen in the catacombs? “Once I watched a guy in a full scuba diving suit take a plunge in a well.’’

We’re not treated to anything so odd, and by the fourth hour of our tour, all the rooms start to look the same and we’re antsy to get out. Between the neighborly dictums written in graffiti, street signs with names we recognize but nothing more, limestone but no buildings, we’re a little dizzy.

Instead of going out from where we came, a hard-core cata — a 19-year-old who descends weekly, alone, and without maps (but often with alcohol) — leads us through a shortcut. We squeeze through two fear-inducing holes barely wider than our hips. The second, covered with a board to conceal it from telecom workers, opens into a room of boa constrictor-thick optic cables. We scurry through it to a metal staircase, and then up a ladder to a heavy, tricky-to-open manhole. And we’re out, steps from the Luxembourg Garden. Covered in dust and still in our waders, passersby throw us some odd glances but no one stops. We catch the night bus and wash off the grime in the shower.

Caroline Kinneberg can be reached at caroline.kinneberg@gmail.com.

If You Go

Catacombs of Paris
1, avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy
011-33-1-43-22-47-63
catacombes-de-paris.fr/english.htm
Self-guided, 45-minute walking tour (1.2 miles, with 130 steps down and 83 steps up) of a macabre but gorgeous ossuary. Adults $11, 60 and older $8, 26 and under $5. No toilets or coatroom.