Paris Deepest Gift

What do you know Paris for? The Eiffel Tower? The Louvre Museum? The Arch of Triumph? OK, I would add maybe the Cathedral of Notre-Dame and the place of the Bastille. But what if I tell you that our guest for today was living in the City of Light for a few years, and that what he misses the most:

  • is larger than these five monuments put side by side?
  • has never been seen by most of the Parisians?

Adrien: Hello Isaac, so please tell us what you missed the most when you left Paris for Vienna a couple of years ago!

Isaac: I missed the so called “catacombs”. It sounds a bit morbid but you have to see the place in order to realize. For me, this is definitely the most precious thing that Paris has, it’s an historical place which is very connected to the city, a monument, a place to learn and to have fun. And I don’t believe that something similar exists somewhere else in the whole world. That makes it completely unique and magical.

Adrien: Are you talking about the Parisian catacombs with all the skeletons? Isn’t there something similar in Rome?

There are many underground galleries that you can not suspect.

Isaac: Yes an no. This place you can visit under Denfert-Rochereau, it’s actually a very small part of the old Parisian limestone quarries network. And it’s nice, but I’m especially talking about the rest, much bigger, that you can normally not visit. Paris used to be much smaller than now, and from the 13th century people started to dig in the suburbs to extract the stones with which we have built big monuments like Notre-Dame. Then the city expanded and took over these suburbs, so there are many underground galleries that you can not suspect if you don’t know about them. Another historical fact is that during the 18th century, Parisian cemeteries were overloaded and it was a serious issue. They decided to massively move a lot of bones, some ended in the ancient mines of Paris and that’s why the underground network is often called “catacombs”, but only a smaller part of it is actually used for this purpose. Most of the galleries – a few hundred kilometres – are just made of earth, stone and… culture.

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Acetylene lamp and bones. (c) Oûtàng

Adrien: Culture?

Isaac: Well, some parts have been used to cultivate mushrooms or brew beer, you can also find some shelters from the Second World War. But I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about people who go there, they like the place and they take care of it. They arrive in an empty dark room and they dig themselves some benches, tables and sculptures. They bring some light inside, usually candles or old-time miner’s lamps. Sometimes they paint the walls and they give a name to that new room. You happen to eat, drink and party there all night long. While other people prefer to spend their money in the clubs 20 meters above, the persons who go there, in the quarries, bring their own food and drinks and carry them all night long from one room to another. It’s like a pub crawl but you do real sport: you sometimes spend most of the night walking, and some passages are so small that you may literally need to crawl on earth!

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Sculpture. (c) Oûtàng

Adrien: But how do you get there? Isn’t it forbidden? Dangerous?

People know that they do something illegal, they are ready to accept the consequences of their acts.

Isaac: It is forbidden, but you know, to penetrate the subway stations by night to make some graffiti is also forbidden. People still do it. Dangerous it can be, as it is dangerous to do climbing or even skiing when you don’t know what you’re doing. People are responsible for themselves and that’s it, until now there hasn’t been any real issue during the past years that I have heard about. Anyway… the police is also going down there. And the funny thing is that since the people know that they do something illegal, they are ready to accept the consequences of their acts. They somehow play cats and dogs with the police, but also reckon that without the police it would be more dangerous. In the 80s, I guess that there were unfriendly persons. It was a bit the jungle law and people were not always nice to newcomers. Even today, it is not well seen to have a map of the galleries in your hand while you walk. You are called a “tourist” and people joke about burning your map, what they would have probably done a few decades ago. There’s a big pride about knowing the labyrinth by heart – which is totally understandable, but in my humble opinion we should also leave the others in peace. At least, there’s no more violence and we could thank the police for that. The place is also secured by a very old institution called Institut Général des Carrières, their mission is to check that the galleries are not going to collapse and to do the necessary when something is not safe. You have to imagine that there are buildings everywhere above these galleries. Their job is actually not to make the place safe for the cataphiles, the persons who enjoy to visit the “catacombs”, but to avoid any collapse for the people who are living up there. And of course, it’s also nice for us to know that the “sky” is not going to fall on our head.

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Large room with supporting pillars. (c) Cyril Jagot

Adrien: Do you wear helmets and such protection?

Isaac: Some do, but it’s more for fun. You want to cover your head for sure, because it’s frequent to bump against a rock, but that’s it. A hat does the job.

Adrien: What about lighting?

Isaac: It’s completely dark. Except a few places where you have a well going up to the surface, and that’s also good to aerate a bit. But the well is so long that it doesn’t help to see better. So you constantly need a light with you, a headlight or a torch, a miner’s lamp, a candle… The telephone network, the GPS are not working down there, it’s too deep. If you lose your light, you are really in trouble. There’s a chance that someone finds you soon enough, but if not you’ll just die… unless you know the labyrinth by heart. With the light it’s already difficult to find your way because the galleries all look similar, so you can imagine how difficult it would be without. And there are only a very few exits.

Adrien: So how do you get in and out? And how large is this labyrinth?

Isaac: There are not one but several networks, the miners didn’t all dig at the same place. The bigger one is as large as a Parisian district and it even continues to the suburb. You can imagine that the entrances are kept secret… sorry! Anyway, it wouldn’t help a lot to reveal them because they are sometimes closed by the authorities, so people open some others. Right now, since I haven’t been in Paris for long, I would be of no help to you. I am outdated. This is also part of the cat and mouse game. If you want to know how they open an entrance, it’s easy: they dig or they remove the joints from a manhole in the street.

Adrien: That sounds crazy!

We have a problem with people going underground just to party without respecting the place.

Isaac: I believe that to enjoy the place, you have to be somehow a bit crazy. And it’s good like that, otherwise there would be too many people down there and it would be much more dangerous and much more dirty. We have a problem with people going underground just to party without respecting the place, without any curiosity for what it was and what is is. They make some dirty tags everywhere, leave their trashes and sometimes even destroy the sculptures. It’s very common to find empty bottles and rest of food that will attract the rats. About the tags, there’s no consensus but I personally dislike when people are writing their names on the walls without any artistic substance (like Puber in Vienna, if you allow me the comparison). If it’s a beautiful painting, it’s completely different, I enjoy it a lot. And of course, beauty is very subjective. This is also the kind of place where people try to be tolerant, to understand each other, so you are welcome to practice your painting skills if you do it seriously.

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“La plage”, meeting room painted after the Japanese artist Hokusai most famous print. (c) Oûtàng

Adrien: Any other aspects of the underground visit that could interest the readers of our website?

Isaac: Music, maybe. Most of the time, we bring MP3 players, but some prefer the bass boosters, and I can tell you that you need to really like it to bring it with you, it’s quite heavy and the paths are not always easy to take! For tall or large people especially, since there are a few passages that are so tight that you need to play the contortionist in order to crawl in. And some people bring musical instruments, of course. That’s not so common to see a guitar but it happens. A banjo is much easier to transport, a friend of mine was a banjo player and we loved to have him with us!

Adrien: So you pack your bag with your light, music, food and drinks and you party like anywhere else?

Isaac: That’s it. And we walk also a lot because if you want, you can walk for two days without going twice to the same place. But usually you go down after the sunset and exit the next day to catch the first subway. Or you can bring your hammock, sleep in there and exit later. Some persons only go from time to time with a friend who knows the place. Some others probably feel more comfortable in the quarries then in their home at the surface, because they are systematically there during the weekends and also during the weekdays if they have the opportunity.

Adrien: As if they had two lives, one on the surface and one in the quarries?

As soon as you enter the “catacombs”, time stops.

Isaac: Yes, but that’s actually right for everybody down there. As soon as you enter the “catacombs”, time stops. We leave our life and daily problems outside, we get a new identity. It is very uncommon to talk about your job, for example, or to ask someone for his age or even to call people by their real names, because we all get nicknames. If you go down for the first time and you tell your real name, maybe the persons will try to find a new name for you.

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“Le passe muraille”, plaster sculpture which has been often vandalized and restored. (c) Ewa Bulzacka

Adrien: It’s a bit like if I was joining an American Indian tribe, they would give me a new name. So there’s really this social aspect in the quarries, we could almost say that you form a social group on your own.

Isaac: One or more social groups. There’s a book that is known by all the cataphiles, it has been written by one of them and it’s a sociological essay indeed. I would not necessarily recommend you its reading because I believe that it is of no interest for a non-cataphile reader, but you have to know that it exists!

Adrien: Wow. Thanks a lot for sharing with us your experience in the Parisian quarries, I hope that it will please our readers. Maybe they will see Paris differently the next time they go there!

Isaac: Yes, they might go crazy walking in the street, expecting manholes to suddenly open behind their feet! They can for sure take the official tour in Denfert-Rochereau, and maybe more, who knows… You know, we are afraid that more people will come, that maybe the place will be more patrolled or the fine raised, that the most beautiful rooms will be flooded with concrete… but I also believe that this is something that belongs to everybody, and it is of a high cultural interest. So the people who are really interested about it should be able to find their way. I encourage nobody to go there, but if you really want it despite the fact that it’s dangerous, knowing that the police is patrolling, that there are rats and staphylococcus and, above all, if you show respect for the place… If I were you, I would be sad to hear that I can’t go in because there are already too many people, why them and not me? But in the end, whatever you do – just looking some pictures, visiting the official galleries or, if you are really motivated, maybe more – this place should make you dream. It started centuries ago, it knows the oldest streets of Paris by their forgotten names and it’s still here, below the city and even deeper than the subway network! (Adrien, dieKulturvermittlung, 09.03.2016)

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A big thank to the artists who accepted to share with us the photos illustrating this article.



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