What Lies Beneath: Exploring the illegal Catacombes of Paris

There’s a world you don’t see. Under your feet. A dark, wet, scurrying world. A muddy, candle-lit, labyrinthine world. Of immeasurable interconnected tunnels, dislodged boulders, vaulting galleries. Private dens, stone-carved temples and sprayed artworks. A world of pit-pat drips and natural springs, sagging electrical wires and bones.

A burrowing, endless honeycomb of a world under the huge, light, airy city you walk through every day. And one evening, this girl fell down the rabbit hole.

The girl meets the others at dusk, on the corner of two major boulevards. Their headlamps, backpacks and ragged clothes covered in whitish mud give them away. When the time comes, they march quickly into the cold winter air to a darker place. A heavy manhole cover is lifted. Two by two, they dart from beneath the trees, and down the ladder. A man appears, looming over them. “Show me your identification or I’ll send a Police patrol”.

“Fine, send a patrol. We’ll be long gone”. With a gesture, the rest of them, and this girl flood the entrance and the manhole scrapes shut behind them. A scrabble to turn on headlamps and they are running. The corridor is only just wider than this girl, only just taller. It swings and turns and forks over and over and over. Shouts of “Here!”, “Back!”, “Go!” bounce from the rock like the beams of their torches. A stray beam pierces the utter blackness of a turn not taken, briefly illuminating another dark corridor, another fork. Within seconds, this girl is lost. Except for the others, in front and behind. Suddenly, the leader is gone, and only blackness is before them. A hand and then a face appears low down, from a tiny opening. The hand gestures. “Here, quickly”.

This girl wrenches off her backpack and pushes it first. Crouching like a monkey, she crawls through. Her spine scrapes on the rock roof. Then there is an opening.

In the opening, they laugh in relief. No Police follow them now. Crack. A beer can opens, and is passed around. Layers are stripped. Down there, it is always warm. Lamps are adjusted, beer sipped, and music begins to play. Inciting them to dance, to rave. The adrenaline in their bood pumps to the beat and they whoop and yelp like animals. This girl laughs.

They begin to lope, confidently, easily now. The other world already seems far away, and they are at home. There is no North or South, not much Up or Down. This girl walks, and sips, and laughs and one piece at a time, the world opens up. Deep puddles of silky mud wet this girls feet and cover her clothes as she slithers through cracks in the rock.

After a time, they come to a cavern. Art covers the walls, disjointed and overlapping like relics from ancient civilizations. Bottles and burnt out candle stubs, debris from parties past litter the floor. The Russian shines his torch at the arching brick columns. “They say the city spent their entire budget for securing the catacombs on this one room”. There are more than 200km of tunnels, galleries and caves, sprawling out in an opaque geography.

On they push, into the dark unknown. The air is stable, cave-like. During a pause, this girl slips away, around a dark corner. She switches off her lamp. There is no light. None at all. There is nothing. The darkness is not oppressive, it is simply not there. There is nothing in every direction. Body-temperature air. Enclosing rock. Darkness. There is an entire universe beyond her fingertips and her eyes are either open or shut.

This girl hears her breath and slow heart beat. And, softly, the human sounds of her friends.

There are stories from down there. Of three day long parties, and joints as big as baseball bats. Of people who go alone, seeking the relief of the dark, silent rooms. Meters and meters of rock insulate from the world above. From phone towers, radio, pollution, people. Time passes differently, even the girl can see that. It oozes like molasses around them. There once was a man, with no energy to leave after a party. “Come back for me tomorrow”. So they left him, sleeping like the dead in the empty cavern, alone. The came back, twenty hours later. He was still there, still sleeping, unafraid despite the immense darkness.

Suddenly, a light bounces around the corner. A man emerges, with a hand-drawn map. He’d been expected. He leads them all to a cavern full of musical notes, candles, and people. A party is beginning. Tea-lights flicker into life all over, wedged into niches in the wall. Wine bottles open up, and, incongruously, cheese emerges from packs. A rich fondue is made, under a broken-down chandelier. It’s the best this girl has ever tasted.

A joint slowly circles the room and time warps and stretches even further. Inhale. Exhale. The next hours pass like polaroids thrown onto a table. Mud, walking, lights, music, climbing, resting, talking, being quiet. The world becomes more unknowable, not less.

After a time, there is only down. A gentle slope that goes on and on and on. This girl worries, how will they get out? She’s not ready to live down here forever, not just yet.

Another corner, and huge, thick black electrical cables hang on the walls. Hundreds of them, as thick as this girls arm. They follow the black lines, the first sign of the busy, upstairs world. Then a manhole is spotted, at the top of a high, narrow shaft. One by one, they climb the ladder, muddy hand over muddy foot.

There is a push, a scrape of metal on metal, and this girl feels a blast of fresh early morning air on her face.

All images by Valentine Tchoukhonine

Want to read more of my crazy adventures like rock climbing, rowing and stand-up comedy? Click here!