Exploration of the Catacombs of Paris
It’s 7 in the morning and I’m sipping a coffee on a terrace in front of the subway station, watching closely the arrivals. It’s almost the usual morning for me except I’m not in Tokyo, but within the Paris life for a few days, and most importantly, minutes away from being introduced to the catacombs.
Diane and Mathieu will take me along, they are lovely explorers met within the numeric world. They promptly arrive so I throw out my espresso in the gutter. Mathieu set me up with boots that aren’t my size and there we go, the entrance is not very far from there.
Uh? We’ll really enter by this sewer manhole cover?
Ok, I thought that the access were within the “Petite Ceinture” level, so now that’s surprising!
Diane: The “Petite Ceinture” access is well-known and touristic (the “Petite Ceinture” was the name of a circular train line that ran around Paris but is now laying abandoned since 1934). Obviously, there are other ways to access the old galleries, either by manhole plates that goes directly into the galleries or by other subterranean interconnections because there are not only galleries but sewers, technical galleries, subway etc.
Mathieu: The access are usually opened by cataphiles (people who likes going into the catacombs), and then closed by the authorities. It’s possible to enter by the “Petite Ceinture” but the first place we’re bringing you to is not in the vicinity of this entry-spot. We’ll use this manhole which will lead us to the part we want to see in the network.
To enter by a manhole cover in the middle of the street, the people, isn’t it nutty? Will the cops come frisking behind us?
Mathieu: If somebody ask me what I’m doing, I tell him I’m working and I’m going to fix something up. Usually, people ask if you see rats down there. The cops are the thing to avoid, but that’s the game. They are outside… but also inside the galleries!
Mathieu holds the plate, Diane steps in and I step onto her. Mathieu join us right away and close the plate over us. Bam, pitch black. We light our torches.
I can’t believe it, I lived in Paris 5 years without ever setting foot down here… Diane, up to today, how many times have you been here?
Diane: No idea about how many times I came down, I’ve never counted and there are times when I came down only two times in a year, and other periods I’ve been coming many times in a week, it’s randomly.
Did you ever get caught down here?
Diane: I’ve never had to deal with the “catacops” and in 7-8 years of coming down here, I had only 1 police check on the street level, when we were about to go down to visit a gallery in the 12th district.
Oh, that’s not what I meant but it’s ok. Well, what about the first time?
Diane: My first time down was in 2005 or 2006, it has been many months since I was invited to come but being lightly claustrophobic, I was a little afraid. Finally I got down with someone that I was doing some work with and that had done some explorations down here already. We went by the “Petite Ceinture” and I clearly realized my boots weren’t high enough!
We get ourselves throughout a hole (know as “châtière”) to access the real catacombs from the technical gallery where we are.
You talk about “châtières” regularly, those miniatures galleries by which one must squeeze in order to go from a spot to another. Is it an official term or is it only used by the cataphiles?
Diane: A term used by the cataphiles but also by the speleologists. The “châtières” are dug by the cataphiles to go from one spot to the other by crawling in such hole on many meters. It can be to reconnect 2 parts of a network which has been disconnected, have access to a room or create interconnections with other subterranean networks to get in or out of the catacombs galleries.
Who dig those “châtières”, how does it work?
Diane: Generally, one or many cataphiles decides to start a project. The means they get going in there depends on the tools they have and the terrain material they have to dig. The tools can be shovels, maces, chisels, and even hammer-drill for the concrete walls. In such case they do an electric diversion in order to use the hammer-drill, because there’s obviously no electricity within the catacombs.
Did you ever dig?
Diane: I’ve never dug, but I’ve been to an ongoing digging site some years ago and I tried digging! Well, it wasn’t easy and it requires a lot of time for the cataphile workers to complete their project.
We hang out within the catacombs; it’s a really large labyrinth. Fortunately they know the network well.
You mention sometimes the North catacombs and the South catacombs, the first one being our entry point and the second where we’ll surface… but what’s the difference between the two? Aren’t they both located on the left shore?
Diane: The galleries spans underneath several districts of Paris. The South and the North of our map of the catacombs is in fact based on the areas where we can go. Here is a map who shows well the location of the galleries in Paris.
Mathieu: Globally, when we say North or South, we usually talk about the GRS, the main network of the catacombs.
And Mesrine, what does he do here?
Mathieu: He’s not really hidden. It’s a
Talking ‘bout graphers it seems we can’t avoid “Psychoz”, a dude who is not only cataphile but also does street-art… Did you ever meet him? How does things goes between him and the “purists” cataphiles?
Diane: I’ve never met him. I don’t know a lot of people who tags or graph in the catacombs or elsewhere. Personally I don’t like the graphs in this kind of place, I think this is dilapidation and most don’t know where they do their graphs… sometimes masking history hints when it’s in the catacombs. I don’t like Psychoz’s characters and there are many in the network. This is my personal opinion but in realm of the array of cataphiles, even if we do not have the same point of view, we share the place anyway. I know some FCs; essentially I don’t like what they do, but as a person, it’s doesn’t prevent us from meeting some interesting people with different views and opinions, but all tastes are in the world. On the other side, I will not work with the graphers and give them maps or other.
Mathieu: I’ve never met Psychoz, but he makes the catacombs a nice playground like Jérôme Mesnager before. It’s not easy to decipher people’s reactions, some likes art, some not. He has some friends within the network and some who like him less, like everybody in fact!
After all, what would be a purist cataphile?
Diane: Someone who comes down here, doesn’t touch anything, who is interested in the galleries’ history and who dissent any event that could make the network mutate. Well, it’s basically the description of an embittered old fart? 🙂 (there are some)
Mathieu: Each and everyone will have an diverse definition of it because there are so many different reasons and ideas to come down here!
You have been down here many time, so what’s the big deal about coming again?
Mathieu: Some networks are only open at some times, so we got to hurry to visit them. But on the forefront, it’s also a place for life. Instead of going out in a bar, why not come down in the quietness underneath Paris? There are also people from different background who come here. We can find ourselves with someone that lead a big business or someone who only have a small job. There is no real difference about this in the underneath.
Diane: There is over 200km of galleries to explore under Paris, this takes a lot of time to visit it all, and it depends on what we want to do here. Taking pictures takes an awful lot of time because we have to take care of the lighting; there are sometimes some networks that open and we must hurry, and there are a lot of historical details that one doesn’t always see at first glance. There is a lot of writing and name plates, new rooms dug by cataphiles, sculptures… the network evolves as the people keeps visiting it.
Are you sure you’re not going in there to get high and whatnot with some other bastards? I can guess you’ve been the witness of some comic stuff, right?
Diane: Yeah, well it’s a place without rules and free, so people do what they want. Some disputes actually happen but I’ve never witnessed any underground. One time I’ve been the witness of a conflict between two cataphiles, but onto the surface, at an exhibition’s private view. One of them brought a cream pie and slammed it onto the other guy’s face, it was very comic 🙂
Mathieu: No, I have not witnessed any conflicts. But we heard about ‘em when it happens.
It’s precisely what surprises me these days: the fact that the catacombs are a “living place”. I wasn’t looking forward to see people everywhere. For instance, who are those people (generally speaking) that we met in that room from which they blocked the access? What are they doing?
Diane: The people we met are regular cataphiles. Some don’t hesitate to stay overnight, or even over a weekend. It’s like camping. The cataphiles meet underground, spend the night together, meet some other people, party, listen to music, just like the evenings we have on the surface, but there, the place is special : there is no social barriers, it’s a non-capitalist free space, no need to take anything to take part of it. Everybody can bring a little something and share it, just like the person who offered us a coffee.
After all, what are the most popular activities in the catacombs?
Diane: It varies greatly : just browse around, discover, party, meet friends and new people who share the same passion for the underground. Take pictures, do carving, redo or build new rooms, some nice and user-friendly rooms. Some other people dig access to parts of the network that aren’t reachable or technical galleries in order to gain access to the catacombs. Finally, there are those who will just tag… or graph, paint.
The main danger in the catacombs really is… its inhabitants? What are the main dangers? I guess it’s fairly bad to get underground without any kind of map 😉
Diane: We can have bad encounters but it’s quite rare, otherwise, the galleries’ ceilings are mostly low, we must take care not to hurt ourselves, and also we have to watch our steps because there are holes and slippery places. And yes, with more than 200km of galleries, a map is a must have.
Mathieu: There are also some place that collapse, we must watch out. Some people go around without a map because they know well some areas of the network they go in.
Is it true that the cataphiles works conjointly with the IGC to avoid having tourists or novices? All along letting the experienced going?
Diane: Not at all. The access into the catacombs is strictly prohibited. But it happen sometimes that some cataphiles approach the IGC or the catacombs’ cops if there is a trouble. For instance when there is a collapse risk or more frequently, when there is some leak because of the urban heating.
I have friends who when to the Mines’ School and they are authorized to get down once a year. Apparently they go in without shoes and must sometime swim in the ooze, but isn’t it dangerous?
Diane: Without shoes? Or without boots? The first danger is still to get hurt, and then for the water, there is a risk of leptospirosis, a disease conveyed by the rats’ urine. But yeah there is about next to no rats or mice in the catacombs but the risk remain. Any still water can bring disease if not careful.
Mathieu: They have the right to this visit in because of the Mines’ School and the access they’ve got. Then, each year, those who are willing gets in a part of the galleries (the promo gallery) to paint a fresco with a godparent. For dangers, yes there clearly are some!
How do you look forward the future for the catacombs, in let’s say, 10 years from now?
Mathieu: An uncertain future. The more time goes, more and more spaces are injected. We sure have time before it all gets injected, but it can happen any day.
Diane: It’s a difficult question to answer! We can look it thru what happened and what happens. The galleries under Paris are extensive, it would be hard for example, to inject them all, and tough this is possible on certain sections. It’s happening in the Southern part of the network. Take it like this, if a housing project gets underway on the surface, it may need ground consolidation or if a parking is built, a part of the network can be altered or injected. Some parts of the network like the German bunker has been subject of studies to do something else with it… Nothing dramatic for now anyway! The catacombs will surely remain as they are for some time! After, the state of it will continue to deteriorate and lose historic hints because of the tags for instance.
How do you think this underground society will evolve?
Mathieu: Impossible to say! It evolves thanks to the contributors who come and go, nothing is written, and everything is possible!
Diane: Apart from the enthusiasts, people come and go throughout the urban exploration trend. Either there will be more and more people underground; either it will remain the same. There are periods and waves linked to the trend, or the “Catacombs” film release! This sparks the desire to go to see, but after all, it remains a well-shut and crude space so I wonder how many comes back and how often afterwards. Nevertheless, the catacomb cops doesn’t want the cataphiles population to increase and they are further more on the lookout for illegal visits.
Will you continue to go as often?
Mathieu: If I come to Paris, it’s a prerequisite. This place is so interesting! I can’t actually imagine not going back.
Diane: It’s been 8 years that I’m going underground and it depends of times. Sometimes I go regularly and some other times, I don’t go for months. At time, we need to stay put for a while to better rediscover them: get the lack of it to better have the fun after and remember it. In my case, I don’t really have an affectionate feeling over the galleries and I think I will go back again many times wherever life gets me.
Apart from the catacombs, what are your personal projects?
Mathieu: I started my tour around the world a month ago. I’m done with Europe tomorrow. Then, Russia, Asia, Australia
Diane: I have various projects going on that I can’t actually talk about right now. However, I’m working to get my pictures to be part of exhibitions, in October, I’ll be at the “Nuit de la photo contemporaine” in Paris. The next year is still uncertain for me but if it’s possible I’d like to explore wastelands and galleries of other countries to broaden my horizons!
Mathieu is still continuing his trip around the world. You can check his website, it is called ExplorationUrbaine.com. Diane does amazing photo articles and we can sometimes see her nude, yeah! Find out on Neverends.
A bonus, here’s the Paris’ catacombs plan by Nexus.
Ah! And there it is, my favourite moment: the time to get out. Moreover, after 10 hours of walking, here we are at the “Petite Ceinture”, it’s amazing! Thanks guys!
If you have question to ask Mathieu and Diane, don’t hesitate, I’m sure they’ll come around and answer in the comments sometime.