The last time I was in Paris I found out that I am a Cataphile (bear with me this is not a confessional fetish piece!)
Paris is one of my favorite cities. From its grandiose old buildings to sleek modern bars Paris has something for everyone. Most people will be able to name a few attractions in Paris. The Eiffiel Tower (obviously) the Arc de Triumph and Notredam. But, Dear Reader, this is not what I want to talk to you about today. I want to take you beneath Paris.
See Paris has a dark side. The foundations of this city wrap around an underground tunnel network that few experience. These tunnels are commonly referred to as “the Catacombs” and are made up of a labyrinth of old mines and burial sites.
I had no idea about these catacombs until I couchsurfed with my (now) good friend Mike. When I first stayed with him, he showed me an intricate map of the catacombs that he and his friends were working on. He told me that the next time I was in Paris I could go down with them on one of their explorations.
So, two years later, I did.
Mike and I were the first to arrive at the meeting point. Mike stayed with the bags while I went and brought some beers and food for the trip. While I was gone two more people had showed up. There was an air of nervous conspiracy about us as we got changed from our street clothes to our underground clothes. Three more people showed up and we were ready to go.
The first task was to enter the Catacombs. Mike led us to a construction site and we squeezed through a hole in the fence before crawling to a manhole. He opened it pulled it to one side and we were faced with a void. I turned my headlamp on and looked down. There was a 15m ladder broken every 5m by a platform. We entered and descended. The hardest part was getting around the platforms as each time you had to remove your rucksack and hold it above your head so you could fit through.
At the bottom the air was still and cool. The light from our headlamps did not show the ends of the tunnel and there was no way to tell how far in either direction it went. When Mike was down we walked for a short while down the tunnel. It widened into a room and we decided to have a pit-stop and start drinking. For, as we all know, if it is fun sober it will be more fun drunk.
Twenty minutes later we left and continued down the tunnel. Mikes map told us that when we reached the white mushrooms we were to turn left. I raised the point of what happened if the mushrooms weren’t there but he didn’t seem too concerned to I decided to trust the map.
The mushrooms turned out to be exactly where the map said they were (though I still felt uneasy about the fact that we were navigating by mushrooms!). The tunnel began to veer deeper and the air got a little colder. We moved fast not stopping for anything as we descended further into the underbelly of Paris. Soon we reached the second room. It was here that we rested and drank and ate. The conversation began to flow as freely as the whisky. At the start of the Catacombs the others had asked me if I would like them to speak in English so I could easier understand. Despite the fact that they were all fluent in English and my French is admittedly not the best I declined their offer figuring that I may as well learn something while I was down there. The drunker we became the easier French became. There was this very specific moment where they were talking and suddenly I understood! It was fantastic. This language that I had struggled with for so many years was not the formidable beast with fangs of tenses and claws of verbs. It was poetry. That, or at this stage I was just extremely drunk.
We moved from the room and began to walk further. Every few minutes a bottle of whisky would be pressed into my hand and I would drink and pass it on. Our troupe got louder the further we traveled. We got to talking of horror films and how this would be the perfect start to one. Twenty-something’s drunk and vulnerable. We sped up until we were running from these invisible demons until we found ourselves in yet another room. We agreed that the notion of being chased was wearing thin and we would have far more fun if we continued our party.
A quiche was brought out flanked with two bottles of wine and the remnants of the whisky. The party became louder still and we decided that we should probably start looking for an exit before it got too late. Turning to Mikes infallible map we worked out that we were near three exits. The first we tried would have put us in an underground parking garage but was locked from the outside. The second involved crawling through a very slim space for an indeterminable amount of time. Which did not sound appealing at all. So we put all our faith in the third.
It was the right decision and we ended up at a ladder similar to the one we climbed down with platforms and everything. At the bottom Mike briefed us. The exit was the time when we would most likely get caught. The plan was he would go first move the manhole and check. If it was clear he would signal down to us and we would quickly exit and disperse. We all climbed up the ladder and waited. Mike cracked the manhole and peeked out. He then opened it fully, gave the signal and we were out in a busy pedestrian walkway.
I don’t know who was more shocked. The clean-cut Parisians coming from their Saturday nights or us as we were birthed from the manhole, covered in mud and sweat and drunk in more ways then one. We put the manhole back then posed for a photo before heading off into the night. We had spent around seven hours exploring the underbelly. Not your average Saturday night!
Oh and one more thing.
Cataphile (noun) One who explores the catacombs of Paris (told you it wasn’t a fetish!).