Party in the Paris Catacombs, But Don't Tell | The New York TimesIn the catacombs under Paris, art and adventure mix in an exclusive world of creativity and freedom hidden from the world above.
The Secret Is Out on a Cherished Underground Haven
PARIS — On a recent evening, a 31-year-old street artist led a small group through a dark tunnel off a disused train track in the south of Paris. After crouching, crawling and sometimes wading through water, using headlamps to light their way, they finally arrived in a chamber with vaulted ceilings about 10 feet high.
The space was once used by a brewery to store bottles. It is now part of a sprawling network of abandoned galleries below this city, where a secretive community of street artists, history buffs and other Parisians regularly prowl. They are sometimes called cataphiles: lovers of the catacombs, as the subterranean network is commonly known.
Some seek peace and quiet from the bustling city, others an unusual canvas for their art, still others a place to party with friends at a lower cost and in a more jovial atmosphere than in the clubs and bars above. Many cherish the secrecy and, to some extent, exclusivity of their endeavors.
“My creations have a lot more value here, because they are intended for a limited audience that deserves to see them,” said the artist who led the group and declined to give his name, but went by Nobad. “They went through the trouble of coming here.
Nobad stencils European paintings with a twist, like Gustave Courbet’s “Desperate Man” in glow-in-the-dark paint. But the walls are covered with art, including paintings in the style of Egyptian tomb murals, grimacing black and orange devil faces, a giant multicolored parrot, and an abundance of graffiti. In one room, the walls are encrusted with mirror shards, and a glittering disco ball hangs from the ceiling.
The term “catacombs” designates only a small part of this vast underground network, the fraction where the remains of six million Parisians were transferred in the 1780s from several of the city’s overflowing and unsanitary cemeteries. That ossuary is one of the rare parts of the network legally open to the public and has become a popular tourist attraction.
But the bulk of the network — more than 170 miles of tunnels and other chambers — has been off-limits to legal passage since 1955 and is a legacy of early quarrying in Paris. That is where the cataphiles roam.
“The connection with the underground is hard to explain because it is visceral,” said Gilles Thomas, a municipal employee whose 30 years of passion and research on the topic have made him an expert. “Whatever their interest, the people who have this very deep-rooted attraction to the underground disconnect themselves from reality on the surface.”
The Romans were the first to mine outcrops of limestone for construction purposes, mainly on the Left Bank of the Seine, Mr. Thomas said. That activity was pushed underground in the 12th and 13th centuries to avoid ruining precious topsoil in what, at the time, were the agricultural outskirts of the city.
“It’s the period when the Notre-Dame Cathedral was being built, for instance, and a tremendous amount of stone was needed,” said Mr. Thomas, who is regularly consulted by novelists and film directors who want to feature Paris’s underbelly in their work.
Paris quickly expanded over the former quarries. In the late 18th century, after a series of spectacular and deadly cave-ins, the king ordered that buildings be consolidated and that the forgotten underground quarries be mapped. Old streets that were razed during 19th-century renovations still exist as tunnels below, however, creating a historical carbon copy of the city that once existed above, Mr. Thomas said.
Today some passages still contain relics of the French Revolution, like chiseled royal fleurs-de-lis on street signs. Several World War II-era bomb shelters are also connected to the network. During the German occupation one was outfitted with living quarters for 60 people, but was never used.
Today, trespassers risk a 60-euro fine, or $77, if they stumble upon the police units that sometimes patrol underground. Risks to the explorers include getting injured from falling rocks, losing your bearings in the dark maze, or drowning in deep wells. In 2011, three friends got lost after partying and drinking underground, and were found 48 hours later.
“We were very paternalistic; all we wanted was to avoid accidents,” said Jean-Claude Saratte, a retired police commander who started the first patrols in the 1980s and led them for 20 years. “Ninety to 95 percent of the time, all we did was reprimand people.”
It is hard to say how many people venture underground each year; though those familiar with the network say there is a core of about 100 regulars. But cataphiles say that there has been an increase in the number of “tourists,” newcomers who visit, often unprepared.
Some worry that these new visitors are not respectful of the art or history below. “Defacing has worsened because of the Facebook phenomenon,” which has made reproducing and sharing maps of the network even easier than the photocopier had in the 1980s, Mr. Thomas said. In one room, a painted reproduction of Picasso’s “Guernica” had been covered over with graffiti.
Information on where to find entrances to the underground is still a fiercely kept secret, and sharing them with outsiders is a “taboo,” according a biology research technician in her 30s, who would not give her name and became a cataphile five years ago.
But the overall spirit below is welcoming, and many find a sense of community and equality that supersedes whatever hierarchies exist on the surface. “We are here for the same passion and we share the same things, regardless of what we are above,” said Gaspard Duval, a cataphile in his 40s who discovered the network six years ago and comes down several times a week, mainly for photography. “No one cares about your social class.”
On a recent evening, in the former brewery cellar, people gathered around a table made with piled slabs of rock. The white fluorescent light from headlamps was replaced by soft candlelight as they lit cigarettes and passed around ham or chocolate.
One man heated a can of beans on a portable gas heater. Throughout the underground maze, cataphiles have sparsely furnished several chambers like this one with stone benches and tables to rest and socialize after exploring the tunnels.
“You can’t be judged on your appearance because we are all dirty with mud and wearing boots,” said a 45-year-old pastel artist who gave her name only as Misti, on another outing. “So the banker and the punk, they party together.” — Aurelien Breeden | The New York Times